Despite insufficient sleep, Saturday morning was not a time to be tired. It was the day of our visit to Baalbek, site of some of the most spectacular ancient ruins on the planet.
We got up early and breakfasted on scrambled eggs from the fat black hens in the run next door to my room; black olives, cucumber and tomato, Labneh and best of all, dishes of tahini and grape molasses for dipping. I had always thought tahini and honey on toast was my clever invention (a delicious alternative to peanut butter), but clearly the Lebanese were several centuries ahead of me. Also, a plate of biscuits and Turkish delight (for the sandwich of delight option), but that much sugar first thing is a bit beyond me.
The Bekaa is raw Lebanon. More susceptible to invasions over the centuries than Beirut, it has nothing of the gloss and sophistication of the latter, just a starker, sparer beauty. With a goodly dash of genuine ugliness too. Decrepit, badly designed and executed concrete buildings are plonked unceremoniously along the main route; Illegal and misguided structures often funded by drugs money - a would-be baron’s retirement fund gone wrong.
I have never had the opportunity to visit ancient ruins outside England. My visits to Italy, while extensive, have been exclusively to wine regions and I have not been to Egypt, but I'm glad it worked out this way. For a first experience of what is left of truly ancient buildings, this was unbeatable.
The Phoenicians first established structures here in 1000 BC and those first foundations can still be seen in places; trenches dug among the smithereens of later eras. What remains of the site, heavily damaged in a series of earthquakes in the 5th century AD and then again in the late 1700’s, was built by the Romans and was their city of the Sun, Heliopolis. Successive centuries of invaders then added to and took away from it; most dramatically, the Mamlukes in the 13th century who plundered the bronze and iron used at the base of many of the columns. That they plundered for weaponry only makes it worse.
It is an exceptional place, made more so by the fact that for the duration of our visit we were the only people there. Completely unbelievable in an age when everywhere in the world, notable sites are swamped by legions of the gormless, so busy recording themselves in front of it that they barely register their surroundings. Here, for this rare moment, we were alone. Great coach loads of tourists arrived at the entrance just as we were leaving, but for the rest of my life I will remember the fact of the solitude of our time amongst those stones.
There are three main temples at Baalbek – one to the god Jupiter, a much smaller and later one to the Goddess Venus, which stands just outside the main complex, and a yet smaller one which almost certainly was to Bacchus (although this has never been absolutely established). The smaller size of the Bacchus Temple (below) ensured that it survived the earthquakes considerably more intact than the others. Indeed, it is one of the most complete Ancient Roman temples in existence and as such offers the best idea of what worship was like at that time.
It is thing of immense beauty. The stonework is of an intricacy that makes it appear as if fashioned from something much more fragile than rock. The central design around the entrance to the main room of the temple is of vine leaves and wheat sheaves, celebrating the stuff of life - bread and wine. Along the edges of that, an alternating pattern of eggs and arrow heads – life, death, life, death, life, death; on and on and on.
This motif lies up the first flight of stairs, still magnificent in scale even though marked by missing chunks and crumbling edges. In their original pristine state they must have been a proper walkway to a kind of heaven. The entrance opens up onto a vast room (below) which would have been covered by a roof of cedar wood, impossibly high above the heads of the worshippers. Acres of space for spirits to ascend as mortal bodies looked towards the next, smaller flight. Did they gaze up those stairs at the high priestesses on the raised end of the room, against the far wall?
In the cult of Bacchus it is believed that worship was indeed led by priestesses. Who better to entrust with the drinking of wine for immensely beneficial purposes, even if the purpose here was mainly to have an almighty celebration?
In this place thousands of years ago people came together to honour and rejoice (in a very practical way), in the power of something they did not entirely understand but which they knew did them some good. Perhaps not the next morning but at the time of imbibing, and very profoundly. Something greater than themselves or, perhaps, just the highest possible ideal of themselves (that is, the ones who did not take the whole thing too far). Those that couldn’t be bothered to be cerebral probably enjoyed the festivities just as much but I like to think that a great many of the congregation spent at least some time in more thoughtful contemplation. The residual echo of the energy of that time spent collectively giving thanks and believing, still hisses softy in the warm wind that blows through the lofty columns. Back then, it was thought important to express gratitude for the phenomenon of wine.
We don’t do that anymore. Now we rarely so much as pause to consider the meaning of great wine with the power to banish care and lift us above the morass of modern life; or food like small sausages made of fresh fish spiked with sumak, and sandwiches of delight; or the sheer joy of being in one of the most beautiful places on the planet, where iridescent light strikes ancient, fragmented structures in the morning and makes them holy once more. All these things are valuable beyond measure. The gods still give us vines which grow fruit despite how we abuse them and now we turn that into Jacob's Creek.
If ever an age needed to return to a genuine appreciation of how fragile and irreplaceable these things are; it is ours. This city of the sun is a monument to that even as it slowly, so much more slowly than the pace of our own degradation, turns particle by particle, back into sand.
Outside the gate, I buy what a hawker assures me are three ancient coins. They certainly look so but even if fake, I don’t care. I will keep these with me to remind me of the ideal, while I plod along in the pure shit of trying to run a small business selling great wine.
My sister wrote to me recently “Dear Tightropewalker, don’t look down and don’t panic” . I just might be able to pull that off now. I have my coins from the City of the Sun.