The city of Gubla is said to be the first city in the world in Greek legend. Founded as a settlement at some point around 5000 BC, Byblos was originally home to a small Neolithic fishing community. The first signs of a town appeared in the third millennium BC. By the beginning of the Early Bronze Age in 3000 BC, it was a prosperous Canaanite city with one of the most important export, the cedar trees of Lebanon to Egypt in exchange for papyrus, ivory, ebony and gold, making it one of the most important trading centers on the coast with close ties to the fourth dynasty Egypt. Egyptian influence can be seen in its art and its religion. Trade goods from as early as Egypt’s 2nd dynasty have been found there.
It quickly developed from there to become one of the main importers of luxury goods, and a key exporter of papyrus to Greece. Originally known as Gubla, and then Gebal, probably meaning “border” or “mountain ridge.” the later name Byblos comes from the Greeks, meaning books in general, which is how the Hebrew/Christian scriptures have come to be called the Bible.
This Egyptian papyrus was one of the early products sent north for use in Byblos commerce and for shipment out to the rest of the Mediterranean world once the idea of alphabetic writing had caught on elsewhere. Although Gebal was known as the original home of the Canaanite father god El, it was more famous as The City of the Goddess. Most scholars identify her as the Canaanite Astarte, Goddess of Love, Fertility and the planet Venus, and the Mesopotamian Ishtar, but her origins probably go directly back to the Stone Age Mother Goddess of Syria, Asia Minor and southern Europe.
The temple of the Baalat Gebal with its nearby sacred pool was in use for over 2000 years, until it was replaced with a Roman style building during the Roman Era. As early as the 5th and 6th Dynasties, Egyptian kings sent vases and other objects as gifts to the temple, with the royal names inscribed in hieroglyphs. At the nearby Temple of Obelisks, hieroglyphs were also engraved on an obelisk erected in honor of the Lady of Byblos. This site has yielded over 1300 votive offerings, including many small obelisks, faience cats, hippopotami, dwarfs, and human figures covered with gold leaf.
Baalat, or Ba’alat, is not properly a name but a title, meaning “Mistress”, “Lady”, or “Queen”. The lady of Byblos is associated with Ba’al-Shaman, “Lord of the Heavens” as His consort and cult-partner.
The Baalat Gebal was also patroness of the shipmasters, which was appropriate for such an important shipping port as Byblos. Early trading connections between Egypt and Syria led to the identification of the two goddesses with each other. Like Astarte, Baalat was patroness of shipping, as well as mistress of women, fertility, and foreign countries. During Egypt’s 12th Dynasty Byblos became an Egyptian dependency, paving the way for Astarte to be welcomed into the Egyptian pantheon as an Eye of Ra, protecting the King’s chariot in battle.
Baalat resided in a famous Gebal temple built at about the same time that Egypt was coming together in two separate kingdoms in 2700 BCE. While that temple was likely only the latest in a series of prehistoric goddess shrines at the site, it was the first of those holy places to make it into the ancient equivalent of “the history books.” And it did so as the first temple of Hathor outside of the Nile Valley. Old Kingdom Egyptians seriously believed that their goddess lived on the Phoenician coast in this remarkable Byblos temple. This is an extraordinary concept in early dynastic religion and begs for some serious explanations.
Whether elements of the Baalat cult drifted southward from Byblos to take root along the Nile, or whether the Byblos traders carried Egyptian notions of goddess worship home, will remain unknown. Perhaps the safest assumption is that the Byblos cedar timber was so terribly important to Egyptian building and ship making projects that it had to come under the protection of the gods. Since the Baalat of Byblos was very similar to the Hathor of Egypt, the two were seen as being the same in Egyptian eyes.
The beautiful temple of Baalat, built in her honor, with its picturesque views, lies dormant overlooking the blue waters of the Mediterranean Sea. A beautiful triple arch traditional Lebanese house oversees it with dotted date trees swaying gently to the rhythm of the waves surrounding it. On that exact spot, lies the worship of a woman, a Goddess, a mother. This place stands there quietly, changed by time, and worshiped over so many centuries, in harmony with the sea, a reminder of the power of the female figure, whose importance is still worshiped to this day by all religions.