Don’t worry, but everyone check your watch. No need to rush, but the pass closes at dusk, and we don’t want to be stuck in the valley for the night.
With that warning we scramble off the bus in an stream of camera bags, scarves and gloves. We pad along the snowy road, avoiding potholes of dirty slush. One woman poses by a field of scattered snow-covered blocks: the Temple of Venus. Her partner snaps a shot. Beyond the ruins, boxy modern buildings jostle for space, sprouting TV antennae and minarets. Storm clouds roil in the distance, but the sky is a brilliant blue.
I take a quick picture then dash towards the main entrance, risking wet feet to skip ahead of the crowd. I pause at the propylaea and skim the UNESCO signs before proceeding into the great court of the Roman ruins at Baalbek.
We met in Beirut, early on that February morning, and drank cold coffee in the storefront waiting room. Names checked, our guide directed us to the bus and we loaded up. As the bus climbed upward and inland, our guide breezed through Lebanon’s history, from the Phoenicians through the Romans to Islamic conquest and onward to present day politics. Once over the mountain pass and into the Bekaa valley, she pointed out the roadside tent cities where Syrian refugees had settled in temporary permanence. Along the highways near Beirut, billboards hawked plastic surgery, cars, watches, but as we approached Baalbek, the messages shifted to political slogans, portraits of religious leaders and recent martyrs, and the Hezbollah flag with its styled rifle held aloft.
The crisp winter air robs the scene of all but the crunch of snow, as I carefully walk across the great court, then hug the perimeter to duck into niches and appreciate the finely carved detail of the remaining columns of an ancient arcade. Other fragments are scattered about the court: acanthus leaves, lions’ heads, scenes from forgotten myths. A grand stair leads to the plinth of the Temple of Jupiter, vacant now but for a row of six precarious columns.
Snow starts to fall and the air sparkles as I explore the Temple of Bacchus, missing a roof but still standing largely-intact after nearly 2000 years of empire and decline, conquest, colonization, war. The snow falls harder, and I hear the Muslim call to prayer cut through the wind.
We made the pass with plenty of time to spare. Beyond the mountain ridge, the Mediterranean shimmered in the setting sun as the bus rolled us slowly back to Beirut.