The Lebanon Cedar or cedrus libani is one of the most majestic trees of the world. They grow exclusively on Mount Lebanon, a mountain range that extends along the entire length of the country, and once covered the entirety of the mountain. It is the symbol of the country, its pride, and features prominently on the Lebanese flag.
Lebanon Cedars have imposing trunks with dense, iconic crowns that become characteristically flat-headed as the trees age, and fairly level branches. Their bark is dark gray but the wood is beautiful light tone, hard and astonishingly decay resistant. The gum they secrete has a sweet aroma. Despite their exposed position, the trees remain ever green, never shed their leaves, and are always fragrant. It is said that god himself planted these cedars.
A Lebanon cedar. Photo credit: cwirtanen/Flickr
“The trees of the LORD are full of sap; the cedars of Lebanon, which he has planted”, proclaims the Bible (Psalm 104:16-17), and
“The righteous flourish like the palm tree and grow like the cedar in Lebanon" (Psalm 92:12).
These are just a couple of numerous references to the Lebanon Cedar in the Bible and other ancient text. In ancient Mesopotamian mythology, the cedar forests of Mount Lebanon were thought to be the realm of the gods, guarded by the demigod Humbaba. In the 4,000-year-old Epic of Gilgamesh, often regarded as the earliest surviving great work of literature, the hero Gilgamesh defeated Humbaba, entered the virgin forests and cut away great number of cedars with which he built walls around the city of Uruk.
As the story of Gilgamesh’s exploits attest, the cedars of Lebanon were known since historical times. Indeed, the cedars played a key role in creating the name of Lebanon and its glory, for the Lebanese cedar was one of the most valued construction material in the antique world. The Phoenicians used cedars to build ships in which they sailed the Mediterranean, making them one of the first sea trading nations in the world. The cedars of Lebanon were also used by the Assyrians, Babylonians, Greeks, Romans, and Persians to construct houses and temples, the most famous of which are the temple of Jerusalem, and David's and Solomon's Palaces. The Egyptians used cedar resin for the mummification process, and Jews used the peel of the Lebanese Cedar in circumcision and treatment of leprosy. The Ottomans used cedar wood as fuel for railway engines because it burned much better than traditional oak, since cedar contains oil.
The flag of Lebanon with a silhouette of a cedar tree
Even during the time of Gilgamesh, Egypt had already cut large amounts of cedar for ship construction and for export. This continued for several thousand years until the 20th century when British troops of the Second World War finished off most of the remaining forests by using cedar wood to build railroad.
The Roman Emperor Hadrian, in the second century AD, had attempted to protect the forest with boundary markers carved into rocks. Over 200 such markers have been identified allowing scholars to make an approximation of the extent of the forest in those times.
In 1876, Queen Victoria of Great Britain, ordered a protective wall to be built around a 102-hectare grove, but deforestation continued despite this. It wasn’t until the late 20th century that the cedars were declared a protected natural resource. By then, this immense forest had been reduced to just a couple of hundred specimens that grew in a handful of isolated patches.
According to Cedars Forever, a cedar preservation and reforestation program, there are 18 such patches of cedars in the country today. One of these groves, called the Cedars of God, stand in a sheltered glacial pocket of Mount Makmel, in the Kadisha Valley. This grove of about 375 trees are thought to be the oldest in Lebanon. 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. About a thousand young saplings were planted at the entrance of the grove in recent decades, but because of their slow growth it would take a long time before they mature.
This site was added to the UNESCO list of World Heritage Sites in 1998.
Photo credit: Paul Saad/Flickr
Photo credit: Leandra Fallis/Flickr
A cedar grove in Becharri, Northern Lebanon. Photo credit: Nick K/Flickr
Photo credit: Moe-tography/Flickr
Subscribe to our Newsletter and get articles like this delivered straight to your inbox