Draped with snow, the ancient cedars on the mountain slopes of northern Lebanon spread their evergreen branches like arms welcoming visitors. On Mount Makmel, the country’s oldest cedar grove towers over Wadi Qadisha, the “Holy Valley”, where monasteries carved into cliffs for centuries were a place of refuge and meditation.
Known locally as Arz al-Rab or “Cedars of God”, the forest has been under the protection of the Maronite Church, which built a small chapel in the centre of the grove, where a mass is celebrated each year to honour the trees. Some of the cedars there are more than 30 metres tall and 2,000 years old, their roots anchored deep in the rocky soil.
“The forest is considered a sacred place,” says Cherbel Tawk, a member of the nonprofit Friends of the Cedar Forest Committee. In 1998, the cedar grove was added to the list of Unesco World Heritage together with the Qadisha Valley.
“The cedars are mentioned in the bible at least 75 times for their majesty and beauty. It is said the temple of Solomon was built with cedar wood,” Tawk says. In the Old Testament, cedars are referred to as “the first of trees” and the “glory of Lebanon". In the 16th century, there were so many pilgrims visiting the Cedars of God that the Maronite Church issued an edict threatening to excommunicate visitors who damaged them.
For centuries, the ancient giants have been visited by travellers, pilgrims and poets. Inspired by the majestic trees, artists composed songs, paintings and poems. Some, like the English poet Lord Byron and the French politician and poet Alphonse de Lamartine, decided to leave their mark and carved their initials into the trunks.
"[Cedars] know the history of the Earth better than history itself,” wrote Lamartine, who described Lebanon’s ancient trees as “the most famous natural monument” in the world. The poet Gibran Kahlil Gibran, who was from nearby Bcharri, mentioned the trees in his poems and asked to be buried under a cedar.
Celebrated by religion, poetry and history, Lebanon’s cedar is a source of national pride. The tree is the centrepiece of the Lebanese flag, and is featured on the currency, the Lebanese airlines and the national anthem. It’s so cherished that some Lebanese even swear upon the cedars.
“The cedar became a unifying symbol for Lebanese all over the world,” Tawk says. According to him, the tree used as a model for the flag can still be visited in the Cedars of God. It has been damaged by a snowstorm and a lightning strike, but Tawk says his organisation is taking care of the elderly cedars. “Old trees need special care. We are treating their wounds and protecting them from storms,” he adds.
A history of deforestation
Accounts of the cedar go back to one of the first stories written, the Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh, which dates back at least 4,000 years. In a quest for fame and glory, Gilgamesh travels to a forest that stretches for thousands of miles where “the cedars uplift their abundance” and sweet-smelling flowers grow under their branches. But instead of enjoying the beauty and the shade, Gilgamesh kills the guardian of the forest, cuts down the cedars and takes the wood to his city in ancient Mesopotamia.
For Faisal Abu-Izzeddin, a conservationist who wrote a book about cedars, the history of Lebanon’s most famous tree is one of environmental devastation. Over millennia, the forests that once blanketed Mount Lebanon were cut down by different civilisations.
Phoenicians used the wood to build their merchant ships. Ancient Egyptians used the resin in the mummification process. Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, crusaders and colonisers all exploited Lebanon’s cedars. Centuries of reckless deforestation have left only scattered remnants of what were once extensive forests.
“There is this idea that the cedar is going to bring us peace, glory and closer to gGod. And yet we cut it down,” Abu-Izzeddin says. “What is left is what couldn’t be cut, in the most remote places.”
The tree has been added to the International Union for Conservation of Nature's list of threatened species, and today only 17 square kilometres of cedars remain in Lebanon. Additional populations of Lebanese cedars can be found on rocky slopes in Turkey and Syria.
The urgency of protecting the surviving forests is felt across Lebanon. The Cedars of God have been fenced off since 1876, and in recent years volunteers have planted more than 100,000 seedlings around the forest.
The Shouf Biosphere Reserve, established in 1996, the country’s largest protected area, is home to a quarter of the remaining stands of cedar. “The cedar tree is part of our history, it’s an iconic tree,” says Nizar Hani, the reserve director. “We are looking at the cedar’s ecosystem as a unit, and trying to protect it by ensuring connectivity with the full participation of local communities,” he says.
While Hani says there is now more awareness about conservation and the cedar is protected by law, new threats have emerged in the past few decades.
“Last year the forest fires were very close to the cedar forest, it was the first time they reached such a high altitude,” Hani says. To grow, cedars need humidity and enough rain and snow, so the tree is particularly vulnerable to climate change.
Rising temperatures and worsening drought are driving wildfires and spawning infestations of sawflies, which can kill cedars. Conservationists are hoping that planting cedars with other species can make ecosystems more diverse and more resilient to the pressures of a warming and drying climate.
“The cedar cannot live alone, it needs other trees, plants, birds. It needs an ecosystem,” says Abu-Izzeddin, who was one of the founding members of the Shouf Reserve. “Without an ecosystem cedars cannot live. And without ecosystems we cannot live.”
A symbol of strength and endurance
The cedar’s ability to outlive empires and to survive under difficult conditions is precisely what makes it such a compelling symbol of Lebanon.
Growing on high and rocky mountains, cedars have endured harsh winters, strong winds and drought. Their roots can penetrate rock and find springs in even the roughest terrain. For many Lebanese, this strong tree came to symbolise their own ability to survive occupation, war and devastation.
“The cedar is a symbol of belonging, of our roots,” says Alice Mogabgab, who owns an art gallery that was damaged three times by blasts in the past three decades. “We are struggling with corruption, bankruptcy, destruction. More than ever we need to strengthen our roots and attachment to the land,” she says.
On August 4, 2020, her gallery was shattered by the enormous explosion at the port in Beirut that wreaked destruction across the city. While sweeping the broken glass and picking up shards, Mogabgab thought about closing the gallery. She changed her mind when she was moving paintings of trees, and decided to make the first exhibition after the explosion about Lebanon’s cedars.
“I wanted to show the most beautiful thing we have in reaction to the destruction,” she says, adding that she wanted to spread a message of hope when everything and everyone around her seemed devastated.
“It’s time to be inspired by the trees. To plant them, and to protect them,” she says in a soft, cautiously hopeful voice. “To show a different way of living in this country.”