Baalbek's Roman caves offer shelter from Israeli bombs

BAALBEK, Lebanon (13 August 2006) - AS SOON as she hears the roar of the Israeli planes overhead, Ghazala al-Solh grabs her three children and heads down to the Roman cave under her home in Lebanon's ancient city of Baalbek.

"I can't stand the bombing any more. At least there, the noise is muffled," says Ghazala, in her 40s. It was her neighbour Jihad Hamdan, 31, who remembered his father talking about the Roman remains. In the garden, among the olive trees, the earth has been dug up. Stone steps lead down to the cave, which is about six metres by four (20 feet by 12).

The walls, slightly fire-blackened, are made of rubble and rock, evened out by chisel or pickaxe.

"My grandfather told me that 50 years ago people used to live in these caves. Then they started to build houses on the farmland and they kept the animals in the caves. Now we are back in them," says Jihad.

Inside the temperature is mild and the nights are dry. There are mattresses, blankets, water, food. Jihad's wife, his three children and two of his cousins sleep there with neighbours and their children.

When the planes come over, "I don't wait for the noise. I run into the garden and down the steps. I'm too scared," says Zeinab, a 50-year-old woman in a blue headscarf.

According to Baalbek mayor Mohsen al-Jamal, 36 people have been killed and 70 wounded in the Israeli raids on the town 85 kilometres (50 miles) northeast of Beirut.

They flattened 116 buildings and devastated 2,000 flats and villas in Baalbek, renowned for the awe-inspiring beauty of its ruined Roman temples.

Almost all the petrol stations have been knocked out and 35,000 of the town's 125,000 inhabitans have fled, mostly to nearby Syria. In some districts, only a few cats and dogs wander the deserted streets lined by bombed out multi-storey buildings.

Many other local people in this Sunni district have followed Jihad Hamdan's example.

"When I took off the tin roof, I found that the vault was filled with rubbish and sand and water was running down the walls. It took me a week while the bombing raids were raging on to make the place habitable," says Hassan Kassar, a 58-year-old businessman.

In this part of town, there are around 100 underground caves dating from the Roman era, some linked by galleries. "One gallery goes as far as the Temple of Bacchus, 300 metres (yards) long," town councilor Omar Solh said.

Currently around 20 are being used as shelters.

All the men present maintain that only the women and children have been sleeping underground, but Solh admits in an aside that the first raids were so violent that he slept there too.

"Make sure that you say we are not Hezbollah -- just poor people who are waiting for an end to this war. Otherwise, you know what the Israelis will think, they'll bomb us," says one woman who does not want to give her name.

In the quiet of the Temple of Bacchus, several members of the town council meet to discuss the crisis. "We have made this our headquarters because it is a superb spot and to prevent refugees taking over the place, to conserve this wonderful masterpiece," says the mayor.

They stay through the night, with a few mattresses spread out on the ancient mosaic floor of this delicate small Roman temple.

Ironically, as war rages, Baalbek's three temples -- dedicated to Jupiter, Venus and Bacchus -- are a silent witness to what the city was in its ancient golden age and what it has struggled to become.

The massive temple of Jupiter was surrounded by 54 columns that soared 20 metres (up to 70 feet) high and 2.2 metres in diameter. Only six of those columns remain today, as the temple suffered from earthquake, rampaging and simple pilfering.

But Venus, of course, was the goddess of love. And Bacchus, though most traditionally associated with wine, was also revered as the patron of civilisation, peace and the theatre.

For the past 50 years, Baalbek has worked hard to be a small centre of civilisation in a region noted for human strife.

Each summer, on the steps of Jupiter's temple, or inside the Temple of Bacchus, it hosts the Baalbek International Festival. World renowned conductor Herbert von Karajan, cellist Mstislav Rostropovitch, Lebanese singing legend Fairuz, Ella Fitzgerald, Margot Fontayne and many others have been among the stars to delight audiences.

This year, the festival didn't happen. On July 12, just the day before it was due to open, Israel unleashed its massive offensive on Lebanon.

Copyright 2005 AFP.

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