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
Voices
Lucerne’s Hotel Château Gütsch, one of the lots in our Homeless Veterans appeal charity auction
charity appeal
Arts and Entertainment
Tony Hughes (James Nesbitt) after his son Olly disappeared on a family holiday in France
tv
News
people

Jo from Northern Ireland was less than impressed by Russell Brand's attempt to stage a publicity stunt

Sport
Scunthorpe goalkeeper Sam Slocombe (left) is congratulated by winning penalty taker Miguel Llera (right)
football
PROMOTED VIDEO
News
ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment
The Apprentice candidates Roisin Hogan, Solomon Akhtar, Mark Wright, Bianca Miller, Daniel Lassman
tvReview: But which contestants got the boot?
Life and Style
A woman walks by a pandal art installation entitled 'Mars Mission' with the figure of an astronaut during the Durga Puja festival in Calcutta, India
techHow we’ll investigate the existence of, and maybe move in with, our alien neighbours
Arts and Entertainment
Jim Carrey and Jeff Daniels ride again in Dumb and Dumber To
filmReview: Dumb And Dumber To was a really stupid idea
Arts and Entertainment
Sir Ian McKellen tempts the Cookie Monster
tvSir Ian McKellen joins the Cookie Monster for a lesson on temptation
News
i100
Travel
Tourists bask in the sun beneath the skyscrapers of Dubai
travelBritish embassy uses social media campaign to issue travel advice for festive holiday-makers in UAE
Arts and Entertainment
Jennifer Saunders stars as Miss Windsor, Dennis's hysterical French teacher
filmJennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress
Sport
Nabil Bentaleb (centre) celebrates putting Tottenham ahead
footballTottenham 4 Newcastle 0: Spurs fans dreaming of Wembley final after dominant win
Life and Style
tech
Voices
Jimmy Mubenga died after being restrained on an aircraft by G4S escorts
voicesJonathan Cox: Tragedy of Jimmy Mubenga highlights lack of dignity shown to migrants
Life and Style
Sebastian Siemiatkowski is the 33-year-old co-founder and CEO of Klarna, which provides a simple way for people to buy things online
tech
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

Ashdown Group: Helpdesk Analyst

£25000 per annum: Ashdown Group: An established media firm based in Surrey is ...

Ashdown Group: Java Developer - Hertfordshire - £47,000 + bonus + benefits

£40000 - £470000 per annum + bonus: Ashdown Group: Java Developer / J2EE Devel...

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

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

Recruitment Genius: Business Development Executive - Nationwide - OTE £65,000

£30000 - £65000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This small technology business ...

Day In a Page

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas
La Famille Bélier is being touted as this year's Amelie - so why are many in the deaf community outraged by it?

Deaf community outraged by La Famille Bélier

The new film tells the story of a deaf-mute farming family and is being touted as this year's Amelie
10 best high-end laptops

10 best high-end laptops

From lightweight and zippy devices to gaming beasts, we test the latest in top-spec portable computers
Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

The batsman has grown disillusioned after England’s Ashes debacle and allegations linking him to the Pietersen affair
Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

The Williams driver has had plenty of doubters, but hopes she will be judged by her ability in the cockpit
Adam Gemili interview: 'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

After a year touched by tragedy, Adam Gemili wants to become the sixth Briton to run a sub-10sec 100m
Calls for a military mental health 'quality mark'

Homeless Veterans campaign

Expert calls for military mental health 'quality mark'
Racton Man: Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman

Meet Racton Man

Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman
Garden Bridge: St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters

Garden Bridge

St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters
Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament: An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel

Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament

An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel
Joint Enterprise: The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice

Joint Enterprise

The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice
Freud and Eros: Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum: Objects of Desire

Freud and Eros

Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum