Saving the cedar of Lebanon, Cedrus libani – a cultural emblem
The cultural significance that Cedrus libani has held since ancient times helps to explain why the Lebanese Government has made it a priority in recent years to defend the health of the cedar forests
References to the cedars of Lebanon go as far back as the beginning of written script (Meiggs, 1982). The epic of Gilgamesh, which refers to a visit of Gilgamesh and Enkidu to the Lebanon Mountain to cut the trees, can be traced back to the third millennium BC:
Fragments of this epic text have been recovered in Sumerian, Akkadian, Hittite, Hurrian and other languages – indicating that these cedars caught the imagination of people more than 500 km distant. The same feeling for the magnificence of the cedars permeates the Old Testament:
But the writers of the Old Testament knew that the cedar forest was not merely admired for its beauty; it provided the most sought-after wood in the Near East. The kings of Egypt, Mesopotamia, Phoenicia, Assyria, Babylon, Persia and Greece, until the region was ruled by Rome, proudly reported providing cedar timber for building temples and palaces, obtained either through commercial transactions or through military expeditions. In the tenth century BC, the Phoenicians built Solomon a great palace from cedar wood. Cedar wood was also used in building Aeolon Temple in Greece. The ancient Egyptians not only used cedar wood extensively, but also used a preservative from cedar resin, called “life of the dead”, in their embalming process. Jesus Christ was crucified on a cross allegedly from cedar wood. In 118 AD the Roman Emperor Hadrian established rules to protect the cedars of Lebanon to prevent deforestation.
Through this long history, a strong cultural link evolved between this tree and the people living in and nearby the cedar forests. Because of its majesty and long life span, the cedar became a symbol of eternity. Tales and legends referring to the cedar are numerous in Lebanon and constitute one of the cultural links shared by the many ethnic, linguistic and religious groups living there. When the country obtained independence, it adopted the cedar as its national emblem and put this emblem on its flag.
By the mid-nineteenth century, however, the resource was depleted and much concern was expressed about the loss of this important species. Since then, many attempts have been made by successive governments, local communities and the international community to protect and restore the cedar forests of Lebanon.
The cultural significance of Cedrus libani helps to explain why the Lebanese Government, in recent years, made it a priority to defend the trees from a serious, previously unrecorded pest, Cephalcia tannourinensis. This wood wasp threatened to wipe out most of Lebanon’s cedar forests and spread to neighbouring countries. The situation was particularly critical in Tannourine-Hadath El-Jebbeh Forest in northern Lebanon, one of the largest remnants of cedar forest in the country, with 50 000 trees spread over 600 ha. As much as 80 percent of the forest’s cedars were infested. The insect had also spread to the “Forest of the Cedars of the Gods” in Bcharreh, which is on the World Heritage List of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). Forests in the neighbouring Syrian Arab Republic and Turkey were also threatened.
To combat the threat, Lebanon brought together a team comprising scientists from the American University of Beirut, the Lebanese Ministry of Agriculture and French experts. FAO provided funds and expertise through its Technical Cooperation Programme. After efforts lasting nearly five years, the pest is now reduced to an economic level, but continual monitoring of the situation is still necessary.
Immediate control methods involved the aerial application of biological (non-chemical) pesticides – insect growth regulators – coupled with studies of the pest’s life cycle to determine the correct treatment window. As a portion of the life cycle is subterranean, spraying is more effective in the first and last phases of the cycle, when the insect lives above ground.
Work is continuing to identify the best tools to prevent new outbreaks and control future infestations should they occur. Medium- and long-term control strategies include trapping, studies on the potential of pheromones for population monitoring and biological control measures as part of an ongoing pest management strategy.
Meiggs, R.. 1982. Trees and timber in the ancient Mdeiterranean world. Oxford, UK, Clarendon Press.