Nearly 100 years to the day after the German emperor Wilhelm II visited the excavations of the Baalbek archeological site, the German Orient Institute has published a book entitled “Baalbek: Images and Monuments” and on Saturday a museum, financed by the German Archeological Institute and Lebanon’s Director-General of Antiquities, opens in the catacombs under the temple site’s main square. The museum will display the treasures found over the years in and around the ancient city and recount the history of Baalbek and its excavations. Like so much in Lebanon, the site can be seen as an artifact of European history as much as Middle Eastern.
Kaiser Wilhelm was nicknamed the “Reisekaiser” or “traveling emperor” because for much of his 30-year reign he was away from his Prussian palace for up to eight months a year. On Nov. 10, 1898, the Kaiser and his wife Augusta Victoria visited Baalbek, accompanied by an impressive retinue of Ottoman troops and diplomats, some 1,300 horses and mules; 600 drovers; 230 tents; 100 carriages and coachmen; 12 cooks and 60 waiters. Ironically, while the event was aimed at underlining the German imperial majesty, most of the organization had been done by Thomas Cook’s travel agency in London.
So when he traveled to Baalbek, Wilhelm II wasn’t just a tourist. In visiting the Temple of Jupiter (king of the gods), the largest site in the Roman world, he saw himself following in the footsteps of the divine Roman emperors who had built it.
The German archeologists sent by Wilhelm and led by Otto von Puhstein not only cleared the temple site, they also restored the main entrance’s staircase and the entrance of the Bacchus temple.
The stones of the staircase had been used in the Arab fortifications which surrounded the temple site; the keystone in the archway of the Temple of Bacchus, dislodged after an earthquake in 1756, threatened to come down altogether. The Ottomans had erected a brick wall under the entrance, rendering it unusable. The Germans now pushed the stone back into its original position while the third distinguishing feature of Baalbek the six pillars of Jupiter were restored in the 1930s by the French.
The emperor was received in Baalbek by his Ottoman counterpart, Sultan Abd al-Hamid II. The marble plaque to commemorate Wilhelm’s visit turned the tale of the kaiser’s heroic journey into a comedy.
In a grand ceremony the plaque was hung in what was thought to be the main complex of the Temple of Jupiter. But German excavations proceeded to take away about three meters of earth from the site, lowering the temple floor and leaving the plaque so high on the wall as to be unreadable.
More importantly the archeologists soon found that all that remained of the Temple of Jupiter were six lonely pillars. The smaller, better preserved temple in which the plaque was hung was actually the Temple of Bacchus.
So instead of being commemorated in Jupiter’s temple, the sober and very Protestant Kaiser found himself in a place decorated with poppies and grapes, and dedicted to the god of orgies and drinking.
In the official 422-page travelogue, the emperor admired the natural beauty of Beirut and compared the Beirutis’ lively manner to that of southern Europeans. About Damascus he wrote: “I really would like my Berliners to see how they receive a ruler here.” But Baalbek was the absolute highlight of his six-week trip.
“The final point of the great journey to the Orient has been reached here, in ancient Heliopolis,” read the travelogue. “Amidst the largest temple buildings bequeathed to us by antiquity.”
Though Kaiser Wilhelm only stayed for a day, his visit had a lasting impact. Fascinated by the ancient ruins, he immediately ordered a team of German archeologists to be sent to the site. Financed mainly out of the emperor’s own pocket, the dig began in December 1898 and continued until 1905. It was at that time that most of Baalbek’s temple site was unearthed.
Wilhelm II, seeing himself in terms of the Plato’s philosopher-king, was known for his love of the arts and sciences. But his visit to the largest Roman temples in the world reflected more than just intellectual or touristic interest.
“He was an exceptional figure,” said Dr. Thomas Scheller, a Middle East specialist working at the German Orient Institute in Beirut. “Not only because of his love for history, but also because he used historical arguments to legitimize his power. Traveling to historic sites placed the Kaiser above the profane normality of everyday life, thus emphasizing his exceptional status and investing him with an aura of romantic adventurism he was very sensitive to the ancient symbolism of sacred kingship.”