Wednesday, March 29, 2017

What Happened to the Cedars of Lebanon?

“But the righteous will flourish like a palm tree and grow big like a cedar in Lebanon.” (Psalm 92:12)

Lebanon once had great forests of cedar trees. The flag of Lebanon is emblazoned with an image of a great cedar of Lebanon (Cedrus libani).

The cedars of Lebanon are mentioned more than 70 times in the Bible. The Hebrew word for “cedar” is 'erez. These tall evergreen trees were valued for the high quality of the wood and for the fragrant cedar oils and resins that were used to prepare medicines, perfumes, and ointments. The wood of the Lebanese cedar is resistant to rot and insects, has virtually no knots, and produces straight lumber. The old forest cedars grew to heights of over 160 feet.

Today the cedars can been found in Lebanon, southern Turkey, and Syria. A few have been found on the island of Cyprus. However, compared to the ancient cedar forests, the number of Lebanese cedars today is small. Reforestation efforts are being made in Lebanon.

The cedars of Lebanon were almost depleted 1700 years ago. Depletion of the cedar forests can be explained, in part, by the high demand among the ancient rulers. The rulers of many kingdoms used Lebanese cedars for their royal building projects. These included the kings of Egypt, Mesopotamia, Tyre, Sidon, and Israel. The ports of Tyre and Sidon played a special role for shipments of Lebanese cedar heading to Egypt and Israel.

The Palermo Stone indicates that cedar was imported to Egypt during the reign Sneferu (B.C. 2613-2589). The resin of the cedar was used in mummification of the dead. Modern science has shown that the resin extracted from the bark of Lebanese cedar contains antimicrobial properties that would help to preserve the bodies.

The Egyptians used the cedars of Lebanon to build their ships and they had a large fleet of ships for commercial purposes. The tall cedar logs were ideal for ship masts. This is mentioned Ezekiel 27:5, “And they took a cedar from Lebanon to make a mast for you.”

Sargon of Akkad (B.C. 2334-2279) used Lebanese cedar for his royal building projects and King Nebuchadnezzar (B.C. 605-562 ) ordered the construction of a route through the mountains to bring the cedars from Lebanon to Babylon.

The king of Tyre was named Hiram. Hiram used cedar to build palaces, temples and the royal treasury. An intriguing Bible passage describes the king of Tyre as full of wisdom: 
"Son of Man, raise a lament over the king of Tyre and say to him: Thus says the Lord God: 'You were the seal of perfection, full of wisdom and flawless beauty. You were in Eden, in the Garden of God; every precious stone was your adornment... and gold beautifully wrought for you, mined for you, prepared the day you were created.'" (Ezekiel 28:11-19)
This connects the Horite rulers of Tyre and Israel back to Eden, a vast, well-watered region that extended from the Upper Nile to the Tigris-Euphrates Valley. 2 Samuel 5:11 explains how "King Hiram of Tyre sent messengers to David, along with cedar logs, carpenters, and stonemasons. They built a palace for David."

David's son, Solomon, also used cedar to build his palace and the temple in Jerusalem. The walls of the inner sanctuary of Solomon's temple were covered with cedar panels from floor to ceiling, and the ceiling beams were made of cedar.

The cedar timbers were imported into ancient Israel from Lebanon. They were brought overland to the seaport of Tyre and then floated as rafts to Joppa on the coast of Israel. From Joppa, the logs were hauled overland to Jerusalem. King Hiram sent this message to King Solomon:
"My servants will bring them down from Lebanon to the sea, and I will make them into log rafts to go by sea to the place that you designate to me. I will have them broken up there, and you can carry them away. In exchange, you will provide the food that I request for my household.” (1 Kings 5:9)

The commercial interests, ship construction, and royal building projects of the ancient rulers lead to the near-total denudation of the Lebanese cedars. The Roman emperor Hadrian (A.D. 117-138) was so alarmed at the depletion of the Lebanese cedar forests that he designated what remained as a protected Imperial preserve. But the unsustainable logging of the cedars continued under the Ottoman Turks who used the wood to build railroads. During the First World War, the British and the Turks used most of the cedar that remained for the war effort. Is it any wonder that the cedars of Lebanon almost disappeared from the surface of Earth?

Related reading:  Trees of the Bible: Trees of Prophets; Trees as Boundary Markers

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