The Cedars of Lebanon
The Cedar of Lebanon, Cedrus Libani, is an evergreen of the family Pinaceae. This coniferous plant was first found in Lebanon, on the Mount Lebanon range at Sannine, Barouk, and the eastern and western mountain chains. The tree however is not only found in Lebanon, but forests of Cedrus Libani grow in Cilicia, the Taurus Mountains, Cyprus and Morocco, although many of these are considered to be different races of the same species. The Mount Lebanon chain used to be almost completely covered with cedars. In addition, many handsome specimens are cultivated in several countries of the world, notably in England and in France.Cedrus Libani possesses an imposing trunk that may attain a height of 120 feet and a diameter of 9 feet. Such a trunk is often branching and having a dense crown with an inclined dark green head of characteristic flat growth in adult trees. Secondary branchlets are often ramified like a candelabra. Warberton, in his “Crescent and Cross”, described a Cedar of Lebanon with a trunk of 45 feet in circumference. Burckhardt speaks of twelve very ancient trees called the “Saints”. These had four, five, and even seven gigantic trunks” springing from the same base”, bearing, like American Sequoitas, leaves only at their very tops. The bark of the Cedar of Lebanon is dark gray and exudes a gum of balsam, which makes the wound so fragrant that to walk in a grove of cedars is an utmost delight. The wood is astonishingly decay resistant and it is never eaten by insect larvae. It is of a beautiful red tone, solid, and free from knots.
The terminal shoots are erect or slightly inclined. The tree blossoms in September or October, which is peculiar to the genus Cedrus among the conifers. It bears cones that require three years to mature. The cone is initially tiny and pale green. The second year it reaches its full size that ranges between 3-4.5 inches in height and has a characteristic violet purple color. In the third season it turns into a rich brown and scatters its seeds, which are minute, considering the size of the tree. The cones are born upright on the upper side of the branches.
The importance of the cedar of Lebanon to the various civilizations is conveyed through its uses. The Egyptians used its resin to mummify their dead and thus called it the “life of death”, and cedar sawdust was found in the tombs of the Pharos as well. Pharos and Pagans had the tradition of burning the cedar coming from Lebanon with their offerings and in their ceremonies. Jew priests however, were ordered by Moses to use the peel of the Lebanese Cedar in circumcision and treatment of leprosy. According to the Talmoud, Jews used to burn Lebanese Cedar wood on the mountain of olives announcing the beginning of the New Year.
The superb qualities of the cedar wood as beautiful color, hardness, exquisite fragrance, resistance to insects, humidity and temperature, incited Phoenicians, Egyptians, Greeks and many others to use it extensively. The Phoenicians built their trade ship and military fleets from Cedar wood as well as the roofs of their temples, houses and doorsills. Kings of neighboring and distant countries asked for this wood to build their religious and civil constructs; the most famous of which are the temple of Jerusalem and David’s and Solomon’s Palaces. It was also used in the temples and furniture works of the Assyrians and Babylonians. Greeks, Latinos and Romans had their share of Cedar wood which they praise and have pride in.
Throughout history, cedar wood, and such byproducts as cedar oil, have proven to be worth far more money than living trees, however beautiful they were. At the time of Gilgamesh, Egypt has already cut (without replanting) large amounts of cedar for ship construction and for export. They continued the same tradition. Cedar cutting prevailed under various administrations, up through the time of the Ottomans. They finished off most of the remaining forests by using cedar wood as fuel for railway engines. They generally bypassed more easily obtainable oak wood, since cedar (because of its oil content) burned much better. The presently remaining cedar groves were spared mainly because their regions were relatively difficult to reach.
Cedrus Libani has been famous in Lebanon since early written history. Many writers throughout history have been highly impressed with the majestic aspects of the cedars, and have referred to them metaphorically to indicate such qualities as strength, beauty, endurance, grandeur, majesty, dignity, lofty stature and noblesse. For instance, in the beautiful “Song of Songs” in the Bible, the poetic description that begins “My beloved is white and ruddy, the chiefest among ten thousand…,” finishes with “… His countenance is as Lebanon, excellent as the cedars.” Cedar is mentioned 75 times in the Bible, and all are included in the Old Testament -Torah- distributed among 18 books. Some of these statements are: “The cedar in the heaven of God is unmatched by cypress and unresembling in its branches…”, “the trees of God resemble the Cedars of Lebanon which he planted”, “the righteous flourish like the palm tree and grows like the cedar in Lebanon”, “my love is white and red… bright as Lebanon and young as the cedars”. The cedar of Lebanon is also the main tool in the oldest epic ever written by man -The Epic of Gilgamesh- a story from the Mesopotamia. The earliest reference is the Epic of Gilgamesh, which dates back at least four thousand years (Leonard Translation, slightly modernized):
“On the Mountain the cedars uplift their abundance. Their shadow is beautiful, is all delight. Thistles hide under them, and the dark prick-thorn, sweet smelling flowers hide under the cedars … In all directions, ten thousand miles stretches that forest…”
From the above, one gets the impression that the cedar forests were extensive at that time. One reason for this might be found in the description of the monster that guards the forest:
“Who could dare enter? Khimbaba’s below is storm wind, His mouth is fire, and his snort is death! Enlil has placed him there to the terror of men, for warding the cedars. And whoever enters the forest is suddenly faint”.
Gilgamesh, of course, kills the monster commenting in passing:
“I will set my hands to it and fell the cedars, I will make myself a sounding name”
The Scriptures by Ezekiel illustrate beautifully how these lofty kings of the forest were used by prophet orators to symbolize and typify worldly might, power, and glory. Thus one obtains a fair idea of the crowning insolence of Sennacherib, the invader, when he boasted in the year 700 B.C.:
“I am coming up the height of the mountains, to the sides of Lebanon; and I will cut down the tall cedars thereof”.
In his book, “The Natural History of the Bible”, Tristan says of the cedars:
“… Everyone who has seen these noble trees recognizes the force of the majestic imagery of the prophets. With their gnarled and contorted stems and scaly bark, with their massive branches, with their dark green leaves shot with silver in the sunlight, as they stand a lovely group in the stupendous mountain amphitheater, they assert their title to the monarchs of the forests”.
To end this unfulfilling account of Cedrus Libani, it seems only right to refer to Khalil Gibran’s book “A tear and a smile” where he says:
“My love is as the cedars, beloved, and the elements shall not conquer it.”
The cedar of Lebanon is a plant of cold high mountainous regions. It flourishes and easily regenerates its forests where the average rainfall ranges between 800 and 190 mm. The average temperatures that occur in the land of the cedar are as follows: as low as -4.5 to 5.4 C on the coldest month i.e. January, and as high as 21.8 to 34.3 C in the warmest month i.e. August.
Growing cedars from seeds or seedlings is an incredibly easy task provided that favorable conditions for growth are available. These conditions can be limited to two: water and soil nutriments. Cedars favor rich soils with high organic matter; so poor soils must be enriched simply by adding livestock manure and plowing it into the soil. This procedure can be repeated every year. Water on the other hand is the second critical growth factor, if limited growth will halt and dryness would occur leading to the death of branches or the whole tree. So water must be sufficiently supplied especially during the hot season. Sufficient watering means that water should reach the deep layers of soil where cedar roots reside and this can be accomplished by watering slowly for long periods of time. In conclusion, and contrary to the common beliefs, cedars can grow significantly fast but only when their water and nutrient requirements are answered.
Many tree species, such as the Maple, Acer tauricolum; the Wild pine, Prunus ursinus; and the high Juniper, Juniperus excelsa are associated with Cedar forests in Lebanon. The most prominent are oak trees such as the Evergreen Oak, Quercus Calliprinus; Cyprus Oak, Q. infectoria; Turkey Oak, Q. Cerris; Cedar Oak, Q. Cedrorum; and Lebanon Oak, Q. Pinnatifida.
Other trees ad shrubs exist as associated species, or as neighboring forms that outline the cedar forests. Some of these are the Juniper, Juniperus Oxycedrus; the Mountain Ash, Sorbus Torminalis; The Medlar, Cotoneaster nummularifolia; and the Cilician Fir, Abies Cilicia. The most characteristic species of the underbrush are the Lebanon Vetchling, Lathyrus Libani, the Lebanon Crane’s Bill, Geranium Libanotica and numerous Astragalus, Lotus and Rosa species.
For many hundreds of years the Cedar of Lebanon has been the national emblem of Lebanon.