Scattered between 1400 to 2000 meters elevation, only tiny remnants of Lebanon's once beautiful and extensive cedar forest (Cedrus libani Rich) remain. Commonly blanketed with snow between December and March, this member of the Pinaceae may attain heights of 80 to 120 feet and diameters of 4 to 8 feet, and may exist for 1000 years. Unfortunately, the fragrance, beauty, and remarkable durability of cedar wood was realized even by ancient civilizations and it was a favorite for construction of all types. This early exploitation of the cedars of Lebanon, which continued into mod- ern times, has left only scattered groves today. Ancestors of these remaining trees witnessed the rise and fall of empires, the birth of reli- gions, and the disappearance of human cultures while playing an important economic and tech- nological role in this history.
Decimation of the cedars of Lebanon has occurred over several thousand years and began with the development of Phoenicia. Most his- torians contend that even before Upper and Lower Egypt coalesced into one kingdom (ca. 3110 B.C.), local monarchs sought cedar and other conifer wood for construction of temples, palaces, and boats from the inhabitants of the land that is today Lebanon. This export of cedar wood to Egypt was an important factor in the growth of Phoenician prosperity and pro- vided capital to launch the more ambitious enterprises in international trading, navigation, and arts and crafts.
In exchange for cedar wood the Phoenicians imported Egyptian gold, metalwork, and papyrus (Fedden, 1965; Hitti, 1965). The pyramid age in Egypt extended from the Fourth to the Sixth Dynasty (ca. 2614-2281 B.C.) and cedar wood with its acclaimed im- putrescibility was especially desired in prepara- tion for the after life of the entombed. The body was considered a house for the spirit, which was freed upon death. However, it was thought that the spirit might like to revisit the body on occasion. Consequently, a wide array of things were buried with the body to provide for the needs and desires of the reunited spirit and body. Many of these objects as well as some sarcophagi were fashioned from cedar wood. Cedar sawdust was occasionally used in mummification and cedar resin, which im- parts the decay resistance to the wood, was often used in embalmment and to coat coffins and papyrus (Baikie, 1926).
Use of cedar wood from Lebanon by the Egyptians continued long after the age of the Pyramids. Pharoah Thutmose III camped in Lebanon about 1480 B.C. and cut cedar for construction of his palace. Phoenician boats chartered at Byblos carried the wood to Egypt. Ramses II (ca. 1290-1223 B.C.) used cedar for the construction of the temple of Amen at Thebes (today Karnak) (Baikie, 1926). The Egyptians and Phoenicians were not the only people to use the cedars of Lebanon. As Assyria (2000-612 B.C.) expanded her empire westward, she brought Phoenicia within her zone of influence and utilized the available cedar wood. Sargon 11 (722-705 B.C.), for example, used cedar wood for his palace at Khorsabad. An alabaster relief from Khorsa- bad (Fig. 1) made during that period shows six boats pulling logs of cedar lashed together into rafts (Keller, 1964).
In ship construction cedar wood was used just as abundantly as in temples and palaces because of its renowned impermeability to water and decay resistance. Phoenician vessels, particularly those of Byblos, were famous. Documents indicate that many Egyptian Phar- aohs had ships built by the Phoenicians. Assyria in its turn made its various fleets from the cedars of Lebanon. Sennacherib (ca. 700 B.C.) brought to Mesopotamia Phoenician builders and cedar wood. Two fleets were built on the Tigres and Euphrates. The Assyrians navigated these rivers to the Persian Gulf, attacking the astonished and unaware river- bank inhabitants, and won total victory over the southern Babylonians. The Romans also sought cedar wood for their naval construction. Hadrian (ca. A.D. 125) enacted the first known forestry law in the world by engraving on the rocks of Lebanon orders prohibiting the cut- ting of cedars and other species that he wanted preserved for Roman shipbuilding. Obviously, this order was not followed because only the inscriptions remain on the rocks, which are now scattered on barren mountains (Giordano, 1956; Li, 1963).
The most lavish use of cedar wood in construction was in Palestine. King David (988- 965 B.C.) employed Phoenician sculptures and architects to build a fabulous palace called "Tower of David, City of God" in which cedar of Lebanon was extensively used. It was here that David played his cithara and wrote his immortal psalms. David also initiated construction of a temple, the completion of which was reserved for his son Solomon (Moldenke and Moldenke, 1952).
Until the reign of David, the Israelites worshipped God in a portable sanctuary, the Tabernacle. Having heard of the magnificent monuments built by the Phoenicians and Egyptians for their gods, David apparently felt a remorse and guilt at being in a luxurious palace while the Ark of the Covenant was not in a permanent structure. He decided to build a temple at Jerusalem. For the task gold, bronze, and iron were accumulated and "wood of cedar without number" was obtained from Phoenicia. Upon the demise of David, his son Solomon became King (965-926 B.C.) and oversaw completion of the temple. The Hebrews were not artisans and, as did his father, Solomon sought help from the Phoenicians. He sent a message to Hiram, King of Tyre, asking for skilled craftsmen and also for additional cedar wood in exchange for food. King Hiram found the proposition advantageous and hurriedly accepted. As finally agreed, Hiram sent engineers, architects, sculptors, builders, decorators and those skilled in work with gold, bronze, and iron to Palestine. Cedar trees were cut in Phoenicia and transported (partly by water) to Jerusalem.
Most of the manpower for this task was supplied by Solomon. He conscripted 30,000 Hebrews who were sent to Phoenicia for one-month shifts in groups of 10,000. In addition, 3,300 officers and 150,000 laborers who were captive slaves from previous wars also were provided. This veritable army set to work harvesting and transporting cedar trees. In exchange for cedar wood and craftsmen, Solomon was to supply 20,000 meas- ures of wheat and 20 measures of pure oil to Hiram each year. Construction of the temple took seven years. An additional 13 years were needed to complete Solomon's private house, "The House of the Forest of Lebanon," the great Porch of Judgment, and the house for Pharaoh's daughter, Solomon's favorite wife.
In all of these magnificent structures cedar wood was lavishly used, but cost Solomon a great deal. During 20 years of construction, Solomon fell behind in his yearly payments to Hiram. In compensation for his debt, Solomon conceded to Hiram, his father-in-law now, the port of Eliotha, Eastern Africa, and Western Asia as well as the return of 20 Canaanite cities in Galilee held by the Hebrews since the time of Joshua. This was the first land concession influence of the far-flung Ottoman Empire. The Turks were followed by the allied armies who, during the First World War, abusively cut the rare remaining trees of Lebanon to build a railroad and to fuel the trains that ran from Palestine to Syria along the coast of Lebanon. This project proved to be almost entirely useless during the war as well as during peace time (Hitti, 1965).
Considering the centuries of exploitation, it is not surprising that very few cedars remain in Lebanon today. Unquestionably more cedars appear on flags, coins, stamps, and soldiers' hats than on the mountains of Lebanon. The area covered by the remaining fragments of cedar forests of Lebanon is estimated at approximately 2700 hectares. This undoubtedly includes some areas with scattered and de- graded trees. Although the areas covered are quite small, the cedars of Lebanon are more numerous than is generally believed. Several accounts speciously report that only 400 or so trees remain (Beals, 1955). The best stand of cedars occupies about 7 hectares at Becharre, Lebanon. The oldest and largest cedars are found here and one of the trees in this grove was adopted as the na- tional emblem of Lebanon. This is the stand that often is erroneously reputed to represent the last of the species. It is the most accessible stand and, consequently, severely disturbed by tourists, who compact the soil and trample any reproduction. The fact that the stand is a sacred shrine of the Maronites has probably saved it from total destruction.
Worshipers gather each August at the small chapel under the spreading branches of the cedars to cele- brate mass and to be blessed by their Patriarch. Even though for generations excommunication threatened anyone who dared to damage the cedars, the stand steadily dwindled. Goats had no regard for the anathema of the church. In the late 1870's Rustum Pasha, Governor- General of Lebanon, surrounded the grove at Becharre with a stone wall and appointed guards to prevent ravages of goats. Queen Victoria contributed toward construction of this wall that still stands today (Beal, 1955; Hitti, 1962).
Reforestation of the Cedars
In recent times some effort has been undertaken in Lebanon to reforest with cedars. The difficulties encountered in reforestation are numerous, though. The long arid summers and the eroded, infertile, and compacted soils are only some of the problems. Often the vicissitudes and hardships of environment are overcome only to have established cedars lost to the incisors of a browsing goat or the ax of a villager gathering firewood. Even so, cedar of Lebanon, which has been lauded by poets, prophets, and historians has become a symbol of strength and eternity. This witness of history that has been reduced to mere remnants today hopefully will once again flourish on the mountains of Lebanon.
Baikie, J. 1926. The Story of the Pharaohs, A. & C. Black, Ltd., London.
Baron, S. W. 1972. Ancient and Medieval Jewish History, Rutgers University Press, New Brunswick, N.J.
Beals, E. W. 1955. The remnant cedar forests of Lebanon. J. Ecol. 53: 679-694.
Encyclopedia Americana. 1970. American Corporation, New York, New York, Vol. 16.
Fedden, R. 1965. Syria and Lebanon, John Murray, London.
Giordano, G. 1956. The Mediterranean Region. A World Geography of Forest Resources. (Ed. S. Haden-Guest, J. K. Wright and E. M. Teclaff), pp. 371-352. Ronald Press, New York, New York.
Hitti, P. K. 1962. Lebanon in History. Macmillan & Co. Ltd., London. . 1965. Keller, W. 1964. The Bible as History in Pictures. William Morrow and Company, New York.
Li, Hui-Lin. 1963. The Origin and Cultivation of Shade and Ornamental Trees, Univ. Penn. Press, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
Moldenke, H. N. and A. L. Moldenke. 1952. Plants of the Bible. Chronica Botanica, Waltham, Mass.
The Cedars of Lebanon: Witnesses of History
William R. Chaney and Malek Basbous