Sunday, November 26, 2006

Two B's

Things have calmed down a bit on the streets of Lebanon and so I've taken advantage of this lull to explore some of the country's ancient ruins (because who knows when things might get "interesting" again). The most famous are undoubtedly those at Baalbeck. The town was already important before the Romans arrived on the scene, but they just went crazy and started building the largest temple complex in their empire I say started because after 200 years of building they didn't manage to finish. Not that you'd be able to tell from what remains, but what there is is truly monumental. There are only six columns left from the main temple of Jupiter yet they are all you need to feel as small as an ant. Standing at 22m and with a diameter of over 2m they are the largest in the world. Everything about the place is colossal, including the simple building blocks that make up the temple base. Just down the road is the quarry that was used by the Romans which still contains the largest cut stone in the world (unsurprisingly no-one has moved the 1000 tonne giant since then), providing me with another superlative to add to my list and a great photo opportunity to boot.

The other place I absolutely had to see was Jbail, more commonly known by the name the Greeks called it by: Byblos. In the second millennium B.C. it was the principle Phoenician city, having grown rich from the trade of cedar wood to Egypt and papyrus to Greece. It was from this close relationship with Egyptian culture that heiroglyphs were transformed from complex symbols that represented words to simple signs for individual letters. So, for example, the heiroglyphic symbols for ox and house (alep and beit respectively in the Phoenician language) were transformed into the first two letters of the Phoenician writing system, the precursor to almost every alphabet in use today, from our Latin script to the seemingly unrelated Khmer script of Cambodia. Unfortunately you have to dig deep into your reserves of imagination to picture what must have been a magnificent city with a gorgeous view over the sea. But being the bookish nerd that I am I didn't care as I paid my respects to one of the greatest inventions in history.

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