YELLOW-GRAY sandstone houses trimmed with red-tile roofs point to the Ottoman Empire origins of this town of 75,000, which straddles several ancient trade routes. Its narrow, cobblestone streets buzz with life as people pick their way through the old souk. Vendors hawk cabbages, melons, homemade brooms, and dried squash.
One thing no one dares sell these days is drugs. ''Drugs used to provide a living for all of Baalbek,'' says Abed Mekki almost apologetically from behind the counter of his dry-goods store. ''How could we worry about people dying from drugs in other countries when our own country was breaking apart and death everywhere?''
Five years after peace has come to much of Lebanon, Baalbek is still an outpost of fundamentalist Islam and the pro-Iranian Hizbullah. As a reminder, the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini stares at passersby from wall murals, and posters vilify Israel. Tourism, which once propelled the economy, has yet to revive, despite attempts by local leaders to downplay an image of Islamic extremism.
Although the government in Beirut now exercises its authority here, and drug cultivation has been mostly eradicated, people complain that little has been done to provide them with an alternative source of income. A United Nations project to fund agricultural development has been slow in getting off the ground.
''Forty million dollars has been pledged to help develop the agricultural sector in the Bekaa,'' says Ahmed Fathi Nada, director of the UN drug-control program for Lebanon. ''But the money has not come yet,'' he explains, ''because donor nations need time to allocate and process their contributions.''
''We are still waiting for the money,'' complains Lebanon's agriculture minister, Chawki Fakhoury, ''and the small farmer thinks everyone has forgotten him.'' Of the $4.5 million disbursed by the UN this year, nearly three-quarters has gone to official studies and just $1 million to the farmers.
If no money is forthcoming soon, Mr. Fakhoury adds, ''the government will be forced to declare the entire Baalbek region a disaster area.'' Lebanon would then have to fund several assistance programs itself.
Syria, Lebanon crack down
Some 50,000 people were once employed by the drug industry in the Bekaa, where 40,000 acres of fertile land were used to plant drug crops, according to a UN estimate. Many of those who worked in the business have seen their monthly income slip from around $1,000 to less than $300 since neighboring Syria and the Lebanese government began clamping down on drug cultivation.
A 1994 report by the International Narcotics Control Board praised Lebanon for successfully ''putting an end to the illicit cultivation of cannabis and opium poppies in the Bekaa Valley.''
''Ninety-five percent of the former drug plantations have been wiped out,'' insists the UN's Mr. Nada. ''We are sure of this because we monitor the area by satellite.'' Nonetheless, several journalists recently stumbled across hashish plants growing under apple trees, where they are difficult to spot by satellite.
''They've really cleaned up the drug business,'' says Antoine Zeydoun, a teacher from the neighboring, mostly Christian, town of Zahleh. ''It's nice for Lebanese not to be thought of as drug producers all the time. But the economy of the whole Bekaa Valley is suffering from the cleanup.''
Poppy fields lie fallow
The Syrian Army - which controls most of the Bekaa - has cracked down on drug plantations in recent years, burning and plowing under thousands of acres of poppy fields and hashish. Syria began to combat the drug trade after signing a friendship and cooperation treaty with Lebanon in 1991.
In Deir al-Ahmar, a bucolic hamlet tucked in a hard-to-find corner of the Bekaa, fields that once yielded tons of hashish now lie fallow, thanks to the drug-eradication campaign. In some places, the earth is scorched where plants were burned last year.
Ali Hameyeh, who works for the Lebanese government, recalls an era when armed militias fought to control the drug trade. ''Several years ago, a dealer fired a rocket-propelled grenade at his cousin's BMW because he refused to share the proceeds from the sale of several tons of heroin.''
But times have changed. Drug lords who once controlled militias, occasionally squaring off to protect their turf, have now gone into legitimate businesses. ''No one was especially fond of drugs,'' Mr. Hameyeh adds. ''They were just an easy way to make a living during the war.''
Growing hashish is not new in the Bekaa Valley. Cultivated off and on for centuries, it gained notoriety from an 11th-century sect, the ''assassins.'' Members would drug themselves on hashish before undertaking murders - hence the term ''assassin'' (from the Arabic hashishan).
Despite the success of government attempts to curb drug production, Bekaa Valley farmers complain that they suffer from hard times and that foreign aid only trickles in.
''Do you want us to go back and start planting drugs again?'' asks Ahmed Ghazi, who used to grow hashish near the main route out of Baalbek. ''We small farmers never made more than a fraction of the street value of the drugs, but that was still better than planting potatoes.''