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H - 140 : Cedars - Lebanon's Holy Trees


One of the probably 2'000 Years old mighty Cedar Trees in the Lebanon


Cyprus is not the only country in the Middle East with trees in its flag. Lebanon has an entire Cedar between two red strips. You would think that cedars must be everywhere in Lebanon. Sadly, the opposite is true. These ancient trees which are mentioned in the Gilgamesh story and more than 100 times in our Bible survive only in a few pockets. Some of them are more than 2’000 years old. Once they covered half of the Levant.  Not anymore. Always wondered what happened. Contrary to Cyprus, where entire forests were cut down to make charcoal, the Lebanon had no mining industry to speak of. Still, cedars are very rare.


The Cedar is a Symbol for the Lebanese Nation

 

On ancient stone carvings we can see Phoenician mariners shipping cedar logs to Egypt. The Pharaohs had lots of palm trees but no trees suitable for longer beams. Thus, Egyptian palaces were made from stone and ships from reeds. Egyptians though had an appreciation for wood that could be used in constructions and ship building. They imported large quantities from Lebanon. Was overuse the reason why the once lush cedar forests shrank to 17 square kilometers or 0.4% of the estimated ancient coverage?  

 

Assyrian Relief from King Sargon II Palace showing Phoenicians shipping Cedars to Egypt


Lebanese cedars are part of a larger pine family which grow in the eastern Mediterranean. The trees grow slowly. Some reach heights of 40 m. Most though are 20 - 25 meters tall. They love hot summers and cold, foggy winters. Cedars grow in altitudes from 500 to 3’000 meters and do particularly well on slopes exposed to the West and the North. Their favorite soil is lime stone. Cedar wood is hard, smells nicely, is very pest resistant and easy to work. Cedars produce their first male and female cones after 40 years. To reach full height, cedars need several hundred years. The slow growth makes the wood durable and hard. The cedar tree rings are also a good record of the development of our climate.  After hundreds of years, a cedar trunk can grow to 2 meters in diameter. My very own cedar in the South of France is now 20 meters high and more than 100 years old.

 

My Cedar Tree in Chantrou is more than 100 years old. Nobody knows when it was planted


At school, we learned that Lebanese cedars were already rare in Roman times. Emperor Hadrian had to issue a decree to protect them. We were also told that the Ottoman Empire cut the cedar forests to build the imperial fleer. Whilst both is true, the impact of human logging on the cedar forests was limited. There are no wide rivers in the Lebanon to float logs to the coast. The steep limestone valleys make the mountains inaccessible. Logistics were daunting. Railway lines could overcome such obstacles. But there is only one single narrow track built in the late 19th century. For centuries, the cedars in the upper Lebanese mountains were pretty much left alone.


Forests cover only 2% of Lebanon - Cedars 0.4%


A bigger culprit is probably the end of the Roman Climate Optimum by the 3rd century AD . Rome’s warm and temperate climate came to an end. Grapes stopped growing in  England, the growth limit of olive trees moved down to the altitude of Avignon, northern Africa, once Rome’s bread baskets, turned arid – so did the Lebanon.  The limestone soil (the folded former Tethys Sea floor) was an added disadvantage. Limestone is not good in retaining water. A drop in precipitation levels is immediately felt. Cedar trees are thirsty. I know this from my own tree. It sucks up all the water it can. The ground around it is completely dry. With the dryer climate, cedar forests retreated from mountain tops and flanks to the valleys where they had access to ground water.

 

There are lots of trees in the Qadisha Valley - not all are Cedars though


The forests were still significant though. European visitors in the early 19th century describe large cedar forests. Something that does not exist any longer. Cedar trees today are constraint to small pockets. After the end of the civil war in 1986, the Lebanese government and many private individuals made efforts to reforest the country. Over 100’000 saplings have been planted. But it is a long way to go – cedar trees grow so slowly that the program’s success is uncertain. Reforestation on rocks can take decades. I see this opposite my house in France where several forest parcels were carelessly cut 20 years ago. The damage is still not repaired. Even fast-growing Provencal pines have difficulties to get their roots into the ground.

 

Reforestation on the upper slopes of Qadisha Valley only started - see bottom left corner


The factor which contributed most to the shrinking forests in Lebanon is population pressure. It started with the political turmoil at the end of the Ottoman Empire. France had colonial aspirations for Ottoman Cilicia which provided Europe with high quality cotton. Victorious over Germany in 1918, it tried to annex this strip of Anatolia. But France had lost its tolerance for long wars with high casualties and did not commit enough forces for the land grab. Atatürk’s guerilla – many soldiers had served with him in Gallipoli – resisted successfully. France pulled out in 1921. But not before resettling the Christian Maronites and Armenians to the Lebanon, its new colony. Many of the resettled Christians moved into the mountains, built terraces for plantation and let their livestock graze in the forest. If you ever want to eliminate a forest, send in the goats. They love young saplings and the bark of older trees. Nothing survives their ferocious appetite and sturdy stomach.

 

Anglo-French plans for the Middle East after WW I


This settlement pressure continues to this day. The decade long civil war did not help either neither does the current economic crisis. Many people cannot afford fuel for cooking and heating. They illegally cut trees in protected areas. The central government is too weak to protect the cedars. There are now even reports of organized cedar crime, the Tree Mafia, who loges illegally at night with noisy chainsaws. There are some depressing videos on YouTube which you find when clicking here.


Forest in Cyprus cover today 42%, high Forest makes 18%

 

The Lebanon is not the only country with cedar trees. There is a related species in Cyprus. Ancient mining activities must have reduced the island’s forests. Cuting 65’000 trees every year ( = 65 hectare of forest) isn’t a small thing. But once the easily reachable copper close to the surface was mined, mining returns diminished. All mines are closed today. The last one closed in 2020. This gave the cedars a chance to grow back. There are fewer mighty cedars than in the past. Forest protection and reforestation ranks high on the government’s priority list. Sadly, as in mainland Greece, many areas were reforested with fast-growing Mediterranean pines – which become a torch-launcher of fire bombs (cones) when burning. There was significant damage during the large fires in 2021 which could only be brought under control with technical assistance from Turkey and Israel. In that year alone, Cyprus lost 6.3 square kilometers of forest.


It will take many Decades for the Forest in Cyprus to grow back but a good Start was made

 

The fate of the ancient Cedars in the Lebanon hangs in the balance. It is to hope that Lebanon’s reforestation project is successful and that Cyprus will make its forests more fire proof. Forests with cedars, wild olive trees and Mediterranean oak are far more fire resistant than the current mix. Cedars are magnificent trees. I think it every time when looking at my own. It is also the reason I keep sheep and not goats on my property. I would hate to watch them snacking on my tree. We are going to see many cedars in Cyprus this summer but sadly - for security reasons - won’t make it to the Lebanon and its holy trees.


One of the few highly protected Cedar Forests in the Lebanese Mountains

 

 

 

 

 

 

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