Lebanon: Temples and T-shirts

By Brett Atkinson

Lebanon's Baalbek is, as Brett Atkinson, discovered, an extreme cultural mosaic.

The Temple of Jupiter is an impressive ruin. Photo / Getty Images
The Temple of Jupiter is an impressive ruin. Photo / Getty Images

An Islamic fundamentalist is trying to sell me a T-shirt.

"Hizbullah are the victors," the shirt reads.

It may not be as catchy as "I'm with stupid", but featuring an AK47 and a design aesthetic last seen in Moscow circa 1973, the bright yellow garment would definitely make a statement at the gym.

Hizbullah's mini-Islamic state - lavishly funded by Iran - has occupied Baalbek since the early 1980s, and the entrance to the town's famous Roman temples is now lined with uniquely-Lebanese souvenir stalls.

Flags, caps and T-shirts are snapped up by Arab visitors, but with Syria's border less than 15km to the east, Western tourist traffic from Beirut is sparse.

With 18 official religions in an area a 10th the size of the North Island, Lebanon's extreme cultural mosaic underpins the country's dual history of cosmopolitan understanding and civil war. The country's demography is almost surreal in its diversity.

Druze villages dot the mountainous south, and just 30km southwest of Hizbullah's proxy Islamic heartland, Zahle is the Middle East's biggest Christian settlement. Cascading down the banks of the Berdwani river valley, the largely Catholic city of 200,000 is also the centre of Lebanon's wine industry and the ancestral hometown of hip-wiggling Colombian pop star Shakira - hardly evidence of an all-encompassing Hizbullah victory.

Even in Baalbek, the delicate balancing act that is modern Lebanon is subtly reinforced. Drifting on Levantine breezes, the yearning chants of muezzins call Islam's faithful to prayer, but nearby a Maronite nun is watched over by a whitewashed statue of the Virgin Mary. The sweet rosewater fragrance of local Muslim teens enjoying a sheesha (waterpipe) fills the air just metres from Baalbek's Greek Catholic Cathedral.

This relentless overlapping of cultures has long been a feature of Baalbek. In perfect French-accented English, a nattily-dressed elderly guide explains to me the area's history as the Roman city of Heliopolis, but beneath the massive Corinthian columns of the Temple of Jupiter, older Phoenician and Greek foundations also linger.

One hundred and 28 columns once prescribed the walls of the temple, easily bigger than two football fields. Only six remain, 20m-high, and crafted from the same Egyptian red granite as the Byzantine church of Aya Sofya in Istanbul. Despite the reduction to just a handful of columns, little imagination is needed to grasp the temple's former scale, and its impact in enforcing Imperial Rome's Pax Romana on the local populace.

No imagination at all is needed for the adjacent Temple of Bacchus, one of the largest, best-preserved Roman temples on the planet. Honey-coloured columns soar toward an open roof once sheathed in timber from Lebanon's famed cedars, and spidery graffiti across the ages is scrawled in Greek, French, English and Arabic.

Dedicated to the Roman god of pleasure and wine, the walls of the temple are adorned with delicate and sybaritic carvings of grapes, dancing and opium, and since 1955 the storied steps of the temple have hosted the Baalbek International Festival.

During the festival's halcyon days in the 1960s, acts included Ella Fitzgerald, Miles Davis and Nina Simone. The Lebanese civil war caused the festival's cancellation from 1975 to 1990, but by 2001 Sting was noodling away amidst the ancient temples.

War between Hizbullah and Israel again cancelled the festival in 2006, this time thwarting a performance by Deep Purple.

Lebanese heavy metallers and Hizbullah mullahs finally got to hear Smoke on the Water at the 2009 festival.

Black T-shirts were probably for sale that night.

CHECKLIST

Getting there: Regular flights go to Beirut from London, Dubai and Istanbul. Baalbek is 90km northeast of Beirut. Hire a taxi in Beirut or join an organised tour with the Nakhal travel agency (US$90), also taking in lunch and a vineyard visit in Zahle. No visa is needed for New Zealand travellers to Lebanon.

Further information: Showcasing rock, jazz and world music, the Baalbek International Festival is held every July.

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