In the historical flow of ancient Phoenician civilization to the modern Lebanese Republic, the cedar trees stand firmly, imposingly over the snow-capped mountain ranges of Eastern Mediterranea. They are the most fundamental factor forming the cultural identity of Lebanon, as long as the cedar trees still stand, the Lebanese people will stand strong through harshness and hardship.
Theme song: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DdP4DC49v_0
1. History of Lebanon
Lebanon is located in West Asia, lies at the crossroads of the Mediterranean basin and the Arabian hinterland, is a country with a complex history and known for its rich diversity of religions and ethnic groups. This is the smallest sovereign country on the mainland Asian continent. Lebanon was the home of the Canaan and Phoenician civilizations, a maritime civilization that flourished for nearly 3000 years (from 3200-539 BC). In 64 BC, Lebanon became a colony of the Roman empire and eventually a leading center of Christianity.
Lebanon is one of the countries that lie between the West and the Arabian world, where major religions such as Christianity and Islam coexist with the native Druze religion, forming a colorful religious / cultural picture. Since the 16th century, Lebanon was ruled by the Ottoman empire, then by the French in the 19th century. The country gained its independence in 1943 and formed a unique political system based on religious communities called Confessionalism.
In the 1960s, Lebanon enjoyed a period of peace, prosperity and development. It was even called ‘Switzerland of the East’ and the capital Beirut was considered ‘Paris of the Middle East’. However, tensions and confrontations among religous communities like Christianity, Sunni Islam, Shia Islam, and the establishment of the neighbor Jewish state of Israel, lead to the Lebanese Civil War, which ended in 1990.
The national symbol of Lebanon is so important to this country that it is displayed on both the national flag and the national emblem, called the cedar tree (cedrus libani).
2. The cedar tree in nature
The Lebanon cedar tree (cedrus libani) is a type of evergreen conifer related to pine trees. It is a native and characteristic species on the mountainous areas of the Eastern Mediterranean. It can reach a height of 40m and a trunk diameter can be up to 2.5m. In Lebanon, it is widely used as an ornamental tree in parks and gardens.
The trunks of old trees usually fork into many large and upright branches. The bark is rough and scaly, has color ranges from dark gray to dark brown. The first-order branches grow horizontally and tend to spread widely, the second-order branches are dense and also grow horizontally. The crown has a conical shape initially, which results in the pyramidal shape of cedar tree.
Since ancient times, the snow-capped mountain ranges in Lebanon were surrounded by forests filled with cedar trees. It is the most valuable natural resource of the ancient Phoenician civilization and modern Lebanon.
Their fine wood was very valuable, because of its smooth, luxurious yellow color and wonderfully scented. It is extremely durable and immune to damages irritated by insects. The Phoenicians used the precious cedar wood to build their famous Galley merchant vessels, turning them into a powerful kingdom just by trading on the high seas and they also became the most talented sailors in the ancient world.
Phoenicia was a civilization based on maritime trade spread throughout the Mediterranea during the period from 1500 BC to 100 BC. Originally from Canaan, the Phoenicians were not keen on farming, but were more interested in seagoing, manufacturing and trading. The Phoenicians traded on land with merchants carrying valuable goods from as far as India and China to the West. Goods were then shipped to Egypt, Greece, Rome and North Africa. This trade helped the Phoenicians become extremely wealthy and powerful. They were skillful craftsmen at making glass, metal, jewelry and weaving fabrics. They were also the inventors of the glass blowing technique. Phoenicians were adventurous merchants living in independent city-states, similar to ancient Greece. Each city-state is a politically independent unit, they can clash and dominate each another, or cooperate and form alliances.
The main port of the Phoenicians was Tyre (present-day Lebanon), it was famous for its Tyrian purple color, a luxurious dress color worn by Greeks and Romans to prove their social status. The name ‘Phoenicia’ in Greek means ‘purple person’. The most important colony of the Phoenicians is Carthage (present-day Tunisia), which later became a major metropolis and their main trading port.
The Egyptians also mummified dead bodies and invented papyrus paper from cedar resin. Other civilizations such as the Romans and Turks exploited cedar trees as very valuable products in commerce. When the Roman emperor Hadrian came to the throne, he ordered his subjects to consider the cedar trees as Imperial Domain, since then the rate of tree exploitation was temporarily slowed down.
However, the cedar wood continued to be exploited in modern times, despite the British Queen Victoria‘s efforts to protect the forest by paying for the construction of a high stone wall to protect 102-hectare of young trees in 1876. During World War I, Ottoman soldiers in Lebanon rushed to cut down forests to build railroad tracks. Today, the last vestiges of the vast cedar forests on the Lebanese mountains in ancient times remain in the Kadisha valley, Bsharri city and is called ‘the cedar forest of God‘. This is now a World Heritage Site approved and protected by UNESCO.
After millennia, deforestation, urban development, tourism and warfare have changed the hydrological system of the Lebanese mountains and climate severely. In 2012, only 13.4% of Lebanon’s area was forests and they were always threatened by the risk of wildfires during hot and dry summers. Due to over-exploitation, only a few old cedar trees remain in the forests and mountainous villages of Lebanon, which requires urgent conservation measures to protect the national symbol of the country. Because Lebanon will not be Lebanon without the cedar trees.
3. The cedar tree in Near Eastern culture
The cedar tree is the most valuable timber in the ancient world, the most valuable construction material and is very common in culture of the Near East. It was first mentioned in the Epic of Gilgamesh, the earliest epic of mankind. The main character of this epic is a Sumerian hero, Gilgamesh. When he tried to find fine woods to build his magnificent city, Gilgamesh and his friend, Enkidu once traveled to the legendary cedar forest in Lebanon, which was the glorious realm of the Mesopotamian gods. In order to collect the cedar trees here, Gilgamesh and Enkidu had to defeat the ferocious monster that guarded the forest, Humbaba.
After a fierce battle, Gilgamesh defeated Humbaba and cut down the tallest cedar trees to build the gate of Nippur city. They also built a raft from the trees and float down the Euphrates river to return to the Uruk city, where they were welcomed as mighty heroes.
The cedar tree is also mentioned many times in the Hebrew Bible of the Jews, about 100 times.
‘The righteous thrive like a palm tree and grow like a cedar tree in Lebanon.’ (92:12)
Hebrew priests were taught how to use cedar bark by Moses to make leprosy treatment. King David used cedar wood to build his palace. Legend has it that king Hiram of the Tyre port city provided king Solomon with best sturdy beams made of cedar trees and the best craftsmen to build the temple in Jerusalem.
The Greeks and Romans also carved many statues of their ancestors and holy gods with cedar wood. According to the Roman architect Vitruvius, the main statue and ceiling part of the Artemis temple (one of the 7 wonders of the Ancient World) at Ephesus were made from this most sacred tree.
4. Becoming the national symbol
As the most characteristic and typical symbol of Lebanon, the cedar tree appears on the national flag, coat of arms, currency and logo of the Lebanese national airlines.
In general, thanks to its great stature and popularity, the cedar of Lebanon is considered a symbol of greatness, nobility, power and immortality. But beyond that, thanks to its natural attributes, it is also a symbol of upright temperament, a resilience that cannot be corrupted. Its wood never rots, so using cedar wood in building is to keep the human soul from being depraved. It is also a symbol of holiness, eternity, solidarity and peace.
A green cedar tree resembles the young nation of Lebanon when it was first established, no matter how painful or wretched the past is, it is still enduring and resilient. The unity of the tree branches makes them resistant to all harms and dangers. Lebanon is also known as ‘The Land of Cedar Trees‘.
In addition, it is always the main symbol of political movements in this country. The present Lebanese national flag with the green cedar tree was adopted for the first time just prior to independence from France in 1943.
Amani Sharif. (2017). “A Brief History of the Cedar Trees of Lebanon”. The Culture Trip – https://theculturetrip.com/middle-east/lebanon/articles/a-brief-history-of-the-cedar-trees-of-lebanon/
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