The cedar forests of Lebanon first began to resonate with me after reading the Epic of Gilgamesh, perhaps the oldest written story on Earth. The Epic of Gilgamesh describes vast, unexplored cedar forests dominating the lands of the Mediterranean and Middle East.
During the tale, Gilgamesh journeys into the cedar forests to slay the ogre-guardian of the forests, Humbaba. Gilgamesh is successful in his quest and Humbaba’s death opened up the forests to humanity.
The idea of unexplored cedar forests covering the mountains of the ancient Middle East and Mediterranean contrasted with the barren, deforested areas we know today led my sympathies to lie with Humbaba. In fact, the ancient Mediterranean would have looked much like the northern Europe of today, with great coniferous forests in Lebanon, Turkey, and Corsica along with forests of oaks and beeches in Italy.
However, the reality of the responsibility for Lebanon’s deforestation lies not with Gilgamesh, but with millenia of human activity. The cedars of Lebanon were an economic base for numerous ancient civilizations as the wood was used for the construction of temples, palaces, and boats. The original Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem was built with this wood, as were many sarcophagi discovered in Egypt.
The export of fragrant cedar wood to Egypt from Lebanon was an important factor in the growth of Phoenician prosperity and provided capital to launch more ambitious enterprises in international trading, navigation, and arts and crafts. And the Phoenicians and the Egyptians were not alone in making use of Lebanon’s cedars. The Assyrians, Nebuchadnezzar, the Romans, King David, the King of Babylonia, Herod the Great, and the Turks in the Ottoman Empire all exploited the cedars. Even as recently as World War I, many of the remaining stands of cedars were hacked down to provide fuel for the steam engines of railroads.
Today, Lebanon’s cedar forests are almost completely gone. Those stands that remain give us a small sense of what has been lost:
Some of the trees pictured above are estimated to be up to 2,000 years old.