Lebanese singer Assi El Helani performing the musical play ‘From the Days of Saladin’ at the Baalbeck festival in 2011
Lebanese singer Assi El Helani performing the musical play ‘From the Days of Saladin’ at the Baalbeck festival in 2011 © Wael Hamzeh/epa

When the lights go up at the Temple of Bacchus on Wednesday, and the orchestra of Assi El Helani sounds its first notes, a collective sigh of relief may well rise up through the warm Lebanese night air.

The realisation of this year’s Baalbeck festival has been a feat of faith, grit and a not-insignificant military mobilisation. Since 1956, the imposing temple complex, lauded by Unesco as one of the world’s finest examples of imperial Roman architecture, has acted as a summertime performance venue for dance, theatre and music. But the ancient site has found itself a hostage to modern geopolitics. Baalbeck sits deep within Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley, a Hizbollah stronghold 11km from the Syrian border. The bloated refugee camps encircling the town make the short distance to the border feel even smaller.

Last year, the temple of the god of revelry lay silent. Fighting in Syria was concentrated in areas close by, with rockets landing in and around the town. “We had to choose between a cancellation and a symbolic relocation,” recalls the festival’s president Nayla de Freige, sitting in the unimposing Beirut apartment that has acted as the festival’s headquarters since its inception. The eleventh-hour decision to relocate – to an abandoned silk factory on the outskirts of Beirut – was not greeted with unanimous approval, as many saw the festival and its location as inextricably intertwined. “The idea,” de Freige says, “was simply to say that we still exist.”

This year, bullish state patronage elevated the reseating of the festival to a question of national pride. “This is a project where everyone is concerned,” says de Freige, including, she lists, “the ministries of culture and tourism, the prime minister and the president – when we have one”. The army is putting troops on the roads into Baalbeck for the duration of the festival. Their reasoning is simple: as long as well-heeled Beirutis are willing to travel to the Bekaa Valley, the state is not failing.

But Baalbeck is within the thick line of red shading that snakes along the Lebanese-Syrian border on UK Foreign Office maps and informs potential visitors that travel to the region is inadvisable. As a result, finding artists of the stature expected of the region’s oldest and most prestigious festival has become a delicate alchemy. De Freige explains that the committee has leaned increasingly on those with existing ties to Lebanon, something that is true of all five acts performing this August. Two are Lebanese: the singer-songwriter Tania Saleh and El Helani, a powerhouse of the folkloric genre. The others, Tunisian oud performer Dhafer Youssef and Romanian soprano Angela Gheorghiu, have performed in Lebanon before. The French actress Fanny Ardant, who will be acting opposite Gérard Depardieu in Marguerite Duras’ La Musica Deuxième, is herself a veteran of the Baalbeck stage. A sixth show – by acrobatic dance troupe Les 7 Doigts de la Main, whose manager is of Canadian-Lebanese descent – was cancelled last week, with the company citing security concerns.

Such careful cultivation of nostalgic ties was not always necessary. The prospect of performing on a stage dwarfed by the illuminated façade of the temple’s columns – those “giant sentinels in the tranquil night” that once sent the poet Khalil Gibran into ecstasies – has seduced stars the world over since the festival’s inception. First to make the trip across the Mediterranean were theatre and dance troupes and classical musicians: the Old Vic Theatre Company, the Ballet Rambert, the New York Philharmonic.

Then, in the 1970s, jazz came to Baalbeck, following a series of stormy showdowns at committee meetings about the suitability of its unorthodox rhythms. Ella Fitzgerald, Nina Simone, Miles Davis and Dizzy Gillespie took to the stage. Herbie Hancock looked around at the crumbling temples and declared: “I feel near the gods when I’m here.”

But it is not this illustrious international portfolio that has pushed the preservation of the Baalbeck festival to the top of so many agendas. The festival’s history is bound up with the construction of Lebanon itself. Performances in the ruins first began when French colonial soldiers decided to stage classics alongside Lebanon’s affluent (and Francophile) Maronite elite. As the political balance shifted towards an independent Lebanon, the festival was transformed by the wives of Beirut’s rich and powerful – backed by the political clout of then-president Camille Chamoun – into an annual homage to Lebanese folkloric tradition.

Steered by the patriotic vision of these grandes dames du festival, it was the platform on which a young Fairuz (now one of the most widely admired singers in the Arab world) first bewitched her audiences and from which brothers Assi and Mansour Rahbani gave lasting form to the region’s “tradition” in music and song.

Following in this patriotic line, the most eagerly anticipated performance of this year’s programme among the Lebanese is El Helani’s autobiographical musical spectacular. In the show, Baalbeck itself provides El Helani with his narrative arc: from the stage that he dreamt of performing on as a boy growing up in the Bekaa, to the place he now stands surrounded by dancers, unveiling a rousing ode to the town that he has composed.

The festival has witnessed the crises of the nation as well as its successes. From 1974, for almost two decades, all attempts at organisation were abandoned as the country collapsed into civil war. In 2006, it found itself dramatically implicated in a suddenly spiralling confrontation, when bombardments from Israel began on the night of Fairuz’s pre-opening performance for the people of Baalbeck.

“At first she didn’t want to leave,” de Freige recalls. “Finally we had to send the army to bring her back with a security guard.” The reluctant retreat of Lebanon’s biggest star under military escort lends an almost apocryphal air to this enmeshing of culture and politics.

It is hoped that the return of the festival will bring with it some respite from a gruelling few years during which the once steady flow of tour buses to the town has stuttered to an almost complete standstill. There is little sense, however, that this August will signal a significant rebirth for the town. In the Palmyra Hotel, where works by Jean Cocteau, completed during the years he spent supervising the staging of his plays here, are hung casually on the walls, part-owner Jammal Habbib talks with nostalgia of the influx of festival-goers and performers that transformed the guest book into a museum-worthy artefact. Habbib says he is excited to see the festival back in Baalbeck but is not holding out for a restoration to the “ville en fête” spirit of its glory days.

“People will come to the shows, they may eat in the restaurants but then they will leave,” he says. “They are afraid to sleep in Baalbeck.”

De Freige knows that conditions are far from perfect but she is also clear about the bottom line: the festival is happening, people will come. “Baalbeck is Lebanon’s compass,” she tells me. “If things are OK in Baalbeck, it means they’re OK in Lebanon.”

July 30 to August 31, baalbeck.org.lb

Photograph: Wael Hamzeh/epa

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