Heliopolis - biggest Pagan Temple Complex in the Empire

I was reading about Graham Hancock today, a pseudo archaeologist with lots of wild ideas. Underworld, makes a great reading for any Atlantis themed adventures involving underwater exploration. Whether or not you believe them is up to you, however, his writings make for great RPG fodder.

One of them is that we still do not quite know how the Romans built the Heliopois of Jupiter.

The town of Baalbek, under the Romans, Heliopolis, makes for very interesting ideas and a great campaign idea for any Levant oriented adventure ideas.


As I recall the ruins for this building have been found by archeologists. What Hancock may have added I do not know, but the building at least is real,

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IMS I used Heliopolis as the location of a minor mercer house in the Levant (sort of a caravan stop for the redcaps with a portal to Harco) and made some implications that the neo-mercurians were interested in it. Sadly the saga is located in Stonehenge, so we don't get to visit the Levant very often.

I think it's a very neat site because it's enough of an unknown to give a lot of freedom in writing it, but what is known about it gives some great seeds to tie it in to lots of different bits of the setting:

  • The Helipiolitan Triad in the Roman interpretation was Jupiter, Venus, and Mercury. There's a Mercurian temple on the site which is slightly removed from the three main temples. Interesting for house Mercere and the neo-mercurians.
  • As is mentioned in the OP the construction of the larger temples is remarkable because some of the blocks are too heavy to have been hoisted by Roman cranes and seem implausibly large to be moved by human labour (the largest weigh 800 tons!). In reality there are some pretty sound proposals for how they could have been moved with a great deal of manual labour but it's a pretty unrivalled feat*. This opens the possibility that something supernatural was involved in the Mythic Europe version...
  • Some of the columns from the temple of Jupiter were incorporated into the Hagia Sophia, a neat link to Constantinople.
  • There are several huge passageways running through the foundation of the complex, a prime place to add a regio entrance, some catacombs, or even a hermetic covenant!
  • Macrobius claimed there was an oracle there, and that the Ba'al Hadad cult of Heliopolis (which the Romans interpreted as worshiping Jupiter) was founded by Egyptian priests of the solar cult who migrated from Heliopolis in Egypt. Gives an interesting link to Egypt.
  • It was obviously a Canaanite site and so ties in to the Canaanite religion so you could link it to lots of related things. The stuff about the gods of Carthage in Between Sand and Sea and Canaanite Necromancy spring to mind.
  • There is a very tenuous possibly link between the Ba'al Hadad (Jupiter) of Baalbek and the Elegabal of Emesa which itself has a less tenuous link to the Sol Invictus holy societas in RoP:tD so you could work them in.
  • Some Christian writers denied the pagan origins of the temple complex and claimed it was originally built by King Solomon and only later taken over by pagan worship. There's an interesting link to the divine realm, and anything to do with Solomon really, there.
  • It's the home of Saint Barbara, who is invoked to protect against lightning and sudden death at work (she is the patron of builders, miners, and anyone who works with explosives).
  • Some accounts have the remaining pagan population being crucified under the orders of Tiberius II in the 6th century. That gives a way to work in some infernal influence if you want.

Very cool place with a huge potential for use in Ars.

*Proposals of how the 800 ton blocks could have been moved into place using a team of under 200 people have been published, taking advantage of the fact that the quarry the blocks came from is higher altitude than their final position meaning no lifting is every needed - only horizontal (and downhill) movement and positioning. I'm pretty sure these ideas were published before Mr. Hancock wrote his first book but I don't actually know what he says on the topic. But the "it was built by the Nephelim/aliens/magic" explanations are a lot more fun!


The Romans were great engineers for their time, even having invented a steam engine which was suppressed by the emperor for fear it would lead to a slave revolt as it freed up labor. I think Mr. Hancock is severely underestimating their capabilities.
That said, by 1200 the complex was already in ruins to the point that it would require either modern archeologists or a regio to uncover what it was. It would likely still have a magic aura however given the amount of time it was used for ceremonies.

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You might be surprised. For sure, the temples of Jupiter was probably long gone (half of it went to build the Hagia Sophia, and that's before time and earthquakes made their mark). The temples to Venus and Mercury were maybe a little more recognisable as "some kind of Roman building". But the temple to Bacchus was amazingly well preserved. Here's a woodcut from 1757 (before any excavations were ever done):

And here's the interior from the same book:

Definitely ruined, but pretty recognisable as a temple of some kind (to an educated magus, at least). Plus the place is talked about by Strabo, Ptolemy, Macrobius and a bunch more besides. So I think magi would be able to get a pretty good, if incomplete, idea of the place. I expect they'd probably misattribute the intact temple to some god besides Bacchus (that could be a story seed - angry faerie Bacchus appears to admonish people for confusing him with Jupiter/Mercury/Helios...). And get a whole load of other things wrong as well, but they'd be able to figure out it was the temple complex of antiquity without much difficulty.

A bigger issue is the fact that the temple complex was being used as the citadel of the town at the time. Not the easiest place to investigate.

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If faerie bachus is still around after not being worshiped for that long. If so it might have a faerie aura which dominates the magical one from centuries of rituals.

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@silveroak Hancock (I believe) asserts the Heliopolis was built with methods from a prior civilization that was nearly wiped out in the great flood circa 10,000 years ago.

@Argentinus that is super cool. I wonder if there's a single book dedicated to this site, or even another book with a dedicated chapter? (I mean, probably, but I'm not a romanologist.)

I do think Niall Christie did his best when writing the Blood & Sand book, but compared to the high quality of 5E Tribunal and Area books, I would love to see a redone 5E version of the Levant tribunal.

I only know that stuff because I coincidentally did some research into the place a few months ago. I imagine that the site is covered in some archaeological books covering Roman Syria, or dealing with Canaanite or Roman religion but I didn't find one with a quick search of the library I have access to and I didn't look further than that. I think there is a book published from the results of the original excavations around 1900, but it's in German.

The woodcuts I posted above are from an English language book though - "The Ruins of Balbec, otherwise Heliopolis in Coelosyria" by Robert Wood. You can find a full copy on Archive.org. It's really just a bunch of pictures and explanatory notes though.

I get most of my info by reading around online, finding a semi-relevant paper on google scholar, and then following chains of references, but that's not much help unless you have access to a library with journal subscriptions unfortunately.

I've had difficulty in finding comprehensive English language sources for stuff in the middle east before. A lot of published material is in Arabic, French, or German often without an English translation available.

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@Argentius Great suggestion! I do have access to a world class e-library through my work, and have done so for other questions in the distant past, actually. If approached the librarians at my work about Heliopolis I could likely find something. That or email someone in the classics department (who I don't know).