New exhibition in Beirut traces Baalbek’s path through history

We visit an exhibition in Beirut that examines Lebanon’s ancient city and the importance of its Roman temples, film, art and national identity

Baalbek’s temples have featured prominently on Lebanese tourism posters. Courtesy of Sursock Museum
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“As an archaeologist, I’m toying with the love of the ancient world and the love of recovering information about our past,” says Vali Mahlouji, “but never forgetting the link to who we are now.”

The archaeologist-­turned-curator is the founder of the curatorial and educational platform Archaeology of the Final Decade, which seeks to investigate cultural and artistic materials from around the world that have been underexposed, banned or destroyed. This penchant for the overlooked shapes the way he approaches every project, including his exhibition Archives of an Eternity at the Sursock Museum in Beirut, Baalbek.

Mahlouji, who lives in London, was commissioned by the museum to delve into the Lebanese archaeological site, creating an exhibition that charts its ancient and modern history and the way the Roman ruins have been portrayed in writing, film, music and art. Having visited Baalbek several times, he became fascinated not only by the cultural and sociopolitical significance of the ruins, but also the ancient city that surrounds them.

The history of the temples

Mahlouji says the exhibition "wants to confront the audience with something that's not the temples but that is as epic as the temples, which is that it's a settlement and a site and a city that's been continuously occupied and living for 10,000 years. You don't get longer than that, effectively". 

Excavations carried out under the site's Temple of Jupiter have found traces of settlements dating back 10 millennia. The exhibition opens with a synthesis of the most up-to-date research on the history of the site, delving into its history before the Romans transformed Baalbek into a wonder of the ancient world. In 250 years, they constructed three adjacent temples, dedicated to Venus Heliopolitana, Jupiter Heliopolitanus and Bacchus, creating an enormous complex that attracted vast numbers of pilgrims.

An installation view of the exhibition. Photos by Christopher Baaklini. Courtesy of Sursock Museum

Illustrations show how water from a nearby spring was diverted to the temple complex, creating pools and fountains, as well as charting the path pilgrims would have taken to enter the site, ascend a viewing tower and witness sacrifices on the central altar. The wall of text and diagrams charting the site's history is enlivened by archaeological artefacts, including Roman coins and objects from the pre-Roman period.

"We're lucky to have a few objects to remind people the site is a lot older than they think and that the temples, as epic and as beautiful as they are, are also the suppressors of 7,000 years before them, and the oppressors and minimisers of everything that comes after them," says Mahlouji. "They are far too epic. It diminishes human life. So there's this conflict between the importance of the temples and a city that's been living for 10,000 years and continues to live."

A selection of Roman artefacts, including a spectacular carving of a man's torso, emphasise the artistry and creativity built into the temple site, but Mahlouji is more concerned with the symbolism of the site and the way it has been absorbed into the identity politics of successive powers. After the decline of the Roman empire, Baalbek came under Byzantine rule, before passing to Arab, Ottoman and French rulers. It remained a site of pilgrimage, attracting tourists and visitors from across the world, before Lebanon became independent in 1943. "This is where the modern nation absorbs it into a national narrative. It becomes a brand. It's the emblem of Lebanon. It's the most reproduced image," says Mahlouji.

Having been a popular tourism destination for colonial visitors to the Middle East, the temples were written into the founding mythology of the new Lebanese state, with images printed on banknotes, stamps and tourist brochures, while building on a European narrative that the site was a birthplace of culture and civilisation.

Stamps featuring Baalbek on display at the exhibition. Photos by Christopher Baaklini. Courtesy of Sursock Museum

The central axis of the exhibition is a large space that explores this Orientalist European perspective of Baalbek. Paintings, etchings and books on loan from private collections are displayed in a salon-style space painted a deep golden yellow, the colour of the rising sun. Artworks capture the ruined temples in romanticised scenes, in which depictions of local Bedouins become accessories, used to lend the pastoral landscape a touch of exoticism and colour.

Mahlouji's accompanying text digs into the colonial narratives imposed on Baalbek, acknowledging the artists' contributions to documenting the landscapes of the Middle East. It also provides a critique on their outsiders' gaze and appropriation of the ruins via "a narrative that claims and absorbs desired assets and facets of the 'Orient' and the 'other' into its own canon, reacquainting the European with his or her own ancient and sacred history, as the rightful keeper and inheritor of civilisation". 

Exhibition curator Vali Mahlouji. Courtesy of Vali Mahlouji

As well as the ways in which Baalbek was used to further Orientalist and Lebanese nationalist narratives, the exhibition reveals the archaeological site's portrayal in popular culture, from films and music to travel brochures and postcards. Photographs and paintings of Baalbek and the nearby Bekaa Valley show how the site has occupied the minds and imaginations of Lebanese artists, while a room at one side of the basement exhibition space is dedicated to the history of the Baalbeck International Festival, featuring vintage posters, programmes, books and film clips.

More than just a monument

The final section seeks to explain beyond Baalbek as a monument and an emblem of identity politics. Through videos, documents and photographs, it examines the tension between the archaeological site and the city today. Mahlouji charts the ways the government's focus on the archaeological site of Baalbek has gradually severed the ruins from their surroundings. Before 1939, locals could stroll freely among the ruins, but they were then fenced off. They have since been furthered distanced from the city by tourism infrastructure such as widened roads and car parks.

"Now it looks like the city is around the site, but the truth is the city and the site should be, and have been, in a symbiotic relationship all the time until the modern period," says Mahlouji. "Most important is that the site occupied the city, the city never occupied the site. The site was built where the city originated, literally on the summit of the original city, so actually the temples kicked out the people."

Video interviews with locals provide visitors to the exhibition with an insight into life in the city. One elderly man recites his poetry about Baalbek, the city and the temples seemingly inextricably linked in his mind. On the next screen, a woman reflects on how the city has changed since she was a child, when different religious communities lived side by side and mingled freely. Now, she says, the city has grown bigger, communities are more divided and she no longer feels safe walking the streets after dark.

Mahlouji's decision to focus not only on the ruins but the city around them is rooted in his passion for showing overlooked histories and sites. He hopes the exhibition will stimulate debate about the city, the ruins and the relationship between them, via documents such as one that details a proposal to build new housing for the inhabitants of Baalbek, forcing them to abandon their historic city.

Mahlouji says he believes the temple site is an intrinsic part of Baalbek's identity and history that cannot, or should not, be separated from the people and the city that created it. "Perhaps if we start from the city and it looks at the site, we get to something healthier and more successful long-term than if we look at what the city's doing to the site," he says. "I think the conversation should start."

Baalbek, Archives of an Eternity is at the Sursock Museum in Beirut until September 22