As remote as they are, the cedars are not untouched by history. The grove we see today descends from an immense primeval forest of cedars and other trees such as cypress, pine and oak that once covered most of Mount Lebanon including part of its east facing slopes.
The Cedar is an historical entity mentioned often in the Bible and other ancient texts and it played an important part in the culture, trade and religious observances of the ancient Middle East. Serious exploitation of these forests began in the third millennium B.C., coastal towns such as Byblos. Over the centuries, Assyrians, Babylonians and Persians made expedition to Mount Lebanon for timber or extracted tributes of wood from the coastal cities of Canaan-Phoenicia. The Phoenicians themselves made use of the cedar, especially for their merchant fleets. Solomon requested large supplies of cedar wood, along with architects and builders from King Hiram of Tyre to build his temple. Nebuchadnezzar boasted on a cuneiform, inscription: "I brought for building, mighty cedars, which I cut down with my pure hands on Mount Lebanon". Prized for its fragrance and durability, the length of the great logs made cedar wood especially desirable. Cedar was important for shipbuilding and was used for the roofs of the temples, to construct tombs and other major buildings.
The Egyptians used cedar resin for mummification, and pitch was extracted from these trees for waterproofing and caulking.
In the second century A.D., the Roman Emperor Hadrian attempted to protect the forest with boundary markers, most carved into living rock, others in the form of separate engraved stones. Today over 200 such markers have been recorded, allowing scholars to make an approximate reconstruction of the ancient forest boundaries. Two of these markers, carved in abbreviated Latin, can be seen at the American University of Beirut Museum. In the centuries after Hadrian, Lebanon's trees were used extensively as fuel, especially for lime burning kilns. In the Middle Ages mountain villagers cleared forests for farmland, using the wood for fuel and construction. The Ottomans in the 19th century destroyed much of the forest cover and during World War II British troops used the wood to build railroad between Tripoli and Haifa.
The Cedar Tree Itself:
Of the immense forests of history only isolated patches of cedars are found in Lebanon today. Growing at high elevations, often in craggy difficult-to-reach locations, these majestic trees still stir the imagination.
In the north of the country, stands of cedars grow in the Horsh Ehden Nature Preserve. More inaccessible are the trees near Hadeth al-Jubbeh, whose shape has been changed by trimming, and the cedars near Tannourine.
In Jaj near Laqlouq isolated specimens of cedars are still scattered on the rocky peaks above the town. Deep in the Shouf district on top of Mount Barouk, cedars some 350 years old grow in an enclosed grove. These trees, which are in pristine condition, can be easily admired from outside the protective wall. Above the town of Maaser esh-Shouf, there is another cedar forest, which has an extended view of the Beqaa valley.
Cedar trees also grow in nearby Ain Zhalta.
The most famous cedars, known as Arz el Rab or Cedars of the Lord, are those of Bsharre. Only in this grove, the oldest in Lebanon, gives an accurate idea of the stature and magnificence these trees attained in antiquity. About 375 cedars of great age stand in a sheltered glacial pocket of Mount Makmel. Four of them, many hundreds of years old, have reached a height of 35 meters and their trunks are between 12 and 14 meters around. They have straight trunks and strong branches that spread their regular horizontal boughs like fans. Also among the inhabitants of the forests are some thousand young trees, planted in recent decades to ensure the future of this national resource. The slow-growing cedar, with its long life span, requires at least 40 years before it can even produce fertile seeds. Like any other treasure of great antiquity, the Bsharre cedar grove requires special care and protection. Concern for this modern remnant of historic cedars goes back to 1876 when the 102-hectare grove was surrounded by a high stone wall. Financed by Great Britain's Queen Victoria, the wall protects against one of the cedar's natural enemies, the goats who enjoy feasting on young saplings.
More recently, a "Committee of the Friends of the Cedar Forest", organized in 1985, is attempting to deal with the damage and disease - brought by both man and nature - that afflicts the trees. To improve the general health and appearance of the forest, the Committee has removed tons of dead wood and fertilized the soil. Various pests and diseases are being treated and lightning rods have been installed for further protection. Three thousand meters of attractive pathways have been built so visitors can enjoy the grove without causing damage.
Also due for attention is a Maronite chapel in the center of the forest. Built in 1843 when these cedars were under the protection of the Patriarchate, the chapel is the scene of a special annual celebration on the 6th of August.
Texte: Dr. Hassan Salamé-Sarkis
- The Cedars of Lebanon: >> View Movie << (2003-01-01)