Ecology of Cedars – A very long relationship

by Eric Eyges
Fall 2021

“They stood at the forest’s edge, gazing at the top of the Cedar Tree, gazing at the entrance to the forest. Where Humbaba would walk there was a trail, the roads led straight on, the path was excellent. Then they saw the Cedar Mountain, the Dwelling of the Gods, the throne dais of Imini.”1

So begins the fifth tablet of the Epic of Gilgamesh, the world’s oldest major work of literature. Gilgamesh, the poem’s hero, stands in awe before the cedar forests on land that would 4,000 years later form part of modern Lebanon. As he enters the forest, he notices the “luxurious foliage” and the shade, which is “good and extremely pleasant.” It is a place so hallowed and beautiful that the gods themselves have made it their home. Sacred and protected by the demon Humbaba, the trees are a precious currency, and for Gilgamesh, the keys to fame and fortune. Hence, he has come to chop them down and bring them back as bounty to his kingdom.

Fast forward over a thousand years and we find mention of the cedars in the Old Testament. In I Kings 5:10: “So Hiram gave Solomon cedar trees and fir trees according to all his desire” for the building of a temple in Jerusalem. And again in Isaiah 2:13, there is mention of the cedars as beings of great stature that must nevertheless submit to God’s will. Around the time of the Old Testament’s writing, Wenamun, an envoy of the 20th Egyptian dynasty, traveled to Lebanon to gather cedar wood for the construction of a sacred vessel for Amon-Re, the sun god. King Zakarbaal of Byblos refused to give up the wood, asking Wenamon: “On what business have you come here?” Wenamon replied: “I have come after the timber. Your father gave it, your grandfather gave it, and you shall also give it.”2

It was from cedar that the Phoenicians built their merchant ships to trade with the rulers of Egypt and Mesopotamia. A passage from the AUB publication The Trees of Lebanon explains: “Ancient civilizations were primarily after cedar and other cone-producing trees such as fir, pine, and juniper because these species produce resins that protect the wood from decay. Tar and resins were also in high demand, as they were necessary for the maintenance and protection of the ships and for coating ship equipment and food storage utensils. Essential oils derived from these trees were used to prepare religious and medicinal ointments.”3

The cedar found its way to the heart of the many civilizations that lived in its orbit, and like so many passionate loves, it was relentlessly consumed such that “by the first century AD Lebanon’s forests had already become scarce.” The Roman expansion into Phoenicia and Syria, and the building of ships and fortifications, drove the demand for cedar to such a point that a supply bottleneck led to one of the earliest recorded attempts at environmental conservation. Emperor Hadrian “set aside the remaining forests of North Lebanon as his private hunting grounds; he had inscriptions engraved on large rocks to mark the limits of his forest property. Today, the local community of Ehmej is proud to show visitors these historical landmarks that are found on several large stones scattered around the village lands.”4

Fast forward another 1,300 years and we come across the first early modern reference to the cedar in a text written by French naturalist Pierre Belon: “The cedars stand in a valley, and not on top of the mountain, and they are supposed to amount to 28 in number, though it is difficult to count them, they being distant from each other a few paces. These the Archbishop of Damascus has endeavored to prove to be the same that Solomon planted with his own hands in the quincunx manner as they now stand.”5

The cedars of today are the cedars of history. Since the great bulk of the cedar’s growth occurs before the age of 70 and the tree’s lifespan is over a thousand years, we can assume that many of the trees standing today appear just as they did when Belon came upon them. They stand, on average, between 40 and 60 feet high. Their trunks can reach more than nine feet in diameter. Their bark, sometimes moss covered, is a mosaic of wood flakes stained with white resin; their branches, like massive arms spread wide, beseech the heavens.

It is unsurprising, given its physiognomy, that Cedrus libani has evoked a sense of majesty and the divine in such a diversity of civilizations, each of which has praised the tree, then chopped it down. “Lebanon’s cedar forests once covered all the western slopes of Mount Lebanon at altitudes between 800 and 2,200 meters. The remaining groves are protected and cover a total of 3 percent of the nation’s area,” says Alain Daou, director of AUB’s Nature Conservation Center (NCC). These groves appear like ink blotches on a map within the bounds of nature reserves like Barouk, Maaser El Shouf, Niha, Ehden, and Tannourine.

“The cedar is a charismatic species in Lebanon, so it will make a lot of noise if anything happens to it,” says Salma Talhouk, former NCC director and head of the Department of Landscape Design and Ecosystem Management. It is also the national symbol of Lebanon, an image that is thought to bridge internal divides. It is the silhouette at the center of the flag, the tattoo on the cab driver’s arm, the relief on the coin, and the namesake of a 2005 political uprising. The cedar’s charisma has even brought global media attention from publications like the Guardian and the New York Times, which ran a front-page story on climate-change threat to cedars in 2018: “Climate change could wipe out most of the country’s remaining cedar forests by the end of the century”6 as rising temperatures push the cedars farther up the mountains in search of ecological comfort.

Much of the most incisive scholarship and progressive activism around the cedar has come out of AUB.In addition to The Trees of Lebanon, Talhouk and her colleagues at AUB have published numerous articles chronicling environmental degradation in Lebanon, including within cedar groves, and critiquing a Lebanese and international conservation policy that has historically been centered on top-down management from afar. Talhouk believes that the key to protecting the cedars lies in incentivizing and empowering the local communities living alongside them. This means providing green jobs to locals, rather than urban commuters, and making sure ecotourism income supports local communities.

Talhouk is also an ardent supporter of a conservation strategy that promotes biodiversity. A policy of single-species focus, she says, whether on the cedar or any other species, leads to unsustainable, antiseptic ecosystems: “a dead forest.” She notes, with a bit of cold realism, that the cedars may not survive climate change and that promoting a panoply of species may be the best hedge against the wider destruction of Lebanon’s natural world.

Science tells us that to some degree it is already too late. The rising global temperatures driving the cedars further up the mountains are a foregone conclusion; it only remains to be seen just how far up they will have to go and whether there will be any room left at the summit. Preventing their total destruction will require unprecedented national and global coordination. So that the cedar may find its way into new literature and weave its way into the heart of future civilizations who might find new ways to celebrate it and tell the story of its grandeur, it might be best for humanity to treat Cedrus libani not as a passionate love, but rather as a long-term partner, a companion with whom we can live in harmony.

1. Wolf Carnahan, “The Epic of Gilgamesh: Tablet V,” The Epic of Gilgamesh, accessed August 9, 2021, http://www.ancienttexts.org/library/mesopotamian/gilgamesh/tab5.htm

2. Talhouk, Salma N., Mariana M. Yazbek, Khaled Sleem, Arbi J. Sarkissian, Mohammad S. Al-Zein, and Sakra Abo Eid. Trees of LEBANON: A Labor of Love. Beirut: AUB, Nature Conservation Center, 2014. 

3. From Trees of LEBANON: A Labor of Love. 

4. From Trees of LEBANON: A Labor of Love.

5. P. Belon, De Arboribus Coniferis. 1553, p.4, quoted by J. C. Loudon, Arboretum and Fruticetum. London, 1844, vol.4, p.2409  

6. Barnard, Anne, and Josh Haner. “Climate Change Is Killing the Cedars of Lebanon.” The New York Times. The New York Times, July 19, 2018. https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2018/07/18/climate/lebanon-climate-change-environment-cedars.html.