BAALBEK, Lebanon (AP) — Lebanon’s renowned Baalbek festival is back, held in front of a live audience for the first time since 2019, despite the country’s economic meltdown and the coronavirus pandemic.

French pianist Simon Ghraichy performed in front of a full house on Sunday night in what organizers described as a night of hope for Lebanon’s revival. The annual festival in the ancient northeastern city of soaring Roman columns has long attracted celebrities from around the world.

It had taken a major hit as a result of Lebanon’s ongoing, nearly 3-year economic crisis and the pandemic, which had forced organizers to broadcast live from the site without an audience in 2020 and 2021.

Inside the city’s mesmerizing acropolis, French-Iranian oriental dancer Rana Gorgani twirled to Ghraichy’s piano playing.

“I’m so proud to be here in this place full of history and beauty,” Ghraichy, who is of Lebanese and Mexican heritage, told The Associated Press.

Since 1956, the Baalbek International Festival has hosted icons from Lebanon and the rest of the world, including world-renowned artists like French singer Charles Aznavour in 1999, English musician Sting in 2001, France’s Johnny Hallyday in 2003 and tenor Placido Domingo a year later. It was also home to concerts by Lebanon’s diva Fayrouz and Egypt’s Umm Kulthum.

The festival suffered a 23-year hiatus during Lebanon’s civil war and resumed in 1997. Both residents and tourists attended in large numbers every summer. This year, the festival comes at a challenging time as Lebanon struggled with an unprecedented economic crisis, described by the World Bank as one of the worst in modern history.

For many among the audience — which also included Lebanese officials and foreign dignitaries — the evening was a welcome escape.

“Baalbek is back, and we want Lebanon to return to the way we used to know it, which is the Lebanon of art, culture, openness, and moderation,” said former lawmaker Henri Helou.