As Syria's civil war rages across the boarder, Lebanon's Baalbek festival defies the bombs among the temples of the gods

Despite being seven miles from the war, the venerable music gala has been attracting thousands to its performances amid the Roman ruins

As a group of traditionally clad dancers emerged from the lit-up temple of Bacchus in Baalbek, a roar of approval came from the crowd. The audience danced, clapped and sang along as Assi el Helani, Lebanon's version of Tom Jones, took to the stage and sang an ode to Baalbek, his home town.

The message the 3,000 filled seats sent was clear: Baalbek festival is here to stay. "It was a great challenge," said Nayla de Freige, president of the festival. She hoped the two sold-out opening nights would reassure people that Baalbek was safe to visit, despite being located scarcely seven miles from the Syrian border. The area is a stronghold of Hezbollah, which is fighting alongside President Bashar al-Assad in Syria.

Last year, the festival had to be moved to a silk factory closer to the capital. The Roman ruins where the festival had been held since 1956 were deemed too unsafe. "It was totally for security reasons. Two rockets fell down not very far from the acropolis," explained Ms de Freige.

Now the festival is back among the temples of the gods, one of the best-preserved and largest Roman temple complexes in the world, and a Unesco World Heritage site. Children pose for pictures against the majestic backdrop of the six remaining columns of Jupiter's temple, built in 64BC.

Security is tight Security is tight But it has been a struggle to get here. When the committee presented its programme from the acropolis in May, it was certain that a triumphant return lay ahead. "We were in euphoria. We thought that everything was going to be great, and that we were going to have a fantastic tourism summer," said Ms de Freige. But then a wave of suicide bombings and arrests hit Lebanon in June, changing everything. Meetings with all the security services and Hezbollah followed.

The opening-night performance, scheduled to start "at eight prompt", was delayed by an hour. There were television transmission issues, and the ministers of culture and tourism were stuck in traffic.

The road between the capital and Baalbek was clogged up by seven army checkpoints, the last four of which were on the final 25 miles. At the entrance to the temple complex, heavily armed soldiers and police stood guard while men and women were separated and searched for weapons. These intense security measures were carried out at the request of the organisers, who co-ordinated with the army for months in an effort to ensure safety for festival-goers in one of the country's most volatile areas.

Still, that wasn't enough for some performers. Canadian dance troupe Les 7 Doigts de la Main cancelled three weeks before the festival, because of security concerns among the young performer's parents.

One of the town’s Roman temple One of the town’s Roman temple Last week, Romanian opera diva Angela Gheorghiu asked for her concert to be relocated to the casino, which is located on the coast, a traditionally safer part of the country. The French actor Gérard Depardieu is the only newcomer, in a double act with the French actress Fanny Ardant, a veteran of Baalbek. Tunisian oud player Dhafer Youssef, too, had previously performed in Lebanon. The organisers consciously approached people who knew "the sensitivities of the region", as Ms de Freige delicately put it.

It has been quite a change of pace for a festival that used to host the greatest stars in the world. During the 1950s, there was a focus on theatre, with lots of Shakespeare performances, including by the Old Vic Theatre Company. The Royal Ballet was recurrent a guest in the 1960s, and the New York Philharmonic came as well. The 1970s brought jazz to Baalbek; Miles Davis performed and Ella Fitzgerald came two years in a row.

The stage remained empty for more than two decades following the start of the country's civil war in 1975 but, when it restarted in 1997, it still managed to pull in the big names. Nina Simone, Sting and Phil Collins all performed in the shadow of Jupiter's temple, alongside operas, musicals and dance troupes.

Tickets would sell out weeks in advance; now, every single concert has tickets available and 300 people bought their opening-night tickets at the door. Last-minute ticket sales are up; people want to assess the risk on the day of the concert.

And the audience is mostly local; there are fewer people from Beirut than usual and foreign visitors are greeted with surprise and delight. A successful run of the festival could help to bring back other tourists to Baalbek, whose car parks are mostly vacant as embassies advise their citizens to stay away.

Organisers see the festival as a barometer for the state of Lebanon. "If Baalbek is OK, the rest of the country is OK," said Ms de Freige, who came on board when the festival restarted in 1997.

She has seen the festival landscape change; before the war, Baalbek was the only festival in the country and the region. Now there is a lot of competition – although, as she said, Baalbek's stunning location and reputation set it apart from the rest: music fans could hear Katie Melua sing in the courtyard of the Ottoman Beiteddine Palace or Massive Attack play their greatest hits by the sea at the Phoenician-era town of Byblos. Welsh Baritone Bryn Terfel opened the Zouk Mikael festival on Thursday to a half-empty theatre. "All the festivals are having a tough time this year," said Ms de Freige.

Performers in front of the temple ruins Performers in front of the temple ruins Older visitors relish the memories of classical music concerts and performances by local legends. "When you hear Fairuz in this location, or Beethoven, you fly," said Fahmi Shraif, a local tour guide. He wasn't much impressed with the populist crooning of El Helani, calling his Arabic lyrics third rate. "They are cutting down the temple," he scoffed, as one of El Helani's protégées from the Lebanese version of the television programme The Voice, where he is a judge, started a cover of Gloria Gaynor's "I Will Survive".

Though perhaps out of sync with the festival's rich history, it was a message that symbolised the Baalbek festival's spirit. Organisers have vowed to continue organising the festival here, where it belongs. "This is our cultural resistance," said Ms de Freige. "We need to show that Baalbek is a part of Lebanon and it wants to have joy, wants to live."

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Arts and Entertainment
'The Archers' has an audience of about five million
radioA growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried
Arts and Entertainment
Henry VIII played by Damien Lewis
tvReview: Scheming queens-in-waiting, tangled lines of succession and men of lowly birth rising to power – sound familiar?
Sport
tennisLive: Follow all the updates from Melbourne as Murray faces Czech Tomas Berdych in the semi-final
News
Sir David Attenborough
people
PROMOTED VIDEO
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Life and Style
Young girl and bowl of cereal
food + drink
News
Comic miserablist Larry David in 'Curb Your Enthusiasm'
peopleDirector of new documentary Misery Loves Comedy reveals how he got them to open up
Sport
football
News
i100
Life and Style
Virtual reality headset: 'Essentially a cinema screen that you strap to your face'
techHow virtual reality is thrusting viewers into frontline of global events and putting film-goers at the heart of the action
Arts and Entertainment
Ready to open the Baftas, rockers Kasabian are also ‘great film fans’
musicExclusive: Rockers promise an explosive opening to the evening
Life and Style
David Bowie by Duffy
fashion
Arts and Entertainment
Hell, yeah: members of the 369th Infantry arrive back in New York
booksWorld War Z author Max Brooks honours WW1's Harlem Hellfighters in new graphic novel
News
advertisingVideo: The company that brought you the 'Bud' 'Weis' 'Er' frogs and 'Wasssssup' ads, has something up its sleeve for Sunday's big match
Arts and Entertainment
tv
News
i100
Environment
Dame Vivienne Westwood speaking at a fracking protest outside Parliament on Monday (AP)
environment
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Front End Web Interface Developer - HTML, CSS, JS

£17000 - £23750 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Liverpool based international...

Tradewind Recruitment: English Teacher

Negotiable: Tradewind Recruitment: This post arises as a result of the need to...

Tradewind Recruitment: Class Teacher Required ASAP In Uminster

£120 - £150 per annum: Tradewind Recruitment: I am recruiting on instruction o...

Ashdown Group: Head of Finance - Financial Director - London - £70,000

£70000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Head of Finance - Financial Controller - Fina...

Day In a Page

Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

Homeless Veterans appeal

MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

Comedians share stories of depression

The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

Has The Archers lost the plot?

A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

14 office buildings added to protected lists

Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee
World War Z author Max Brooks honours WW1's Harlem Hellfighters in new graphic novel

Max Brooks honours Harlem Hellfighters

The author talks about race, legacy and his Will Smith film option to Tim Walker
Why the league system no longer measures up

League system no longer measures up

Jon Coles, former head of standards at the Department of Education, used to be in charge of school performance rankings. He explains how he would reform the system
Valentine's Day cards: 5 best online card shops

Don't leave it to the petrol station: The best online card shops for Valentine's Day

Can't find a card you like on the high street? Try one of these sites for individual, personalised options, whatever your taste
Diego Costa: Devil in blue who upsets defences is a reminder of what Liverpool have lost

Devil in blue Costa is a reminder of what Liverpool have lost

The Reds are desperately missing Luis Suarez, says Ian Herbert
Ashley Giles: 'I'll watch England – but not as a fan'

Ashley Giles: 'I'll watch England – but not as a fan'

Former one-day coach says he will ‘observe’ their World Cup games – but ‘won’t be jumping up and down’
Greece elections: In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza

Greece elections

In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza, says Patrick Cockburn
Holocaust Memorial Day: Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears

Holocaust Memorial Day

Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears over Europe
Fortitude and the Arctic attraction: Our fascination with the last great wilderness

Magnetic north

The Arctic has always exerted a pull, from Greek myth to new thriller Fortitude. Gerard Gilbert considers what's behind our fascination with the last great wilderness