Lebanon's world-renowned forests enchant visitors
Cedars draw tourists from around the globe
The government, the private sector and non-governmental organizations have taken steps to preserve the prized trees
By Linda Dahdah
[Lebanon] Daily Star staff
Wednesday, June 23, 2004
BCHARRE, North Lebanon: Whether on its flag, in its legends, books or simply in its people's hearts, the cedar has always been inscribed in Lebanon's history and image around the world.
Containing the oldest cedar trees in Lebanon, Bcharre's Cedar Forest has been witnessing the passing of time for more than 1,000 years.
Situated in the heart of North Lebanon's mountains, in the qaza of Bcharre, it often disappoints many tourists who expect to behold an endless landscape of cedars spreading out before their eyes.
"I heard so much about this forest, I imagined a huge one that would be so overwhelming. No doubt that it gathers the oldest cedars ever, but it is really a little drop of vegetation in a dry landscape," said Amal Mnassa, who has been living in Australia all her life and for whom a long-time ambition has been to see the protected site.
However, despite its small seven hectares, the forest, called Arz al-Rab - Cedar Forest of the Lord - did not lose its power to enchant. Very much believed to be sacred, it has been and still is today a site of international pilgrimage.
For centuries before the advent of these legends, however, the precious wood was coveted by all from the East to the West of the planet.
Cited in the Epic of Gilgamesh (5,000 BC), the Lebanese cedar, Cedrus Libani, has been the highest valued tree through history, and it has always been a symbol of strength and power.
Used as winter firewood to warm local mountain families, who also used it to build their houses and their horse-drawn carriages, cedar wood was also the standard building material for the boats of the famous ancient seafaring nation known as the Phoenicians.
Even the Pharaohs sent their ships to collect the venerable material that served as pillars in many of the temples of Egypt.
Assyrians, Romans, Babylonians and Turks were among the other consumers of cedar wood.
And the last - but not the least - legend-violating "blasphemy" was that during World War I the wood from these "divine" trees was used for railroad fuel.
Trying to save as much as they can of this natural splendor, many organizations have been active since the mid-1980s.
The protection and maintenance of the forest has been in the hands of the Friends of the Cedar Forest Committee, created in 1985. Besides curing the trees from various diseases and keeping the forest clean, this organization has created a different path through the forest, thus making it accessible to visitors.
Another internationally active organization, Protection of the Lebanese Cedar, has been fighting to raise awareness of the fragility of cedar trees and the threats facing them.
With varying sources of financial support, many reforesting initiatives are under way and young saplings are slowly re-covering the landscape.
And the trend seems to be continuing. With a plan to plant 10,452 trees (Lebanon's surface in square kilometers) the army, which protects the forest, has already planted around 3,000 saplings. For its part, the Environment Ministry has planted 12,000 saplings in addition to 10,000 that have been planted by the Friends of the Cedar Forest Committee.
The latest initiative came recently from Casino du Liban, in which 1,000 two-year-old saplings were voluntarily planted by the Bcharre Environment Protection Committee.
It's very good news that so much effort is being made to conserve and expand the forest.
It's also disconcerting that the historical review in this article is so careful to avoid any mention of the cedars of Lebanon in the Bible or their use by ancient Israel, especially Solomon in his palace and the temple (see, e.g., 1 Kings 5 and following).
(This post reconstructed after the browser crashed yet again just as I was finishing it. Thank you, new Blogger.)