The butchers of baalbeck

The butchers of baalbeck

By
Greg Malouf, Lucy Malouf
Contains
10 recipes
Published by
Hardie Grant Books
ISBN
9781740667661
Photographer
Matt Harvey

Nothing prepares you for your first sight of Baalbeck. One minute you’re travelling along a dusty road in the heart of the Bekaa Valley; the next, the massive columns of the Temple of Jupiter loom above you, apparently from nowhere.

The Roman remains at Baalbeck are arguably the most outstanding in the Middle East, and they’re certainly the single most awesome sight in Lebanon. The Phoenicians built the original temple back in the third millennium BC to worship the sun god Baal, and it was reputedly the setting for mind-bogglingly bloody rituals and cult activities, including orgies and sacred prostitution. After the conquest of Alexander the Great the town was known as Heliopolis and it was eventually appropriated by the Romans, who grafted a massive multi-temple complex on top of the original site and dedicated it to a trio of their own deities: Jupiter, Venus and Mercury.

As you wander around the aged and weathered stone ruins you can’t help but speculate about the cost of this massive undertaking, particularly in human terms. It’s not just the size of the buildings – the columns of the Temple of Jupiter soar an extraordinary twenty-three metres in height and are over two metres in diameter, making them the largest in the world – it’s also the staggering level of detail. At every turn there are exquisitely ornamented stone carvings: roaring lions, charging bulls, classical key designs, draping tendrils, bunches of grapes and intricately carved friezes of bacchanalian scenes.

And, of course, the cost was largely the point. The motive for building works of this scale – using the labour of more than one hundred thousand slaves over several generations – was not limited to the worship of the gods. The main purpose of Baalbeck was as an extravagant showpiece against the pagan world’s swiftly advancing rival, Christianity. A final fling of defiance, if you like.

Eventually, of course, the Roman Empire embraced Christianity and in 313 AD the temples at Baalbeck were officially closed by Emperor Constantine. Over the centuries that followed, Baalbeck endured a series of sackings by waves of invaders and many of the buildings were sent tumbling by earthquakes and the ravages of war.

One of the most extraordinary things about the whole Baalbeck experience is the almost total lack of tourists. Lebanon has yet to re-stake its claim to the tourist map, so most of the country remains undisturbed by the crowds that ruin sightseeing in most other parts of the world.

We perched on an ancient lump of stone overlooking the largely intact and exquisitely decorated Temple of Bacchus and watched a small group of French visitors below us meander around the dusty ruins. Swallows dove in and around the massive columns, and our eyes were drawn to the distant vista of snow-tipped mountains. ‘The Acropolis has got nothing on this,’ said Greg.

The small town of modern Baalbeck lies a few hundred metres down the road from the ancient ruins, and we made our way there with slight apprehension. The Bekaa Valley is notorious as the heartland of the Iranian-backed Hezbollah, and Baalbeck is its headquarters. When Greg and I were last in Lebanon, in 1994, the Hezbollah presence was far more obvious, with posters of bespectacled Iranian mullahs and the scowling visage of Ayatollah Khomeini plastered all over the town and the surrounding roads. The green and yellow Hezbollah flag, with its raised fist clutching a machine gun, hung across the streets and the walls were daubed with political graffiti proclaiming anti-American, anti-Israeli and anti-Christian slogans.

These days, however, Hezbollah maintains a fairly low profile; its most visible political activities seem to revolve around young boys shaking collecting tins asking for donations to ‘the resistance’.

Baalbeck was bustling on the cold spring morning that we visited. It had been snowing the day before, but now the sun was out as were most of the town’s inhabitants. Perhaps as a throwback to that ancient bloodlust, Baalbeck is today a butchers’ town. Nearly every other shop has an artfully arranged selection of liver, lungs and sweetbreads hanging in the window. And meat was what we’d come for: specifically, Baalbeck’s legendary sfiha, open-faced lamb pies.

There are so many butchers in Baalbeck that it’s hard to know which one to choose, and we stood for a moment, paralysed by that familiar tourist fear of making the wrong choice. Then help was at hand as we spotted a purposeful Shiaa woman enter one of the shops, clutching a shopping list in one hand and a small child in the other. We followed her lead inside as well and selected a similar cut of lamb, which the butcher flung down onto his block with a couple of tomatoes, onions and some spices. Seizing two huge knives he proceeded to demolish the meat to a smooth, homogeneous paste within seconds.

Our helpful housewife then took us to the bakery next door, where men were busy rolling pastry, stuffing pies and shovelling enormous trays into a wood-fired oven. Ahead of us in the queue was an old man with a large beard, wearing a long white galabeya. He’d brought his own mutton casserole for the bakers to cook for him. The communal oven is still an important feature of daily life in rural Lebanon, and it is common for people to bring their home-prepared meals to be cooked by the local baker.

Five minutes later our pies were ready, and they emerged golden brown, steaming and fragrant from the oven. We couldn’t resist grabbing a few before the baker whisked them away from us. He layered them in a cardboard box, wrapped the box in newspaper and tied it up firmly with string, and we happily made our way back to the car to share our spoils with our drivers.

Recipes in this Chapter

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