Monday, May 10, 2010

Niha, Zahle (Bekaa Valley, Lebanon)

The word neeha is Syriac and denotes to the place the character of calm, peaceful. The village is located about 65 km East of the Lebanese capital Beirut off the main road that leads to Baalbeck. It is 8 km North of Zahle. The village sits in a small canyon at an average altitude of 1,100 m.

Niha is home to four Roman temples that were constructed between the first and third century A.D. The Lower two temples are located on the edge of the village, and the upper two temples are about 2 km above the village in what is known as "Hosn" Niha. The first and smallest temple was built in the first century A.D. As one enters the gate at the edge of the village into the archeological park that is maintained by the Department of Antiquities, the Lower Small Temple appears first and directly ahead to the right of the creek. The temple was dedicated to the Syro-Phoenician mermaid goddess Atargatis and her consort, the god Hadaranes. Hadaranes is the local name of Hadad, the god of thunder, lightning and rain. Atargatis is the goddess of fertility. In the remains of this temple, archaeologists discovered a stone with an inscription mentioning a female virgin prophet named Hochmea. Hochmea was the priestess of Hadaranes and Atargatis; she dedicated herself to those two gods and cut herself off from the world. The stone inscription says: According to an order from the god, she stopped eating bread for 20 years and lived for 100 years. This small temple was apparently used for the public cult, which allowed everyone to participate in purification rituals. Opposite the creek lies the Great Temple which was extensively restored by the government of Lebanon in the 1950s. Towering nearly 20 m, the temple was built during the second and third centuries A.D. and was apparently used for a mysterious cult that spread during that era, similar to the temple of Bacchus in Baalbeck. The temple was also dedicated to the god Hadaranes and goddes Atargatis, as well as to a young god who played the role of their son.

The Small Temple of Niha is oriented north-south, while the Great Temple is oriented east-west. During the excavations of the site, an oratory was discovered in front of the Small Temple. The oratory had an altar representing the goddess of Niha, surrounded by a number of steles sculpted in the local style (not Roman style). The reason for the perpendicular orientation of the two temples is the presence of this monumental altar, which was situated in front of the Small Temple, and which was used as a base for the orientation of the Great Temple.

Two other Upper Roman temples were constructed at the Hosn, approximately 2 km away from the two temples mentioned earlier. Located at an elevation of 1,400 m with difficult road access, these two temples are not restored. Architectural evidence at the site indicates that it was transformed into a small fort during the medieval period (hence the name of Hosn). The altar in front of the temple was destroyed by a Byzantine Basilica that was built over it. The Basilica has three naves and a semi-circular apse to its east end. The second Small Temple opens to the south and was accessed through a stairway that is almost completely destroyed today.

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