“The Cedars know the history of the earth better than history itself”
Alphonse de Lamartine, French poet and historian (1790-1869)
What comes to your mind when you hear the word “Cedar”?
Most probably the flag of Lebanon, its national carrier Middle East Airlines (MEA), the country’s currency, skiing, U2’s song…
And what better name to give a “revolution” in Lebanon than “Cedar Revolution” -- triggered by the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri on February 14, 2005.
In my case, it always reminds me of a trunk that has been in my family for years, unfortunately made out of Cedar wood and still, some 70 years later, smelling wonderful when opened.
Throughout antiquity, the Cedars of Lebanon were prized above all other trees. Their fine wood is strong, straight and wonderfully scented. Cedar wood was the first choice for any temple or palace.
These magnificent trees helped give the Phoenicians a high place among other nations, and became the symbol by which they and their descendants were known. Revered and admired, they stand for prosperity and national pride.
|Lebanon's Cedars at risk from global warming and insects|
But the cherished Cedar Tree (Cedrus libani) is not well. It is fighting its own revolution against time. It is feeling the strains of centuries and is at risk from global warming and insects. It has now been added to the list of threatened species, although at the lowest level of threat, by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the world’s oldest and largest global environmental organization.
In the past, Lebanese mountains were covered with Cedars. Sadly, all that is left today is 18 scattered patches of protected Cedar land. In total, protected forests (both Cedar and other) make up approximately four to eight percent of the Lebanese territory.
A Guardian article earlier this month writes of Lebanon’s Cedar at risk from global warming causing shorter winters and more outbreaks of damaging insects. Alasdair Soussi writes: “The Cedars, some up to 3,000 years old and almost all of which are now protected, need a minimum amount of snow and rain for natural regeneration. But global warming has meant that Lebanon's Cedars are being subjected to shorter winters and less snow, and the Lebanese government estimates that snow cover could be cut by 40 percent by 2040.”
Soussi spoke to Nabil Nemer, head of the agricultural sciences department at Lebanon's Holy Spirit University of Kaslik, who says the lack of snow is not the only problem linked to climate change. “Insects, due to the changing climatic condition, become more active and their development rate is faster, thus causing more outbreaks, which weaken the Cedar tree, making them more susceptible to other diseases and/or insects, which will ultimately kill the trees. At least one insect has been studied, and the results showed that outbreaks of this insect are due to climate change, a low period of snow, and low humidity in summer. This insect, the Cephalcia tannourinensis, is a serious Cedar tree defoliator."
Famous French poet and historian Alphonse de Lamartine visited the “Cedars of the Lord,” or Arz al-Rab near Bcharre, back in 1832. Putting a memorabilia on the trunk of a very old Cedar tree commemorated his visit.
|Rude Rahme's Lamartine Cedar|
When it died, Lebanese Bcharre-born painter, sculptor and poet Rudy Rahme created the “Lamartine Cedar,” one of the most remarkable wooden and largest vegetal sculpture in the world.
It stands 39 meters high and contains 70 human figures representing the relationship between time and place. Among the figures are the birth, life and death of Jesus.
Rahme also transformed two other dead Cedar trees into pieces of art and there are still 11 Cedars waiting for their turn to complete the “human forest” in the Cedar Forest.
|Will Lebanon get enough snow for its Cedars this year?|
Arz al-Rab are the oldest Cedars in Lebanon and give an accurate idea of the stature and splendor 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. 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 Queen Victoria, the wall protects against one of the Cedar's natural enemies -- the goats who enjoy feasting on young saplings.
Over the centuries, Assyrians, Babylonians and Persians made expeditions 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."
Its fragrance and durability, as well as the length of the great logs, made Cedar wood especially desirable.
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 Cedar forest with boundary markers, most carved into living rock, others in the form of separate engraved stones. 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.
Today too, only a few stands of these trees-of-kings are left, with the most impressive groves being near Bcharre in the northern Lebanon Mountains and the Chouf Reserve in the south.
Luckily, there is now an active program to conserve and regenerate the forests. The Lebanese approach has emphasized natural regeneration rather than planting, and this by creating the right conditions. Cedar and Nature Reserves created by the Lebanese state that contain Cedars include the Chouf Cedar Reserves, the Jaj Cedar Reserve, the Tannourine Reserve, the Ammouaa and Karm Shbat Reserves in the Akkar district, and Arz al-Rab forest.
|The three-centuries-old Cedar of Lebanon in Highgate Cemetery|
One of the famous Cedar trees outside Lebanon is in the UK. It is the most prominent landscaping feature in London's historic Highgate Cemetery. In the "Circle of Lebanon," a three-centuries-old Cedar of Lebanon towers in the middle of a circular trench cut into the ground and lined with mausoleums and magnificent family vaults influenced by Egyptian, Gothic and Classical styles.
Highgate Cemetery in north London opened in 1839 and is the final resting place of many famous names such as Karl Marx, Malcolm McLaren and Jeremy Beadle.
Much more needs to be done to restore and preserve these proud, tall, strong symbols of Lebanon and its people.
Lebanon’s Cedar is fighting its own Winter Revolution and it needs all the help it can get.