Last week I visited the Cedars of God.
Lebanon is beautiful. As you approach by air from the South or East a thousand miles of desert fail to clamber over the Anti-Lebanon Mountains and into the Beqaa Valley. Suddenly the valley displays a patchwork of farmland which soothes the desert weary eye, and somewhere down there the ancient town of Baalbek preserves its Roman glory. As you pass beyond Beqaa and over the Lebanon Mountains, still snow streaked in early June, the wonders of Lebanon instantly unfold before you. North and North West from here, the huge Anatolian Plateau kept the ancients clinging to the coastline, and West stretches the vast Mediterranean. It’s easy to see why the Gods chose this wonderful place.
Driving North from Beirut two days later, we passed Byblos, which gave its name to the Bible, and eventually struck East into the Wadi Qadisha (Aramaic for Holy), which Christians call the Valley Qannoubine. Past monasteries clinging to the hillside, and glimpsing the summer residence of the Maronite Partiarch, we climbed for 35 kilometres towards the source of the Nahr Qadisha (Holy River), and finally to Bsharry, hometown of the mystic, Khalil Gibran.
Beyond Bsharry the mountains reach 5000 ft, and here – defiantly penned just below the treeline – the Cedars of God are making their last stand against 6000 years of abuse which began when Gligamesh slew the forest protector, Humbaba. Sellers of cedar curios have set up their stalls to harvest the passing dollars and lebanese pounds.
The first problem for the Cedar was that it was just too perfect – truly a gift from the Gods. Cedars need 200 years to reach maturity, and may live for 1500 years or more. This slow growth guarantees a fine grain and a wonderful wood which resists the action of water and emits a lovely scent which is a useful moth repellant (and can reputedly last for centuries). Furniture makers, boat builders and architects all loved it. The second challenge for Cedrus libani was its central location between deserts and oceans at the crossroads of ancient civilisations.
Civilisations will wax and wane, but an exploitation once learned is not forgotten. After Gilgamesh and the Sumerians quit the scene the Pharoahs came knocking at Phoenician doors (I guess they sent their agents) in search of imports for their boat building, and later annexed the region to secure their supply. They used the resin for mummification, and left cedar sawdust in Egyptian tombs. Meanwhile the Phoenicians, with their export business booming, needed cedar boats for their imperial antics across the Mediterranean, and soon their neighbour, King Solomon, was also busy building his famous Temple.
From the first book of Kings:
So Solomon built the house, and finished it. He lined the walls of the house on the inside with boards of cedar; from the floor of the house to the rafters of the ceiling, he covered them on the inside with wood; and he covered the floor of the house with boards of cypress. He built twenty cubits of the rear of the house with boards of cedar from the floor to the rafters, and he built this within as an inner sanctuary, as the most holy place. The house, that is, the nave in front of the inner sanctuary, was forty cubits long. The cedar within the house was carved in the form of gourds and open flowers; all was cedar, no stone was seen.
Jewish priests were ordered by Moses to use the bark in circumcision and for the treatment of leprosy and Jews burnt cedar wood on the Mount of Olives to announce the beginning of each new year.
And then their were Greeks of course, and later Romans, and many others no doubt that my incomplete history has overlooked…
And as though this were not enough, after the Ottoman Turks built their Hijaz railway (which Lawrence of Arabia later helped to destroy) they deforested all the cedar growing areas within easy transport distance of the railway to provide fuel for their wood-burning engines. Only the highest and most remote groves escaped damage, thankfully including Bsharry’s Cedars of God.
And so today the Cedars huddle against the tree line – last survivors of possibly the oldest example of organized eco-destruction. Few they may be, but they are truly the Cedars of God.