With travel restricted due to COVID-19, many tourists have reached peak wanderlust. But now antiquity enthusiasts can time travel to the year 215 CE to see some of the Roman Empire’s most ambitious buildings entirely free of jet lag.
For the past two years, a group of archaeologists from the German Archeological Institute have been virtually reconstructing the ancient city of Baalbek in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley, home to some of the best preserved Roman ruins in the East—if not the world. With the help of virtual tourism company Flyover Zone Productions, they’ve just released a free app called Baalbek Reborn that allows people to get a 360-degree interactive look at the ancient site, both as it stood when it was better known as Heliopolis (or “City of the Sun”) and as it stands today.
The Ancient Ruins of Baalbek
“If you think Rome is amazing, wait until you see Baalbek,” Henning Burwitz, an architect who works for the German Archeological Institute and provided the scientific oversight and content for the Baalbek Reborn experience, tells Mental Floss.
He’s not exaggerating. Baalbek’s sheer size far surpasses Rome. The site includes three temples—Jupiter, Bacchus, and Venus—and a courtyard that could contain two American football fields side-by-side. For scale, “the Parthenon could fit inside the temple of Jupiter,” Bernard Frischer, professor at Indiana University, digital archaeologist, and founder of Flyover Zone Productions, tells Mental Floss. The temple was dedicated under Roman emperor Septimius Severus (193–211 CE), and its magnitude speaks to the importance of this great religious center of the ancient world.
A two-hour drive from Beirut will get you there. Those who visit the UNESCO World Heritage Site in person are rewarded with the leftovers of what was once a bustling center for sacrifices to Bacchus, the god of theater, wine, and fertility; ablutions to Venus, the goddess of love; and prayers to Jupiter Optimus Maximus Heliopolitanus, the supreme god.
Though the ancient city lies in ruins, it’s still impressive. What’s left of the temple of Jupiter is no more than six columns, but each is a testament to the building acumen of the Romans. “The columns are the biggest preserved in the world,” Burwitz says. “Twenty-two and a half meters tall and seven feet in diameter.”
Equally impressive is the nearly entirely intact Temple of Bacchus, considered the best preserved Roman temple in existence. It’s made up of 54 columns, each roughly 65 feet (20 meters) tall, that once supported a now-gone roof. It's believed the temple was preserved due to its use as a castle palace for lords fending off Christian crusaders in the 11th and 12th centuries.
Baalbek Reborn: An Interactive Archaeological Experience
But even in person, Frischer and Burwitz say it’s hard to get a clear perspective of how the city looked at its peak. Using their app, users can walk back in time and learn about the site's history, architectural details, culture, and the religion practices of its people. A 35-stop map of the ruins lets users inside the reconstructed Temple of Jupiter or stroll under its vast hexagonal courtyard, get insider knowledge on the largest stone ever quarried in human history, and peek inside the Temple of Bacchus. But it’s not just photos of temples—every building has been reconstructed to its Heliopolis glory. This gives virtual visitors a chance to see what experts believe is exactly how the site stood 2000 years ago.
But in no way is Baalbek Reborn designed to discourage a potential visit to Lebanon to see the real thing. “Virtual tourism is not designed to replace real world tourism,” says Frischer. “It's designed to enhance it.”