• Moving the Stones of Baalbek–The Wonders of Roman Engineering

    Previously I had talked about an amazing piece of computational engineering from the ancient world, the Antikythera mechanism, which was also posted up at A Tippling Philosopher. In the comments there, a discussion came up about another wonder of antiquity which has attracted all sorts of speculations among alternative thinkers. This is the construction of the temple complex at the city of Baalbek, also known as Heliopolis, in modern-day Lebanon, about 70 kilometers* north of Damascus. The site has considerable antiquity, but it is the large stones at the temple, especially the three known as the Trilithon, that have garnered the greatest attention, each weighing in around 800 tons.* And deservedly so, as they are some of the largest single objects ever moved in the pre-modern era.

    There are standard explanations for this place, but as noted, alternative scholars like to also propose other ideas. So, here I will look at what sorts of strange hypotheses have been proposed, and then I will describe what is the most likely explanation based on current knowledge of the site. No matter which explanation (giants, aliens, Romans), the structure is a wonder all its own and should inspire awe. If only we could have seen it in its heyday.

    First off, a little bit about the location. Baalbek is in the Beqaa Valley, which in the Hellenistic period was called Coele Syria. The location of the megalithic structures is atop of a hill in the region, known as Tel Baalbek. Numerous archaeological expeditions have gone to the site starting in the 19th century, primarily German and French groups, and into the 20th century research continued. To this day there is still literature published about the location and calls for further looks into the chronology of the place.

    The site has a long history, and newer expeditions have extended that history even farther than many would have known. The first German expeditions had been unable to find anything there before the Roman period (after the conquests of Pompey in c. 64 BCE), but later expeditions have found Persian, bronze age, and even neolithic artifacts, making the place a settled area for thousands of years. After the time of Constantine, the temple complex there became devoted to Christianity, many of the pagan artifacts destroyed, and later the region would be under the jurisdiction of the Islamicate with its own architectural features and history, including the brickwork portion of the walls.

    With its long history and monuments, many legends have been attached to the megaliths. While the summary by Alouf (1949) is very much out of date, it relates many of the legends of that region, mostly from Arabs. Some believed that the monument was the construction of the Nephilim, the giants mentioned in Genesis that were destroyed by the Deluge, and some creationists believe this today (see also here). For those that don’t believe in the supernatural in Genesis, they may instead see the giants as somehow related to aliens. Also related to the Bible, some believed that the structure was created by Nimrod, ordering the giants to built up the location. Others claim that this was the location of the Tower of Babel. Still others say that it was built by Adam’s son, Cain, making this the oldest building in the world.

    In modern times, new legends have been attached to the site, probably the most notable one is due to one person (and rarely can we pin a legend down to an individual), Zecharia Sitchin [EDIT: Jason Colavito informs me that the following idea is older than Sitchin; in fact, it was Soviet propaganda.]. Starting in the 1970s, Sitchin made all sorts of claims about Sumerian culture and their contact with aliens from the planet Nibiru, very much of it getting academic ire. What Sitchin believed was that the site, especially the trilithon stones, acted as the landing pad for extraterrestrial space craft, probably shuttles coming from their mother ship (cf. Sitchin 1999). He also claimed to find evidence of the use of Baalbek in the Epic of Gilgamesh, though unfortunately it appears to be wishful thinking. Nonetheless, this is the idea presented in Ancient Aliens, though the show is also inconsistent in saying the Nazca Lines were runways.

    Along with these legendary claims comes the belief in the extreme antiquity of the site. Various sources will claim the megaliths there are over 9000 years old, and this also fits into the idea of Genesis (the earth is less than 10,000 years old) and its race of giants, aliens making civilization-forming contact with the pre-human apes, or some sort of Atlantis-like civilization. It is of the opinion of David Childress (2000) that the construction was from a civilization known as the Osirian Empire which existed before the Egyptian dynastic period and contemporary with Atlantis. So not only are there amazing claims about who is responsible for creating this site, there are claims of extreme age.

    Baalbek_2_1906Lastly, when it comes to legends, there are some attached to just a single stone, and one that isn’t even part of the Baalbek temple complex. It is a stone about 800 meters from the tel, still not taken out of the ground. Known as the Stone of the Pregnant Woman, it has a mass of 1000 tons!* Stories surround the object. One gives it its name: a woman was said to know how to lift the great rock, but she was pregnant and would only reveal this knowledge should she receive prenatal care and her costs of living until her due date. Once the time came, no great secrets were revealed. Others have said that touching the stone helps ones fertility. In just the last few decades, another even larger stone was found south and across the road from the Pregnant Woman stone; it was mostly buried, but it appears to have a mass on the order of 1200 tons.* These stones appear to be the same as those used in the trithilon, though they were not completely worked into shape, let alone detached from the quarry rock (Ruprechtsberger 1999). Nonetheless, these stones help show where much of the building material at Baalbek came from.

    So, how on earth were these dense pieces of earth moved before the innovations of gas-powered engines or any of the machines we take for granted? Sure, we have cranes that can lift these rocks, but we have modern alloys and steel, powerful motors, and years of experience and education for engineers. How could this have been done in antiquity? According to Alouf (1949), to move the Stone of the Pregnant woman would require a team of 40,000 men, an effective impossibility of concentrated humans with the needed coordination. Doesn’t it require some sort of otherwise unknown advanced civilization to do the job?

    Now, there has been a fair amount of literature on the subject, and some of it has been made accessible to the layman by Michael Heiser and the documentary Ancient Aliens Debunked, but the story isn’t complete, especially on the point of dating the quarrying and moving of the trilithon. So, I will explore here, best I can, what seems to be the mainstream view of how the stones were moved, and what evidence is used. I provide my sources at the bottom of this post.

    But before I get into that view, I have come across one other idea for the moving of the stones without and Atlantis-like or ET civilization, and the idea is to use a canal and so using the buoyant force to make the stones weigh less and thus easier to transport and put into place. It’s not a crazy idea, and the Romans did have the ability to move water in such a way to make it plausible. However, 800 ton stones would need to displace 800 cubic meters of water, and that will require a rather large ship, such as the ones designed to go on the Nile for moving obelisks to Rome. It would be difficult to produce a large water canal, a large enough ship, and it still seems like a fair bit of lifting of the trilithon stones would be needed at the construction site. The key thing, though that could show such a hypothesis is correct is find some sign of early plumbing. Then again, a good source of water will be needed, and in large quantities, and in a place such that it can go uphill enough to fill in this canal that is above the Beqaa valley. While I don’t know of anything that would kill this hypothesis, it seems that it is not the most probable solution.

    So, to begin looking at the standard view, it is necessary to date the site. While artifacts going back thousands of years before the Roman occupation have been found, there is no record of Baalbek in Assyrian records. One particular silence is a war during the reign of Shalmaneser III (9th century BCE), in which a coalition of kingdoms of north Syria, headed by the ruler of Damascus fought the Assyrian forces. In the tribute list after that war, numerous cities are mentioned, but Baalbek is not one of them. The silence continues into the Babylonian and Persian occupations of the Beqaa valley, suggesting that the location was of minimal importance (Jedijian 1975). After Alexander the Great the region would go back and forth under the control of the dynasties Alexander’s generals had formed, and in the Beqaa another dynast formed and had its own currency. By the time the Roman general Pompey conquered the region, the place was noted by the geographer Strabo as mountainous with high regions controlled by robbers, and the plains had farming communities. There are no indications of any great structures there, let alone some of the largest stones ever moved.

    The literary silence from a multitude of sources is already suggestive that this wonder of the ancient world did not yet exist. That leads us to the archaeology to see how much antiquity we can put into the great stone structures there.

    To understand how to date the site, we first need to note what was built there besides the amazing western wall that houses the trilithon. There were several temples built there, the largest being the Temple of Jupiter, in the past boasting a multitude of huge Corinthian columns. These are some of the largest columns in antiquity, and they were hewn from the local stone sources. These columns are not a single, solid piece, but instead there are several pieces (or drums) that had to be stacked together, with the capitol placed at the top, holding up the roofing structure as well as having its own classical elegance. The other temples there, such as that of Bacchus and Venus, also have these columns, a staple of Greek and, later, Roman architecture.

    This is important because of what is found underneath the base stones that are themselves under the trilithon. As you can see in this picture, below the three great stones are other impressive stones that act as a base for the trilithon.

    While not as massive as the trilithon stones, these base structures each have a considerable mass. However, below them was discovered a part of a drum to a column. The size of the drum corresponds to the columns used for the Jupiter temple, so this was likely a leftover or no longer useful piece of one of those columns. Because it is underneath the base stones, this drum must have been place there before the trilithon was put into place. Also, on top of one of the trilithon stones there is a drawing of the plans for the Temple of Jupiter, which was built over by the Romans when it was no longer needed. By having pieces of the Jupiter temple below the trilithon and these drawings on top, we can be reasonably certain that the trilithon stones were put into place contemporaneously with the construction of the Temple of Jupiter (Kalayan 1969).

    So already, by having the trilithon stones contemporaneous with the temple we have established the Roman provenance of the structure. However, we can do more to pin down the dating of the megalith’s placement. In the rubble found at the temple complex, the top drum of a column of the Temple of Jupiter had an inscription placed on it which dates itself to the reign of Emperor Nero. Dedicated to Fortuna, the inscription was likely made just before it was placed into the column structure. As such, we know that the temple was still being built during the reign of Nero (Kalayan 1969). However, it likely began before he took control of the empire. Recent research indicates that before the great Temple of Jupiter was built, there was an earlier, unfinished temple there built perhaps during the reign of King Herod the Great. This temple would have been worked out before the time of the great retaining wall with the trilithon, so we can say that the construction and placement of the trilithon must have been after Herod’s time (dying in 5/4 BCE) and before the end of Nero’s reign (Kropp & Lohmann 2011).

    So not only can we discount the fanciful ideas of the structure having been built by aliens in the great and distant past, but we can actually narrow down to several decades when the structures were being put into place. Moreover, when it comes to the cultures we know of, the Romans are far and away the most plausible people that could have built this place up. While the Egyptian pyramids are a marvel, the average stones that were moved are not within two orders of magnitude of the mass of the trilithon stones (2.5 vs. 800 tons), and the Egyptians didn’t have tools such as cranes or compound pulleys. The construction of these buildings required a level of technology that would not exist until the Hellenic period, and the Romans would perfect it. Moreover, the Romans had the political stability in the region, the finances, and the technical know-how. In particular, they had a lot of knowledge and practice with the use of the crane.

    We can reasonably know the Romans used cranes for construction at multiple sites, including at Baalbek, and one of the tell-tale signs are “dents” in the stones that were lifted. In order to lift up an object and be able to set it down with precision, you won’t have much luck having ropes or other things wrapped around and going underneath. Once the object is set down, you now have to get those ropes out of there, which can be challenging if you are moving multi-ton stones. Pulling the ropes like that will also not allow for precision in laying the stones in place. Only being able to gradually put the stones in place without anything in between the surfaces will be up for the job.

    To do this lifting, you will need grip, and there are two primary ways to get grip on stones without having to specially shape them. One could use the lewis which will fit into a pre-fabricated hole and get an excellent grip on the rock. The hole is placed over the center of gravity of the object, so this cannot be what was used at many of the Baalbek stones which have holes places well above the center of gravity and along the length of the stones.

    More likely what was used were iron forceps or tongs (ferrei forfices), which were even faster and easier to use than the lewis. In the same way you apply a force onto paper when using scissors, the forceps grip into the holes made in the rock and hold into place. Once the pressure is released, then the forceps let go. There were limitations with the use of this tool, so they tended to be used on average-sized stones; there were limits on how wide you can get the forceps (not a problem with a lewis) and there is always the risk of slipping. Details are provided by Adam (1994).

    However, there is another thing notable in the large stones at Baalbek: there are several holes in a side of the stones, usually in a line. It’s hard to find a picture of this, but there is a good example on the base stones under the trilithon for figure 84 in Jidejian (1975) (see also here), but not in all cases. It’s hard to tell, but in some cases perhaps forceps were used, and in other cases lewises were used, leaving no exposed holes as there are stones covering them on top. Either way, there are several of them, and it needs explanation, to which we must turn to what you need once you have a grip: lifting force.

    If you want to lift something up, it tends to be easier when you use a pulley and can pull down with all your weight. However, that simple pulley also means the maximum you can lift if your own body weight. If you are planning on lifting objects several tons in mass, consuming a lot of hot dogs and cola isn’t going to do the trick; but never fear, mechanical advantage is here! As first-term students in college physics will learn, when you draw a free-body diagram of the forces in a system of pulleys you cut down on the force you need to apply in lifting an object by the number of pulleys used. If you have an apparatus with 3 pulleys, you will only need to apply one third the force to lift the same object using only one pulley. This wouldn’t be exactly true in practice, in part because of the friction in the system, among other issues. Nonetheless, a large number of pulleys can greatly multiply ones lifting potential, and this was understood by the Greeks as it is discussed in treatises by Hero of Alexander, Vitruvius, and someone in Aristotle’s school in the 3rd century BCE.

    But that is not all. There is also the ability to use cranes. The invention of the crane is usually placed in the 6th century in Greece, with evidence coming from archaeological finds of lifted stones with lewis holes (Coulton 1974). After this time the lifting potential of the Greeks and then later still the Romans sky-rocketed as the use of the compound pulley was put into practice. There were limitations with the designs at first, but the Greeks in the fourth century BCE and later the Romans greatly advanced their methods. The cranes they would create would be amazing machines, some even using humans in a wheel acting as hamsters to drive up a load. Apparently these machines were well-regarded as they were put into the funeral relief of one rich Roman family, the Haterii.

    In addition, if one combined a crane that would lift vertically with a capstan that pulls horizontally or with the tread-wheel design seen in the Haterii tomb relief, a couple of people could lift something on the order of ten tons (Adam 1977). However, even that much would not be sufficient to lift many of the stones at Baalbek. But we also noticed that there were several gripping holes in those heavy stones, so it is likely that multiple cranes would be used to lift such objects. As such, several compound pulley cranes were used in tandem to lift some very heavy rocks. This becomes particularly impressive when one of the reliefs that went into the Temple of Jupiter had to be lifted up 19 m and had a mass of about 100 tons!

    However, this ignores one major thing about the trilithon stones: there are no signs of lewis holes on the top and no forceps grips on the sides that are visible. Perhaps there are holes on the ends we cannot see, but that would leave little space to fit all the gripping points to lift the 800 ton masses. Also, there were not likely to be forceps 20 m wide to grip the trilithon stones, an iron tool that probably would have been heavy enough on its own. What this means is that there are no signs that the trilithon stones were lifted. So how to get them into place?

    IMG_1044There is a feature of the stones that needs consideration, and that is the elevation of the quarry vs. the current location of the trilithon stones. According to the reliable sources on the site, the quarry is actually slightly higher in elevation (Adam 1994). To check this, I looked at a late 1940s US Navy topological map of the area (that was what I had at the university library), which I have placed here (click to enlarge). The scale is that 1 mm is equal to 200 m (1:200,000). In the image I put a yellow circle for the approximate location of the Stone of the Pregnant woman, and it’s just about on or next to the 1150 meter line, while the temple complex is below that, though you can pretty much follow the 1150 line from the quarry to the temple, providing an almost perfectly level route. I also verified this with relief map data from US space-based sources (Shuttle Radar Topography Mission 3 [SRTM3]), where again the elevation difference was small and the temple location of the stones was slightly lower. What that means is that you could get the stones from the quarry to the ground level of the temple without ever having to lift them an inch.

    If you want to check for yourself, here is the Google maps image of the Stone of the Pregnant Woman with coordinates; there are two stones like it in the area, but this is the correct one because of that red-roofed house you see in the northeast corner–you can see it in some modern pictures of the stone in the background (i.e. here, here, and here).Untitled 3

    South and west of that is the other major stone that was uncovered a couple of decades ago.

    Untitled 4

    Now, the terrain between the quarry and the temple isn’t flat today, but there has been 2000 years of soil erosion. Still, this wouldn’t matter because of all the things the Romans could do, they could build flat roads. A little bit of leveling and no worries about ever having to push the trilithon stones uphill at any point on the way to their resting place. As for how to get there, Adam (1977) provides the key insights. As you can see with the unfinished stones in the quarry, the stones are pointing upward a bit, giving space between the ground and their bottom surface. This process means there is space to place rollers; when the stone is finally freed from the mountain, it will already be on a bed of rollers, never even needing to be lifted onto them.

    Now, many think that a sled for the stone would be good, which would reduce the friction between the rollers and the stone. However, this probably won’t be a good idea because you will need to get the stone off the sled in order to get it slid into place on the base stones; with 800 tons, that is no easy task. So it would be all rollers from the quarry site to the temple mound. This sort of use of rollers was done for the 600 ton stone for the obelisk of Mussolini, all done with human and animal power, plus a lot of ingenuity (Adam 1994). The largest single stone ever moved, the Thunder Stone, had similar principles, though it used a sled on top of what were effectively ball bearings to greatly reduce the friction. In antiquity, the trilithon is comparable to the largest stones at the modern Wailing Wall, namely the Western Stone, massed at around 520 tons, which we know was put into place during the Julio-Claudian dynastic period, starting under King Herod. In other words, a stone of a bit smaller mass than the trilithon stones was placed during about the same time as the great Baalbek stones were.

    Another feature is that the base stones that were mentioned earlier will be in place and have reached the level of the ground, which is also about the level of the of the quarry. So, as seen in the diagram above, the trilithon stones continued to slide along rollers until reaching the base stones, and it just continued to slide. Never was it necessary to build ramps, lift the stone, or create some new soil structures to get the stones from their quarry to their resting place; it’s a flat road from the quarry to the destination.

    But there is still the issue of dragging the stones, and there will be a whole lot of frictional force. However, if the workers used a bunch of capstans, then it would be possible to pull the stones into place using a mere 144 workers (Adam 1977). (Note that in the diagram below, the soil marked 4 is temporary during the construction, and afterwards it will go away; it is only the soil behind the wall that will remain, and on the outside the ground level will be where it is marked 3.)

    So now the project has gone from needing an estimated 40,000 workers to get the stones out of the quarry to a matter of hundreds for pulling the stones into place. It’s almost easy. Well, not easy. and considering the two stones found in the quarry, that indicates that work was stopped on that front, probably because it was found to be unnecessary and extremely labor-intensive (making it expensive and time-consuming).

    This also brings up the question about where these other two large stones would have been placed. According to Ruprechtsberger (1999), it seems that these stones would have finished wrapping around the main temple complex. As can bee seen in this picture of the wall, the trilithon stone did not go all the way into the corner of the base, but the size of that gap (~4 m) is just the size to fit another such stone going perpendicular to the trilithon (also note, the brickwork in place is an Arab construct, not part of the original wall). On the other end of the trilithon, another massive stone would have been similarly placed perpendicular to the current trilithon stones. This way the great stones would have surrounded much of the base of the Jupiter Temple, as can be seen in this reconstruction of the temple mount with the current trilithon in place (from Adam 1977):

    But why were these large stones put into place at all? What’s wrong with using smaller stones?

    This gets to the purpose of the wall that the trilithon is part of: it is a retaining wall. Because of soil erosion, the ground of the tel with the massive temples being constructed would not be stable over time. As the soil gives way, the buildings will settle, lean, and stone isn’t good when it comes to that. You can expect the structures to collapse in a relatively short period of time, making the religious project a waste (not to mention pissing off your preferred deity). But building a retaining wall will block the soil from moving downhill. The most effective retaining walls will use the most massive, solid blocks, so that they are not moved by the force of the soil. The shape of the base, which does not simply provide a vertical wall but widens near the bottom, also resists the torque of the soil pressing at the top of the wall. So, in order to make the temple complex safe from eroding down the hill and taking the buildings with them, the Romans built some of the most massive retaining walls in history. And considering how well they stand after 2000 years, that is mighty impressive.

    With all the above, we can say when the stones were placed, what civilization was involved, likely how the stones were moved and placed, and why it was done. Compare this to the alien claims: the wall cannot have great antiquity because of the archaeological context; we don’t know if such beings even exist, let along came by and did things with rocks (and why); the methods of moving are unknown and seem to differ between stones for no explicable reason (why lifting holes in some stones but not others); and there is no plausible reason why the wall was constructed (it would have been rather thin for a landing pad with just the trilithon stones). Same issues when it comes to the Nephilim of the Bible. Plausibility and evidence are all on one side of this ancient mystery.

    But that isn’t to say there isn’t more to learn. Archaeologists have noted how the designs and plans changed multiple times, and while construction may have begun under Herod the Great, structures were still being worked on throughout the second and into the third century. The nature of these changes and how they affected the construction of the rest of the temple complex is not completely understood. Other points of why the workers and engineers decided not to continue in using the most massive monoliths are also worth exploring. So there is plenty to research; it’s just that there isn’t anything that aliens/giants can explain better.

    *Note: all measurements will be in metric units, so ton will mean 1000 kg of mass, etc.


    • Adam, Jean-Pierre. “À propos du trilithon de Baalbek: Le transport et la mise en oeuvre des mégalithes”, Syria 54, 1/2 (1977): 31–63.
    • Adam, Jean-Pierre. Roman Building: Materials and Techniques. Indiana University, 1994.
    • Alouf, Michael M. History of Baalbek. American Press Beirut, 1949 [1890].
    • Childress, David. Technology of the Gods: The Incredible Sciences of the Ancients. Kempton, IL: Adventures Unlimited Press, 2000.
    • Coulton, J. J. “Lifting in Early Greek Architecture”, The Journal of Hellenic Studies 94 (1974): 1-19.
    • Jidejian, Nina. Baalbek: Heliopolis, “City of the Sun”. Dar el-Machreq Publishers: Beirut, 1975.
    • Kalayan, Haroutune. “The Engraved Drawing on the Trilithon and the Related Problems about the Constructional History at Baalbek”, Bulletin du Musee de Beyrouth 22 (1969): 151-5.
    • Kropp, Andreas J. M. Lohmann, Daniel. “‘Master, look at the size of those stones! Look at the size of those buildings!’ Analogies in Construction Techniques Between the Temples of Heliopolis (Baalbek) and Jerusalem”, Levant 43, 1 (2011): 38-50.
    • Ruprechtsberger, Erwin M. “Vom Steinbruch zum Jupitertempel von Heliopolis/Baalbek (Libanon)”, Linzer Archäologische Forschungen 30 (1999): 7–56.
    • Sitchin, Zechariah. The Stairway to Heaven. HarperCollins: New York, 1999 [1980].


    This thorough and fascinating post was first posted on Aaron’s own blog, which can be found here.

    Category: HistorySkepticism


    Article by: Aaron Adair