Located at the edge of Lebanon’s most troubled region, the city of Baalbek hosts the largest Roman ruins in the world. With the ongoing war in Syria just miles away, a common question is whether it is safe to visit them.
First let’s get a proper understanding of the situation around the ruins. I will go over a few recent developments.
Beqaa and the Syrian war
The Roman Ruins, sometimes referred to as Heliopolis, are located 85 kilometres northeast from Beirut in the Beqaa Valley. In the media this region has often been associated with tribal drug lords and the rule of tribal law. Though that could be true, for a traveller this will practically be of no relevance.
What is more important though, is that the city Baalbek lays north in the valley and is an important stronghold of Hezbollah. This political group is also a Shi’a Islamist militant group who are actively taking part fighting alongside the Assad regime in Syria. The main opponents they are facing in the Syrian conflict are militant groups from the Sunni denomination of Islam.
At a distance of approximately 35 kilometres lays Arsal city, which hosts a predominantly Sunni community. The mountainous Arsal region is notorious for its porous border with Syria, allowing jihadists of all sorts to get in and out of Syria in relative freedom. In 2013, rockets launched from Syria landed in the city centre of Baalbek, injuring several.
In 2014 things escalated. Sunni militant groups Al Nusra (Al-Qaeda’s Syria branch) and ISIS invaded the Arsal region, capturing dozens of Lebanese police officers and later also soldiers. After days of fighting, the Lebanese army ultimately took back control in what is now called the battle of Arsal. Prisoners of war taken on both sides of the conflict were only recently exchanged in a long-awaited swap deal that took place in Arsal on 1 December 2015. The event triggered another series of shelling and so fighting around the area continues.
There have also been threats of Sunni muslim extremists trying to enter other regions of Lebanon. On 12 November 2015, a twin suicide bombing killed dozens in the Shi’a Burj al-Barajneh neighbourhood of Beirut (which I visited just weeks after). The attack was later claimed by