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The city of Heliopolis-Baalbek relives through a virtual reconstruction of archaeologists

ARCHAEOLOGY – An application shows the monumental center of the ancient Lebanese city, at the time of its Roman heyday, as imagined by the archaeologists of the Deutsches Archäologisches Institut.

Sparkling white under the rays of a merciless sun, the monumental center of Heliopolis is revealed in every detail. Its majestic propylaea, its rows of shaded porticoes, the pronaos of the temple of Bacchus, the peristasis of the colossal building dedicated to Jupiter… Heliopolis is no more, and of its most august monuments remain only imposing vestiges gutted by time. Better known by its current name of Baalbek, the Lebanese site once occupied by an opulent Roman city has virtually regained the splendid state it presented at its peak, around 215, thanks to a new digital restitution that has just been developed by the German archaeologists of the Deutsches Archäologisches Institut (DAI).

Listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site and excavated since 1998 by the German archaeological mission, the sanctuary of Baalbek-Heliopolis was composed of several temples of which the two most important, that of Jupiter and Bacchus, are among the best preserved in the Roman world. Realized in collaboration between the DAI, the Lebanese Ministry of Culture and the American company Flyover Zone specialized in 3D reconstructions, Baalbek Reborn: Temples (“Baalbek resurrected : Temples”) develops around 38 stages in virtual tour. Free and compatible with smartphones, tablets and computers, the application gives the opportunity to take the measure of the state of archaeological research of the site as well as the overwhelming dimensions of these places of worship.

Animated by a valuable commentary (available in French), the tour alternates the most popular places of Baalbek with the corners that we usually guess less accessible to ordinary mortals. From the” tourist stone”, a monumental fragment of the entablature of the temple of Jupiter adorned with a magnificent Leonine gutter, archaeologists propel us into the heights of the Jovian sanctuary, at the highest point of the scaffolding that overhang the entire site. “There is something very special about this place,” DAI architectural historian Henning Burwitz told Al Jazeera. Our role was to ensure the scientific foundations of the whole. We want you to feel like you’re on the spot.»

Failing to share all the dapper of a videoludic reconstruction that would have sacrificed historical rigor on the altar of the great show, the virtual walk in the center of Heliopolis compensates by its scientific application the left rigidity it shows. Mixing current photographs of the terrain with its state-of-the-art renditions, the application offers as many opportunities to appreciate, from a distance, this exceptional site as to learn. Here, for example, apart from the monumentality of the temples and the refined prowess of their ornamentation, three blocks of stones still amaze archaeologists today. The Trilithon of Baalbek, three limestone monoliths nearly 19 meters long each, made up part of the base of the podium of the temple of Jupiter : their architectural use was a real engineering prodigy considering the 800 tons that each block weighs.

Nestled in the fertile valley of the Bekaa, halfway between the ports of the Levantine coast and the great caravan city of Palmyra, the ancient Heliopolis was not always Roman, as the comment of archaeologists gladly recalls. “What is fascinating about Baalbek is not only the Roman temples, but its nearly 10,000-year-old history,” Margarete van Ess, director of the eastern department of the DAI and head of scientific research at Baalbek, said in a statement. Contrary to its romanized image, the city is crossed by peculiarities of an undeniable local coloring.

An oriental romance

A small Phoenician and then Hellenistic urban center, the city was monumentalized in the Roman era, from the end of the first century, without drowning its identity under new adornments of marble and limestone. The plan of the sanctuary, surrounded by several successions of courtyards and fences, testifies to the survival of an order of space inspired by Oriental traditions, despite the classic appearance of the monuments. The cult statue of the Jupiter Heliopolitanus to which the sanctuary of the city was dedicated, probably represented the god in the oriental, dressed in a long sheath dress and equipped with ears, a symbol of fertility more attributed to Ceres in the rest of the Roman world. These aesthetic choices fall under the syncretism of the tutelary god of Heliopolis with certain eastern cults, such as that of the Phoenician deity Baal, also associated with the idea of fertility. These are just a handful of eloquent reminders of the millennial mixing of cultures in this strategic region of the Eastern Mediterranean.

In addition to its scholarly and educational qualities, the virtual tour offered by the Baalbek Reborn: Temples application is finally an opportunity, for the Lebanese Ministry of Culture, to remember the good memory of tourists, since Lebanon has already been going through a deep economic crisis for several years. Aggravated over the past year by the global Covid-19 pandemic and its consequences on international mobility, this crisis hit the key tourism sector hard, which in turn collapsed. In a world that has become more connected than ever, the expected return of tourists will also involve diving into these virtual environments.

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