When I visit ruins, I get the feeling that when you have seen one, you have seen them all: pieces of columns, crumbling walls, broken stones and wounded faces. The eerie realization of civilizations gone. But when I entered the archeological site of Baalbek in Lebanon, about two hours from Beirut close to the Syrian border, I was blown away. How could those Romans carve such huge stones from a quarry about a small mile away and transport them over uneven terrain to this site to build their temples? And lift them one by one upon each other to construct their towering columns? What equipment did they use? Even today’s big cranes would have trouble carrying that out with the perfection the Romans did. Just take a look:
Temple of Jupiter
Nobody could give me a good answer and subsequent research only delivered theories. Romans used slaves as workers but they had remarkable engineers who operated giant wheels and lifting equipment (as can be seen from the holes in the stones that served as grips) to get their stones in place, but much remains a mystery. And much is still standing tall despite continuous
wars and even a heavy earthquake in 1795.
It is often said that the Roman Empire crumbled due to declining morals, corruption and infighting. As a political system perhaps. However, when you stare at this power and glamorous art, its civilization is still very much alive. It bloomed on through medieval times and produced the best builders, composers, painters and musicians, furniture and car designers we enjoy today. I stood in awe of what they were able to achieve two thousand years ago and before. Sure, we have built cathedrals and temples, too and when you travel in India, Persians, Mongolians and Indians achieved similar miracles as well around the same time, without knowing that we were building, too. As a development economist assisting Middle-Eastern countries in the several millennia old Levant, you wonder where it all got stuck. Differing religions? Internal strife? Looking back rather than looking forward? Tribal differences? Too many invaders (Phoenicians, Persians, Romans) and whoever followed after that? It is not a matter of intelligence. Men and women are very smart and many are well-educated. Surrounded by the Roman might, I felt quite humble, unable to arrive at a judgement.
Temple of Bacchus
How would I lift those tons of stone two thousand years ago?
Back in the real world of Beirut, West and Middle-East are meshed together in a web of contrasting and conflicting spheres. I don’t think I will ever fully comprehend it, but you eat there very well from multiple cultural recipes that make your mouth water and forget all the unrest.
Lebanon is a beautiful country held together by impenetrable differences and regional meddling and that seems to have been that way for thousands of years. I felt uneasy in Beirut and much more at ease in Amman.