Previous Page Table of Contents Next Page

Forest history of the Near East


KARL OEDEKOVEN is the FAO Regional Forestry Officer for the Near East, with headquarters at Cairo, U.A.R.

A survey of a once well-timbered region

THE NEAR EAST is not an exact geographical expression, and this article is concerned with that large region whose countries have many common features and characteristics, bounded on the west by Libya, the United Arab Republic and Sudan and stretching eastward to West Pakistan.1 No region of the world of like extent is SO devoid of forests. Yet the existing plant cover is far poorer than the possible climax vegetation indicated by soil and climate. Why is that so? Why is the Near East so lacking in a forest heritage which represents so much wealth for other regions? Was this always so? If not, what caused the change? These are questions which any traveler in the Near East, and particularly a forester, inevitably asks. History may provide the answer and may suggest ways in which the future may be shaped.

1The Sahara and Greece, both included in this article, cannot be said to be part of the Near East region, but they do share many forest characteristics with Near Eastern countries.

The Sahara

There is historical evidence that at least once or probably twice a great part of the Sahara was populated under the Mandigan and Saharan Empire from about the year A.D. 320 to 680, and it is therefore clear that radical changes for the worse have taken place in the natural flora over great parts of the present Sahara within historic times. Records maintained over 500 years indicate that the Sahara desert has moved southward at the rate of one meter a year on a wide front of 3,000 kilometers. Lake Chad, which some decades ago was an ideal refuge for migrating birds from Europe, is steadily diminishing in surface area and depth, and the color of its shores is turning from green to brown.

There are records of explorers of the last century as well as from those of Roman days (Herodotus, Pliny) which provide proof of man's previous occupancy of very considerable parts of what is now absolute desert. But while some authorities say that the writings of ancient historians reflect nothing except the conditions existing in their own times, more recent explorations, as for instance that of Duveyrier (1864) in the western Sahara, record information on vegetation and on forests which have now practically disappeared. These records make clear that explanation of this disappearance does not lie in a radical change of climate (desiccation), but indicate that man alone is responsible.

In 1497, El Hadj Mohammoud, the Emperor of the Songhai dynasty, made a pilgrimage to Mecca from Gao in what is now Mali with a suite of 800 people and numerous horses and donkeys, crossing a region which at that time was occupied by people living in permanent villages, the remains of which are still discernible today. NOW the whole area is desert. Slowly but surely, the desert is on the march.

Northern Sudan

The history of northern Sudan, as it has been brought to light by the excavations of archaeologists, shows that in 4000 B.C. the Khartoum area was a tropical swamp in which water mongoose and reed rats lived. Some centuries later, when the neolithic village Esh-Shaheinab flourished, there were plenty of forest animals such as elephant, rhinoceros, buffalo, giraffe, kudu, and oribi, still being hunted around Omdurman. On the now bare rocky hills of the Batn el Hajar one can see the tracks made by large herds of animals which cannot have lived without forests. There must, too, have been a soil cover in the Wadi Halfa district in the days of the hunters of Abka, and certainly about 2000 to 1500 B.C. there were people living along the Nile around Wadi Halfa who kept considerable herds of cattle. About the same time when the Egyptians advanced their frontier to Semna about 80 kilometers south of Wadi Halfa, they built three massive forts. Two are on the west bank and this seems surprising today for there are less people living on the west bank than on the east, and yet the names the Egyptians gave those forts show clearly that they were built to keep out certain tribes. Nowadays the west bank of Semna is desert, but in 2000 B.C. there were people living there, and no doubt they kept cattle and goats and cultivated land just as people do today in the Central Sudan.

There was a great and famous kingdom in Northern Sudan from 720 to 660 B.C. - the kingdom of Kush - which ruled Egypt and even invaded Palestine. Its capital was Napata, near Dongola, but about 500 B.C. the capital was moved south to ancient Merowe. One reason for this move was the destruction of vegetation by the large flocks and herds round Napata. Until about 15 A.D. the kingdom of Merowe flourished, but during the next three centuries it steadily declined. In the end it only required a small military expedition sent by its trade rival, Axum in Northern Abyssinia, to put an end to the kingdom which had had a great and glorious past. It is evident that one of the reasons for the collapse of this kingdom was water shortage, brought about by goats eating all plant cover. Today Merowe district may not yet be 100 percent desert but the desert has got a firm hold on it. The excavation of tombs at Khartoum and Esh-Shaheinab show that all the erosion has taken place since people were buried there about 100 B.C. History is repeating itself around Omdourman, Wad Medani and Sennar; large herds of skinny goats wander every day further and further afield looking for young trees and bushes to eat, just as in earlier times they must have done around Napata and Merowe. Visitors who have been in Central Darfur on successive occasions have noticed a marked deterioration in the natural vegetation over even HO short a period as 25 years; the bush was thinner, large trees less numerous; most significant of all, wells carried less water.

Ancient Egypt

There are a number of indications that in ancient times parts of Egypt were covered with natural forests: petrified wood is found almost everywhere in the settled area of the country and even in parts of the desert; and many historical records prove that forests existed and disappeared due to the work of man. From many hieroglyphic inscriptions, bas-reliefs and other finds it is possible to conjecture that the old Egyptians had a very high wood consumption. It goes without saying that, as is the case today, the bulk of the valuable timber used had to be imported but there must have been a great supply of local wood, especially for use as fuel; the working of metals and the firing of pottery alone certainly consumed great quantities of firewood. Excavations at El Amarna, where the temple and residence of Pharaoh Echnaton (1377-1358 B.C.) were found, revealed the remains of roots and stems of 76 tree and shrub species. In the necropolis of Saqara, a bas-relief shows men hunting in a very dense thicket which is full of birds and mammals.

Other records show that, during the Middle Ages, Egypt supplied much of its own timber needs construction, boat building and charcoal burning. This situation lasted as long as agriculture depended upon the annual flood, and only when perennial irrigation greatly increased was the natural development of trees more and more restricted, and forests were uprooted to provide more agricultural land. The resulting timber shortage was offset by the intensive felling of trees in the desert and its wadis. Particularly in the eastern desert and Sinai there are many wadis which still bear names of trees though all of them have practically disappeared. There is a great deal of detailed information as to how the state protected the forests and administered their utilization in the Middle Ages: in Egyptian administration rules, Ibn Mamati tells us that at that time the forest regions in Egypt were in the provinces of Beni-Suef, Minia, Ashumnein and Qus. The forest district between Girga and Aswan alone amounted to some 8,000 hectares. All forests were state property. They were supervised by special forest guards who had responsibility for cutting and selling wood; all timber suitable for shipbuilding was reserved for the state, and it seems as if the main purpose of all forest management was the maintenance of the fleet and furnishing shipyards with timber. Wood of inferior quality was sold locally or in Cairo. There was a special tax to be paid at these sales of 1 dinar per 75 kilograms of wood, which shows that, more than 700 years ago, Egypt had already conceived the "modern" idea of a fonds forestier national. There was also a strict control on the sale of the seeds of acacia. It was so severe that even the smallest quantity of pods which was not placed for sale by the government were immediately confiscated. In consequence, during the 11th and 12th centuries Egypt possessed not only forests of considerable extent but also a highly developed forest administration not unlike that in European countries today.

It appears, however, that toward the end of the Ayoubid dynasty the forests were rather neglected. Emir Fahm ed-Din Osman complains that farmers succeeded in selling trees secretly and that no less than 4,000 trees were cut on one occasion in the forest of Qaliub, while Ibn Mamati deplores the destruction of the forests:

"I have been ordered by the Sultan to find out how large forest areas have been destroyed. The enquiry shows that an area of more than 5,000 hectares has been destroyed."

It will remain a puzzle how such plundering could have taken place in such a short time without responsible officials realizing it.

The depletion of forest reserves gradually led to the disappearance of all sources of wood supplies within the Nile valley, the desert fringes and wadis and also along the Mediterranean coast which once carried a light forest cover. Once more, it was not the climate that was responsible but the carelessness of man.


Throughout the Roman period, which lasted until the middle of the fifth century A. D., Libya's coastal areas supported between two and three times as many people as they do today. It can be assumed that in these early times the climate was practically the same as it is now, but, thanks to a highly developed system of settled agriculture which was made possible by the careful organization of water resources, the area could carry a much greater population. The prosperity of Cyrenaica was almost proverbial in the ancient Greek, Roman and Byzantine world. Its olive oil and its wine enjoyed special high prices and they were prized by the most discriminating men of that time. Again, Herodotus wrote that parts of Libya produced grain whose yield equaled that of Babylon: even three times as much under the best conditions. Soldiers moving through Cyrenaica in the 1940s must have had difficulty in imagining that this desolate desert was the richest of farming land 2,000 years ago. It goes without saying that such a flourishing agriculture under a climate similar to the present one was possible only under the protection of forests and trees, and it is significant that scattered stands of old cypress and Saharan acacias can still be found in various parts of the country. But settled agriculture has declined and forests have disappeared as, in the course of time, Libya has been increasingly given over to a nomadic way of life. During the Middle Ages, due to many wars and invasions, the population became too scarce to maintain properly the check-dams and the terraces: the retaining walls were broken by floods, the good soil was washed away, and prosperity went with the soil, Nothing was left of that ancient wealth but the remains of the old waterworks.

The Yemen

The Yemen of today, one of the few regions in the Near East with a regular and adequate rainfall, is only a pale reflection of what it once must have been. Countless peaks and summits still bear the scanty remains of old castles and fortresses and in the broad valleys traces of wealthy cities of the past can be found. The Yemen was the Thule of antiquity, the glorious limit of the then known world. Next to Babylon, southern Arabia was probably the seat of one of our oldest and most important civilizations, although much of its history is still unknown. It is known, however, that the Yemen was the center of the fabulous Minaean Empire which flourished in southern Arabia long before the oldest Egyptian dynasties. It was the country from which the three Kings of the East came to pay homage to the newly-born Christ child and where the famous Queen of Sheba is supposed to have ruled.

Although the Yemen is still favored by nature, it can be safely assumed from the ruins of old settlements in abandoned regions and of earth dams which once stored irrigation water that natural vegetation as well as artificial cultivation were much more widespread in the past. The amount of local timber and its dimensions found in all old constructions also makes it evident that tree growth must have been more prolific in past centuries.

Saudi Arabia

This over-all picture also holds true for other parts of the Arabian highlands, particularly for the provinces of Azir and Hedjaz in Saudi Arabia, where large areas of forests still remain though generally in a severely depleted state. On the completely barren mountain El Hedda between Taif and Mecca the author found plenty of petrified juniper which must have grown there several millenia ago, for it was discovered at a depth of several meters. The same juniper still grows on many other similar sites in more remote locations of Hedjaz, which eliminates the possible explanation that changes of climate are to be held responsible for the disappearance of juniper from Mount El Hedda. Farmers interviewed by the author in many parts of Hedjaz have confirmed that the forest cover around their villages has been markedly reduced by felling and grazing within their lifetime.


One of the most remarkable things about the Hadhramaut is its history as a center for production of frankincense, obtained from trees of the genus Boswellia. The first recorded Egyptian incense expedition to Hadhramaut took place in the 28th century B.C., and the trade continued to expand for about three thousand years thereafter. Pliny has described the incense trade and traffic in great detail and Strabo tells us about the incense road. According to Herodotus, frankincense to the amount of 1,000 talents' weight was offered every year during the feast of Baal on the great altar of his temple in Babylon. He also states that the Arabs brought one thousand talents of incense to Darius as tribute. Marco Polo, when he speaks of the port of Shihr near Ras el Kalb, mentions that the profit made by the local prince on incense was 800 percent. The extent of the incense trade from Arabia in ancient times is a safe indication that frankincense trees must have covered large areas. But, during the Middle Ages intertribal warfare gradually resulted in the destruction of most of these trees. Only very few trees now remain in the Hadhrama ut, and but little of their whitish gum still goes to India and the Mediterranean world, yielding prices up to US $320 a ton.

Somali coast

Punt, the Somali coast, was also once famous as an incense country. One maritime expedition in search of incense is known to have visited there as early as the third millenium B. (1. during the reign of the Pharaoh Pepi II. The most famous of the Punt voyages, however, was carried out during the reign and by command of Queen Hatshepsut (1601-1480 B.C.) and is commemorated in numerous scenes of the great series of Punt bas-reliefs in the Der el Bahri temple at Thebes. There was a great surprise for the Egyptian sailors when they approached the coast of Punt: among the incense trees the native huts looked like beehives set up on poles with ladders leading to the holes marking the entrances. When the expedition returned their boats were loaded with ebony, frankincense, and other precious goods. Thirty-one incense trees survived the return journey in pots and went on growing in the temple at Thebes. Today, the frankincense-yielding areas in Somalia are still extensive, but the trees are confined to mountain areas, which makes collection difficult; the stands on the coast have long since been destroyed. The trees introduced into Egypt have like wise vanished, and only the bas-reliefs in Thebes are left to tell the story of the wonderland of Punt.


In ancient times, Cyprus was covered with forests and was known as the green island of the Mediterranean sea. This great forest wealth has been reduced through the centuries by fires, clearings for cultivation, overgrazing, and uncontrolled fellings, so that today the forests of Cyprus occupy only some 18 percent of the total land area of the country. From a survey of the island made by Lord Kitchener in 1881 it was that there were almost 200,000 hectares of more or less wooded land apart from the forest area. Since then, practically the whole of this wooded-area has been cleared and in most cases has been left as bare ground.

FIGURE 1. - Cyprus: Natural pine forests in the southern range of mountains (All photographs by K. H. Oedekoven).


From earliest recorded history until Roman times the Lebanon had the same physical character: a string of coast settlements against a thickly wooded, thinly populated background of mountains. Many early sources describe the country as "an oasis of green with running creeks", or as "a vast forest whose branches hide the sky." Egyptians and Babylonians used its precious cedar wood for very many purposes; Phoenicians owe their fame to $his tree, and even the rise and decline of this people is closely related to it. As much as 5,000 years ago, cedar trees were felled in the Lebanon and exported by raft, especially to Egypt. In about 2700 B.C. King Snefru, the first king of the Fourth dynasty, began an intensive timber trade with the Phoenicians; 40 ships were necessary to transport the cedar logs needed for his buildings. Egyptian documents dated between 2500 and 2300 B.C. report for the first time a shortage of cedarwood which was needed for its special role in. the mummification of the dead - cedar-oil was injected into the corpses and cedar resin was used with the bandages for binding them.

One of the numerous pieces of evidence that cedar ranks amongst the oldest of the important tree species of the world is a bas-relief on the temple of Karnak which shows prisoners of war from Syria felling cedars in the Lebanon. It is also known that the temple of Solomon (963-923 B.C.) was built from cedarwood. Hiram, King of Tyros, the old Phoenician harbor on the Lebanese coast, wrote to King Solomon: "We shall cut as much timber in the Lebanon as you need," and Solomon levied 30,000 of his subjects to help Hiram's men to cut the trees. A record of Nabonidus from the later Assyro-Babylonian times reveals that the cedar forests continued to be exploited. But at the time of the Roman historian Tacitus (ca. A.D. 100) the summit of Lebanon was still "shaded with trees." The Roman Emperor Hadrian was the first one to issue a forest law for the protection of certain trees (cedar, pine, fir) and he published the text in rock inscriptions so that the whole population should see and obey it. But the cutting went on, and the rock inscriptions which have survived up to our day are found in places which are now completely denuded and eroded.

Even in the Middle Ages much of the forest wealth must still have existed. The German clergyman, von Suchem, who was in the Holy Land from 1336 to 1341, describes north Lebanon " as a mount full of the most delightful trees. " But the easy accessibility of this wooded area and the absence of such valuable trees in neighboring states made Lebanon especially attractive to invaders and contributed to the disappearance of its forests. In the 1830s, Muhammad Ali was attracted by the trees of Lebanon just as his Pharaonic predecessors had been more than 4,000 years earlier. Deforestation reached a new height during the first world war when Ottoman authorities ruthlessly used Lebanese wood for running their railways; the estimate is that, in the first three years of that war, Lebanon was stripped of 60 percent of its trees. In the second world war, the still wooded highlands of Akkar were stripped to provide timber to build the coastal railroad. Of the famous old Lebanon cedar which once covered over 500,000 hectares, only four very small groves now remain. Indiscriminate felling, burning, browsing of goats and sheep, combined with faulty agricultural practices, have almost completely destroyed the natural forests and degraded the soil which supported them. Today, in the whole country which once abounded in milk and honey, only 75,000 hectares of scattered forests exist. The cedar tree, however, has been adopted as the emblem of the State of Lebanon, and it is to be hoped that the efforts now being undertaken by its government will restore large cedar forests for future generations.


Syria was at one time an immense granary and largely a wooded area. According to historians, the region situated between the Euphrates and the Orontes was covered by a network of canals which connected the waters of these two rivers. But for a very long period the country was torn by the rivalries between the Sumerians, Chaldeans, Assyrians and Persians from the east, and the Greeks and Romans from the west. It was in Syria that orient and occident met, but met in fight and quarrel; it was the scene of wars in which Ummayads, Abbasids and Crusaders took a hand. The country finally passed under the sway of the Ottoman Empire in 1516, when Sultan Solim put an end to the rule of the Mamluks. The unsettled state had as one result the stripping of the tree cover - the natural protection once provided for the land; it prevented permanent cultivation, encouraged nomadism and drove people to seek refuge in remote mountain forests. Especially under Turkish rule, forests were looked upon as an inexhaustible supply of timber and fuelwood. The greatest damage was inflicted upon them by the construction of the Baghdad and Hedjaz railways, both of which were still operated with wood for fuel during the first world war.

Final touches of forest destruction stemmed from the ravages of the second world war, during which pine forests were mutilated for the tobacco-curing industry and forest fires were set going as a protest against the foreign regime. Thus, until quite recently, the Jebel Balas and Jebel Abdul Aziz were covered with forests whose relics are still to be seen as single pistacias. The terribly eroded region west of the Latakia forest and south of Wadi Qandil is another tragic example of loss of soil fertility in less than two or three decades.

Altogether, as in any other country of the Near East, the destruction of vegetation by man and animal has left its mark everywhere in Syria, from the remains of old Roman wine and olive presses in the Duma steppe to the heavy landslides on the barren hills around Latakia. This deterioration of the physical environment has already led to a marked drop in food production, resulting in even greater demand for forest land and thus establishing a vicious circle from which there seems to be little escape, unless land use is properly planned and good forestry carried out.


On the bleak and windswept central plateau of Turkey, Charles Texier discovered in 1834 the ruins of Hattusas, the great walled capital of the Hittite Empire which the Egyptians under Rameses II defeated in the battle of Kadesh in 1926 B.C. Remnants of this lost civilization give a fairly complete picture of what life was like in the days when the Hittites prospered. They show, for instance, spreading out across the plateau that lies inside the great curve of the Halys river, a farm that was the pride of its owner, Tiwataparas. This farm was rich with vineyards and orchards of apple, pear, and pomegranate trees; there were beehives and in the pastures goats and sheep were feeding; teams of oxen prepared the fertile fields for barley.

FIGURE 2. - Jordan: Successful pine plantation growing without any irrigation.

Modern travelers find it difficult to imagine how imposing was the Hittite Empire when they tramp over the now deserted plains. But not so far back in Turkish history traces can be found of a more abundant vegetation; in 1402, the Emperor Tamerlane hid his elephants in the vicinity of Ankara in deep oak forests: these have now entirely vanished.

The destruction of Turkey's forests still continues. Mr. Irlan Ataover, President of the Turkish Forestry Society, recently stated:

" During the last years, particularly in the last ten, 33,000 hectares of forests have been destroyed. Our mother soil disappears, washed and blown away by inundations and floods. Calculations show that every year 540 million cubic meters of fertile soil disappear into the sea. In the last five years, floods have destroyed 20,666 houses, and 34,503 people have lost their homes. Turkish forests produce 3.5 million cubic meters of wood per year while the demand amounts actually to 17 million cubic meters. If this discrepancy continues to exist, all forests in Turkey will have disappeared one day. "


It is impossible in this brief article to give even the barest outline of the turbulent history recorded for the area covered today by the Kingdom of Jordan. Invasions, political changes, battles and ruthless exploitation have in the past denuded the country, reduced its people to great poverty, and caused famines, epidemics, and general misery. Events with similar destructive effects have even happened in modern time. For instance until quite recently on the west bank of the Jordan river there were several good forest areas, but following the troubles of 1947-48, extensive areas of these forests were completely cleared. In the south only occasional remnants of old trees are left on the barren slopes. Yet whoever visits the office of the Director of Forests in Amman can see a disk of about 1 meter in diameter which came from an old Juniper tree that grew in this area. In the vast treeless country north of Jarash, the writer heard an eyewitness report from an old man who, as a young boy, watched a fight between rival tribes, which had each gathered their warriors with tents and horses and had them hidden in thick Pistachia forests. Today, there is not a tree left.

Another destructive process can be seen any day around the many camps of refugees from Palestine; their huts and houses are often surrounded by piles of Potirium shrub collected for fuel. This thorny shrub is usually the last form of vegetative cover on denuded hillsides, and where it is removed nothing is left to protect the soil from erosion.


Concerning Greece nothing could describe in a more illuminating way what has happened through the ages than the following quotation from Plato who, twenty five centuries ago, said:

" Contemporary Attica may accurately be described as a mere relic of the original country. There has been a constant movement of soil away from the high altitudes and what remains of her substance is like the skeleton of a body emaciated by disease. All the rich soil has melted away, leaving a country of skin and bone. When Attica was intact, her mountains were heavily forested and the country produced boundless pasture for cattle. The annual supply of rainfall was not lost as at present through being allowed to flow over the denuded surface into the sea, and so was received by the country in all its abundance into her bosom where she stored it in impervious potters' earth and so was able to discharge the drainage of the heights into the hollows in the form of springs and rivers with an abundant volume and a wide territorial distribution."

The fact that Plato saw Attica as only a relic of what it once was gives us some idea of how long ago the destruction of the natural plant cover by man and grazing animals began.


In Iraq, the vegetative cover has been entirely destroyed over large areas and subsequently serious erosion has taken place. The remaining natural forests are situated in the northern and northeastern mountainous parts of the country and in the narrow flood plains of the great rivers. The mountain forests which the country still possesses, begin at about 500 meters' elevation in the form of very degenerate oak coppice, while below this zone almost all trees have been destroyed. Forests gradually improve in condition from 500 meters until their limit is reached at about 2,000 to 2,300 meters, and there is no doubt that their survival in the higher altitudes is not only a result of more rainfall but also of the difficulty of access. During living memory the people of Iraq have had to make the best of almost doing without wood, and there is now a timber famine; present timber consumption is far below world average.

The dawn of history found the area now called Iraq a settled and flourishing country of village and urban communities, inheritors of many centuries of progress in the arts of complicated living and government, of trade and agriculture, and no doubt an intricate system of irrigation. On such a solid basis a great civilization developed in Babylon, Nineveh, Ur, and Baghdad. It is known from archaeological finds that Babylon was rich in palm trees and cypress, and the hanging gardens of Queen Semiramis at Nineveh were world famous; yet the ruins of both places were discovered in treeless, desolate plains. Quintus Curtius, the Roman historian of Alexander the Great, states that the Eulaeus (Karun river) rushes headlong for 125 miles between wooded banks.

For several centuries after the capture of Babylon by the Persian King Cyrus in 539 B.C. Iraq was to be a province of other empires and the battlefield of others' wars. Little was done in all this time, owing to lack of leadership or wealth or security, toward restoring ruined but all important canal systems, replanting gardens, or rebuilding villages. The population was decimated by massacres and starvation steadily increased; living standards in town and country sank lower and lower. Emboldened tribes from the western desert occupied more and more of the country and turned plowed land into camel pasture. Short periods of safety and ease alternated with those of near anarchy and rapine; in particular, the two Mongol invasions under Haluga and Timur the Lame, with their wholesale destruction of life and property and ravishing of towns and countryside, were blows from which Iraq suffered for the ensuing centuries as a poor and forgotten country.

FIGURE 3. - Iraq: Expensive terracing is often the first necessary phase of reforestation.

FIGURE 4. - Iraq: Denuded mountains in the north of the country. An attempt to reforest has been made but uncontrolled grazing keeps down the growth.

It has to be admitted that the climate of Iraq is and was severe and dry over most parts, and for this reason irrigation has always played such an important role. Thus, the destruction of the intricate irrigation system is mainly responsible for the disappearance of the plant cover in the plains. In addition, eradication of forests and trees from hillsides and everywhere else greatly accelerated the disruption of waterflow and its availability, inducing erosion and deadly siltation. Finally, in the absence of proper drainage, much land has been ruined by salination. All this clearly demonstrates that the whole rural economy is turning in a vicious circle due to lack of forest cover.

One often hears the argument that the disappearance of the flourishing civilization of Iraq, the well-established farms and natural forests, went hand-in-hand with a changing climate and progressive desiccation. Though it is true, from evidence provided by geology and the present landscape, that in earlier ages a much higher rainfall produced great rivers and flood channels and richer living conditions, there is no scientific proof that this high rainfall period, the existence of which is beyond doubt, fell within the last half-million years. Therefore, since the beginning of human settlement Iraq has been under climatic conditions very similar to those of today. The disappearance of forests and woodlands, of the lion and ostrich, the abandoned canals, the decay of ancient cities in areas now desolate, must be explained by reasons other than those of climatic change in historic times.


Of a total forest and woodland area estimated as 19 million hectares only 3 million hectares or about 2 percent of the entire land surface of Iran may still be regarded as carrying forests of economic value. The rest has been badly damaged by overgrazing, harvesting wood for fuel and charcoal, and fires. Centuries of destruction have resulted in the almost complete disappearance of forest from the plains and valleys. On the northern slopes of the Elbruz mountains, beside the Caspian sea, are found some of the last areas in the world where tracts of northern temperate hardwood forests exist in a primeval condition. Unfortunately, most of these potentially high-value forests are being converted at a rate of about 45,000 hectares a year to low-grade cover of useless shrubs and deformed, diseased trees. The formerly extensive forests of cypress in Masenderan - the only coniferous forests in Iran have been heavily overexploited and now exist mostly as gnarled remnants.

Up to 30 or 40 years ago, the Iranians were not conscious of forestry problems. They accepted forests as part of the natural scene, to be used exactly as the needs of the moment might dictate. The important link between forests and human welfare was not, and still is not, evident to the great majority of the people.

FIGURE 5. - Iran: Ideal land use: flourishing agricultural crops in valleys whose slopes are densely forested.

As the level of economic activity began to rise under the late Reza Shah, during the-war and subsequently, new pressures began to build up against the forests; herds of goats, sheep, and cattle which grazed in the forests increased. Landowners and villagers in need of more land began to clear off the natural tree growth, and demands for timber and charcoal led to cutting on an unprecedented scale.

Scattered remnants of juniper stands on the southern and eastern slopes of the Elbruz mountains give evidence of previously large forests on the now barren slopes. Their easy accessibility led to their reckless exploitation over 2,500 years of recorded history. For the same period deforestation of the plateau has been going on, mainly caused by the way of life of the nomads who cut the trees and burn the wood for charcoal, while flocks of sheep and goats devour any new shoots. The villagers everywhere carry on a constant search for fuelwood.

On the Mary Dasht plain south of Persepolis the remains of six ancient barrages testify to the extensive irrigation of this fertile area in ancient times. A most impressive series of dams was also erected along the Karun and the Ab-i-Diz rivers, and today travelers flying over Khuzistan can easily trace the lines of the broad channels which led off from the reservoirs. After the Moslem occupation of Iran and down to the thirteenth century A.D. these dams were well maintained and the system expanded, with the result that many thousands of hectares were then under intensive cultivation, areas which are now completely barren. Since 1700, many of the artificial irrigation systems have fallen into ruin, and during the same period the population has decreased by at least 50 percent.

West Pakistan

The desert-like conditions in extensive areas of West Pakistan are man-made. Alexander the Great marched through the upland regions of the country under cover of dense forests, and all subsequent invaders have recorded how thickly the region was covered by jungle and forest. It is known that even during the Sixteenth century most of the mountain slopes and uplands were still covered with a dense mass of vegetation comprising combinations of trees, shrubs, and grasses. The increase of population led to deforestation of the Hindukush and Himalayan mountains; floods and siltation increased which ultimately contributed materially to the downfall of earlier civilizations. This is evident from the rums of ancient cities.

Today, most of the lower Indus valley is relatively barren with a sparse population trying to make a living on the barren alluvium and shifting sand dunes. The river bed is at least 6 meters higher than it was 3,000 years ago. Soil erosion has become the most serious and widespread disease of land in West Pakistan. Vast areas in the upland region have been so deforested that they no longer can be used to grow anything of value to human beings.

FIGURE 6. - Afghanistan: Cedar forests reach high up in the Hindu Kush mountains.

Coventry, in Denudation of the Punjab hills (1929), concluded his review in the following words:

"Although the Punjab is prospering under the benefits of irrigation, the steady deforestation of the hills is a cancer slowly undermining the foundations upon which its prosperity depends and it is to be hoped that the good sense of the people will prevail and that they will come to realize the necessity of insurance of the hills against the denudation before it becomes too late to save them from becoming completely denuded and reduced to a desiccated condition with disastrous effects on the future prosperity of the Province."


After all the evidence that has been considered, there is not the slightest doubt that the Near East once had many more forests than it has today. History provides this evidence. In most cases the progressive, and sometimes the complete, destruction of these forests has been the work of man. The often heard argument that .their dwindling has been caused by change of climate has some scientific basis, but at least within recorded history it may be categorically said that this is not so. The progressive destruction of the protective forest cover was done by man to his own impoverishment and has been the main cause of desiccation spreading over the lands of the Near East.

Knowledge of the natural forest conditions which existed in the historic past, and of the manner of their evolution up to the present day are essential requirements for a proper understanding of the present situation and for the framing of corrective national land and forestry policies and programs. The peoples of the Near East are beginning to recognize that improvement in their economic and social conditions can be brought about through forestry, and governments are initiating positive scientific thinking to attain betterment of environment and general well-being. The urgent need for afforestation and for the improved management of the remaining forest areas is evident. Constructive forestry programs will slowly but surely reverse the trend of uncontrolled destruction and re-establish a forest heritage for future generations, thereby providing incalculable benefit to the social and economic order of the Near East.

Previous Page Top of Page Next Page