The city of Baalbek is a mystery. No one knows when it was founded, or why, or by whom. No one even knows how it was built. (Some of the stones in the foundation of the Temple of Jupiter weigh 1,000 tons, ten times more than the heaviest building blocks in the pyramids at Giza.)

According to one long-standing Arab tradition, the city was first settled by Cain (of biblical fame) in the year 133 of creation. Adam’s fratricidal son is supposed to have forged its great stone temples as a sanctuary for himself and his descendants after he was sent by God to be “a fugitive on the earth” (Genesis 4:11).

Another Arab legend holds that Baalbek was the site of the tower of Babel, where Nimrod built his famous spire to heaven. Some folk stories say that the city was built by a race of giants, while others claim that it was erected by a powerful genie or demon named Eshmudi. In the Victorian period, the 19th-century English explorer, David Urquhart, promoted the theory that it had been built with the aid of mastodons.

The most common myth, however, is that Baalbek is the “tower of Lebanon facing Damascus” mentioned in the Song of Solomon (7:5). The great Israelite king built the city for his wife, “the daughter of the Pharaoh” (see 1 Kings 3:1), reported the 12th-century traveler Benjamin of Tudela.

Modern scholars have been only partially successful at dispelling such myths. Since archaeologists first began excavating at Baalbek in 1898, they have found numerous Latin inscriptions indicating that the Temples of Jupiter and Bacchus were built by the Romans; but they have also discovered traces of a much older (probably Phoenician) city, lying beneath the still-standing ruins. Until these older levels of settlement have been excavated and identified (and until modern science can explain how the great stones of the city were carved and set), it seems likely that Baalbek will remain a site steeped in mystery—a land of giants and genies, more fabled than known.