About Us Collection Official Opening Permanent Exhibitions Temporary Exhibitions Membership Lectures Contact Us

The Cedars of Lebanon (10 January 2022)

The Cedars of Lebanon

Presented Online 

Nicholas Hardwick

[Slide] map of the Mediterranean Sea

The following are places which I shall be discussing: Lebanon, ancient Phoenicia, Israel, Mesopotamia, Cyprus, Turkey, Morocco


[Slide] map of Lebanon

The following are places which I shall be discussing: mountains surrounding the Kadisha Valley, Sidon, Tyre, Byblos (Jubayl), Toula and the Zgharta district



Trees and timber have a central place in world civilisation.  Readily accessible from early times as a medium for construction of buildings, furniture and other objects, wood has always been extensively used by man.  Wood has many other usages, which include firewood as a source of warmth.


Once the practical uses have been accomplished in mankind’s daily life, wood has been the source of decoration, both by the employment of  its natural colour and texture, as well as by cut and by carved forms.


Before the advent of iron, steel and concrete, the extensive use of wood for construction on land and in ship building meant that it was of very significant value in the world economy.  In the post-industrialised world, wood remains a very important material in daily use.


Lebanon, which is situated at the eastern end of the Mediterranean Sea, is a country which has long been celebrated for its outstanding natural beauty, as well as for the beauty of what has been created by man in the long history of civilisation in the region.


With the Mediterranean Sea on one side, and mountainous terrain throughout the length of the country, Lebanon’s geographical gifts provide the country with many opportunities for nature’s beauty to manifest itself.


[Slides] Cedars

Cedars are trees of great beauty, which give splendour to the mountains where they are found in the north of Lebanon.  They are especially known from the mountains surrounding the Kadisha Valley, which is close to the Zgharta district, and thus not far from the village of Toula.  Because of the fame of the cedars, Lebanon is sometimes referred to metonymically as the ‘Land of the Cedars’.


The cedars of Lebanon belong to a species of tree which is found extensively throughout the Middle East.  As well as Lebanon, it grows in south central Turkey, Palestine, Israel, northwest Jordan, and western Syria.   It is also found in other areas of the Mediterranean region, including on Cyprus and in Morocco in the Atlas Mountains.


[Slides] Branch, cone

Cedrus libani, to give the tree its Latin botanical name, which, as you can see, includes the name of Lebanon in Latin, is evergreen and coniferous, that is, bearing cones.  It can grow to a height of up to 40 m and the trunk can have a diameter as much as 2.5 m.   In Lebanon and in Turkey, it mainly grows at altitudes of 1000-2000 m, in forests solely of cedars, or in mixed forests together with European black pine, Cilician fir and various species of juniper.  


As a result of deforestation over the centuries, original forests only survive in small areas.  Deforestation has been particularly extreme in Lebanon and on Cyprus.  However, reforestation has taken place, especially in Turkey as well as in Lebanon.  The Roman Emperor Hadrian, who reigned from AD 117-138, claimed the forests in Lebanon as an imperial possession, and their destruction was halted temporarily.  


The cedar of Lebanon was traded extensively in the Middle East and was, therefore, of significant economic importance to the region which produced it.  Cedars were used in the ancient Middle East along with other timbers including oak and ash, and trees like the palm tree.


[Slide] Cuneiform tablet, Epic of Gilgamesh, Sulaymaniyah, Iraq, The Sulaymaniyah
Museum, T 1447: commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Tablet_V_of_the_Epic_of_Gligamesh.JPG


Because of their importance from early times in the Middle East, where civilisation developed, it is not surprising that cedars are referred to in some of the significant ancient literature.   A cedar forest is mentioned in the Epic of Gilgamesh, the ancient epic of Mesopotamia, which was written in the ancient Semitic language Akkadian, and the earliest version of which dates from 2100 BC.  This is a partially broken Tablet V of the Epic, which has been discovered in about 2003.   Found in Mesopotamia, it dates to the Old Babylonian period, 2003-1595 BC, although this is under discussion.  This tablet recounts that Gilgamesh and Enkidu enter the cedar forest.


The cedars of Lebanon are, of course, famous in the Old Testament of the Bible, where they are frequently mentioned.  These are examples from the Book of Psalms:

‘The voice of the Lord breaks the cedars; the Lord breaks in pieces the cedars of Lebanon’ (Psalm 29:5).


‘The righteous flourish like the palm tree and grow like the cedar in Lebanon’ (Psalm 92:12).



[Slide] Cedar wood

Their wood is very beautiful, which is why it was chosen by the Kings of Israel, such as Solomon, who reigned from c.970-c.931 BC.  He used it in the Temple, which he built in Jerusalem.  


[Slide] Temple of Solomon, Nordisk familjebok 1st (1876–1899), 2nd (1904–1926) or 3rd (1923–1937) edition

This is a nineteenth century reconstruction of the Temple in Jerusalem.  You should be aware that scholarship since that time would probably mean that a reconstruction would now be different, and, indeed, we may not have sufficient literary or archaeological evidence to reconstruct the building accurately.


Cedars were thus very important in the economic and political relations between the Hebrews and the Phoenicians.  


[Slide] Cedar grove

Their beauty and usefulness were recognised by many other empires in the region both during antiquity and in more recent times.  The Phoenicians used the cedars to construct their fleets of merchant ships.  The Egyptians also used them for shipbuilding, as well as for construction of buildings and of sarcophagi.  


[Slide] Pyramid boat: commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Gizeh_Sonnenbarke_BW_2.jpg

Famous examples are the pyramid boats, dated 2566 BC, which were used for the burial of the Pharaoh Khufu, who is also known as Cheops.  He reigned during the Old Kingdom and was the second pharaoh of the Fourth Dynasty.  I show you the first one which was discovered.  


[Slides] Great Pyramid, boat pit: commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:GizaBoatPit.jpg

It was buried in a pit carved out of bedrock close to the Great Pyramid at Giza, near Cairo, which was built by the Pharaoh as his tomb.  It is 43.6 m long and 5.9 m wide and forms part of the extensive grave goods for the afterlife.   This type of ship is known as a ‘solar barge’, which was a ritual vessel used to carry the resurrected king across the heavens with the sun god Ra.   However, since it has signs of use on water, it is possibly a funerary ‘barge’ or ‘pilgrimage ship’.


[Slide] Pyramid boat as discovered: commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Barque_solaire-Decouverte2.jpg

This is an image of the boat at the time of discovery in 1954.  You can see that it was taken apart for burial, and it has been reconstructed since it was unearthed, as a result of careful study.  A second boat, similar to the first, was discovered near the Great Pyramid in 1987, and was reconstructed in 2012-3.  This second ship is inscribed with Khufu’s name.


The fact that cedar from Lebanon was used for these boats in the middle of the third millenium BC demonstrates that extensive trade contacts for the movement of cedar existed between Lebanon and Egypt at least as early as this.  It also shows that an infrastructure for exploiting cedar resources existed in Lebanon at the same time.


[Slides] Reliefs of cedar transport

The early first millenium BC in the Middle East was dominated by the Assyrian Empire, which was centred on Mesopotamia, where the major cities were located.  Cedar timber, as roof beams, was necessary to build the very large halls of the Assyrian temples and palaces, because of the height to which the trees grew and the straightness of their trunks.


These are five gypseous alabaster reliefs from the palace of Sargon II (reigned 721-05 BC) at Dur-Šarruken, modern Khorsabad, in northern Iraq on the Tigris River, and they show cedar logs being transported.  They are in Paris (Louvre, AO 19888-91).  Sargon ordered the construction of the new palace city as his capital.   Planned capitals, such as Canberra and Brasilia, are thus not new concepts.  Indeed, prior to the construction of Dur-Šarruken, the Egyptian Pharaoh Akhenaten built an entirely new capital Akhetaten, known as Armana, beside the Nile River, in 1346-41 BC.


[Slide] Paris, Louvre, AO 19888

The first relief shows timber being recovered in a mountain landscape, which is thus a very early representation of Lebanon.  The scale pattern is a characteristic way of representing mountains in Mesopotamian reliefs. 


[Slide] Paris, Louvre, AO 19889

The second relief, which is composed of two reliefs joined together, shows cedar beams being transported off the coast of Lebanon by Phoenician boats with their characteristic horse-head sternposts.   At the top, two walled Phoenician island cities are shown, with two rings of walls, and they possibly represent Tyre and Arados.


You will note that the cedar beams are transported both on the ships and by being towed by ropes in the water.  The way that the beams on the ships are shown above the ship is probably artistic licence to indicate that they are being carried in the body of the ship.  The artists of the reliefs did not understand one-point perspective, as can be seen by other parts of the scene, and so the scenes are not photographic representations of the actual scene.


The cedar was brought from the mountains to Sidon, along coast past Tyre and Arados, then to the Orontes River and up the river systems into Mesopotamia.


[Slides] Paris, Louvre, AO 19890, AO 19891

I am showing you two further images of the disembarkation and transport of the cedar timber.


The most accepted interpretation of this scene is that it illustrates the transportation along the Phoenician coast of cedars intended for the palace of Sargon.


Cedar was also prized by the Babylonians and Persians, and, as we have noted above, by the Romans.  The Ottoman Empire, which administered the area of present day Lebanon for several centuries until 1920, used the cedars in railway construction.


[Slide] Flag of Lebanon

Because of its significance, the cedar tree is the national emblem of Lebanon and is portrayed on the flag of Lebanon and on the coat of arms. 

[Slide] Flag of Lebanon, original design

This is the original design of the flag, drawn in 1943, at the time of independence from France, when the design of the current flag was adopted.  

[Slide] Flag of Austria

The red and white stripes may have been inspired by the design of the Austrian flag.

[Slide] Flag of the State of Greater Lebanon

The cedar tree had appeared on the flag of the State of Greater Lebanon, during the French Mandate from 1920 to 1943.  In my opinion, the design of the present Lebanese flag is also influenced by this flag.  We can compare the same design of the cedar tree, and the placement of the tree in the central white stripe, which is bounded by two coloured stripes, one of which is red.  By a simple trick of rotating the vertical stripes to horizontal and copying the Austrian flag, the designer of the Lebanese flag has produced a flag which is different from the one under the French Mandate, but which follows the same concept. 

[Slide] Flag of France

As you can see, the flag of the State of Greater Lebanon, during the French Mandate is the French Tricolour flag with the cedar tree in the central panel. 


[Slide] Logo

The cedar tree forms part of the logo of Middle Eastern Airlines – Air Liban (MEA), the national airline of Lebanon, which was founded in 1945.


[Slide] Aircraft

You can see the logo on this Airbus A321-200, which bears the current livery.


[Slide] Destroyed aircraft: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Middle_East_Airlines#/media/File:Destroyed_MEA_aircraft_1982.jpg

I am showing you a stylised version of the logo, which was used by the airline over thirty years ago.  This is a MEA aircraft, which was destroyed at Beirut Airport during a confrontation on 12 June 1982 between the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) and the Israelis.   In response to the attempted assassination of the Israeli ambassador to Britain by the Abu Nidal Group, the Israeli army made several attacks on the airport in Beirut, destroying various aeroplanes of Middle East Airlines.


Indeed, with the airline’s Airport lounge called ‘Cedar Lounge’ and the Frequent-flyer program, ‘Cedar Miles’, cedars are very much part of the institutional image of the airline.


[Slide] Church pews: www.newhollandwood.com/Portals/0/PropertyAgent/510/Images/432.jpg


Of course, cedar trees are used for construction and furniture today.  An example is these church pews made by New Holland Church Furniture, a company based in Pennsylvania in the USA.


[Slide] Cedar grove and mountain

The cedars of Lebanon are thus a beautiful natural feature of Lebanon and are found in the mountains not far from the village of Toula.  As a result of the beauty of their timber and the symbolism of their appearance, they have had a significant impact on world civilisation.


Sources: O. Amin, ‘The Newly Discovered Tablet V of the Epic of Gilgamesh’, History et cetera (worldhistory.org)(2015), citing F. Al-Rawi and A. George, 'Back to the Cedar Forest: The beginning and end of Tablet V of the Standard Babylonian Epic of Gilgameš.' Journal of Cuneiform Studies, 66 (2014), pp. 69-90.

J.-F. Breton, ‘Les inscriptions forestières d’Hadrien dans le Mont Liban’, Inscriptions grecques et latines de la Syrie, T. VIII (3), (1980), p. 1-98.


www.louvre.fr/en/explore/the-palace/the-palace-of-sargon-ii: Khorsabad reliefs.


S. Yoshimura and H. Kurokochi, ‘Research Report: Brief report of the project of the second boat of King Khufu’, Journal of Ancient Egyptian Interconnections, 5:1 (2013), pp. 85-9.