March 29, 2016

Last one on Baalbeck

This is not the largest block; the larger one lies behind it, one layer deeper. Khaula's shrine and the Temple of Jupiter can been seen in the background
Still in the Beqaa Valley, and focusing on something that is actually quite amazing and puzzling. If you live in Lebanon, the magnitude of problems surrounding you on a daily basis, from basic stuff such as water, electricity, paying your child's exorbitant school fees on time, to more trivial stuff such as Internet access, or finding a plumber who actually knows what he he is doing, probably prohibits you from looking much further into the country, but from the outside, this country has some pretty extraordinary things.

Here I am in Baalbeck, and looking at the biggest stone building block in the world. Imagine that; the biggest stone block in the world! Obviously, at one point in time, inhabitants of this region were able to perform highly advanced tasks.
This particular block was only recently discovered 2014, and never used, for reasons that we do not know (yet). It weighs about 1,650 tons, is some 20 m long, 6 m wide and 5.5 m high.

The large blocks with the Lewis holes in the back. On the foreground a pillar foundation stone
However, less than a kilometer away, a number of smaller blocks, each weighing 800 tons, were used in the platform of the temple of Jupiter.
There is some disagreement as to who placed those blocks there; whether it were the Romans, who were capable of doing this, or an earlier civilization. However, they are there, three of them, plus about another 24 blocks 300 tons each. 
They are some of the largest building blocks ever used in a building, and it was built right here in the Beqaa Valley. There are a lot of questions surrounding these particular blocks, which are full of so called 'Lewis' holes; little holes that were used during the lifting and transportation of large stones. 

But why have stones this big if you can use smaller ones that are easier to transport and to lift, and that perform the same task (foundation of a massive temple)? And why so big a temple when this particular place, although undoubtfully important to certain religions, was never a metropolis? Who did it serve, since there were not enough people to sustain a temple like that?

Cross-section of one of the pink pillars. The three holes fit exactly over three little bumps in the next pillar.

Think of the pink granite columns, surrounding the temple (6 are still standing). They came from Aswan. All 104 of them! Pretty impressive, considering that getting them to Lebanon by boat is already an astounding feat, but how do you get them into the Beqaa Valley? The valley is separated from the coast by a mountain ridge, or you have to bring it in from the south, but that is also quite a feat. Many of them have since been recycled in other building projects, most notably the Haga Sofia in Constantinople.

But the point is, those foundational stones were hewn, transported and lifted into place, in an era when there was no electricity, and no steam engines. There were no computers to calculate the precision with which these blocks seem to be joined. 

The large blocks in place

And yet, here they are, in Baalbeck, a place where these days not much is happening. A backwater, at most. Baalbeck, formerly known as Heliopolis, conquered by Alexander the Great in 334 BC, and annexed by Pompei in 34 BC, doesn't amount to much. Chronic water problems, high poverty level, heck even the Baalbeck Music Festival has moved to another place because of security concerns.

And all this, right in our own back yard. A stark reminder; long ago we were able to cut, transport and position stone blocks weighing over 800 tons with intricate precision. These days I cannot get a decent plumber. Civilizations go through cyclical motions. I think we are somewhere at the bottom of the circle. Positive thought? We can only go up from here. Hopefully.

Biggest building block in town is also the biggest one in the world

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