Cedars of Lebanon "The Old Grove"

From Bruce Condè, See Lebanon, Harb Bijjani Press, Beirut, 1960

(See also pictures of the Cedars, 1997.)

© Børre Ludvigsen

Byblos' Cedars of Jej may represent the first grove to be exploited by the ancients and exported to Egypt 5,000 or more years ago, but Besharre's "Old Grove" holds the most venerable and famous of all the Cedars of Lebanon in the world today.

The cedars at Besharre are the true "Arz er-Rabb" or "Cedars of God" of the hardy mountain people of the Qadisha Gorge, beloved of the ancient Christians and blessed and protected -by the Patriarchs of Mount Lebanon, until their care was taken over by the young Lebanese Republic, whose emblem they form.

One of them, the "Cedar of the Flag", by the tennis court below the hotel, furnished the basic design for the insignia of the Republic, the motif of Lebanon's coins and stamps bearing the cedar, and the crest of the American University of Beirut.

© Børre Ludvigsen

Praised By Ancients

They have been famous since remote antiquity, receiving numerous tributes in the Bible (Psalms 29: 5 speaks of their durability, their majesty is noted in 2 Kings 14: 9 and Zech. 11: 1-2, and they are described as the glory of Lebanon in Is. 35: 2 and 60: 13). Nebuchadnezzar carved their praise on the rocky walls of Nahr el-Kelb in the year 537 B.C. and again on stelae in the Wadi al-Barissa in the midst of the Forest of Hermel on the other side of Mount Lebanon, during the same year. In the Wadi al-Barissa carvings, the Babylonian king also depicted himself standing before a Cedar of Lebanon and in the cuneiform text he describes the cedars as offerings for his god, Marduk. The ruler certainly transported cedars from somewhere on Mt. Lebanon to the Euphrates, where they were floated down to Babylon, and these trees could not have been far from the Old Grove at Besharre.

The Egyptians, of course, were much older users of cedar wood. Both they and the Mesopotamians were attracted to Lebanon's mountains for timber due to the relative treelessness of their riverine homelands.

© Børre Ludvigsen

Romans Used For Navy

Those mighty builders, the Romans, drove logging roads into the fastness of the mountain, passing up the scanty remains of Byblos' forests in favor of the bigger trees of Tannourine and Qadisha. The Roman emperors set up stones all over Mt. Lebanon reserving for the imperial navy the cedar and other necessary woods and elements. This was particularly true during-the reign of Emperor Hadrian (117-138 A.D.), who actually visited Lebanon in person about the year 130, and actually may have seen the cedars himself .

The Caliph Muawiyah, when High Admiral of the imperial navy for the early Arab empire, before his accession to the throne of Damascus, emulated his Roman and Byzantine predecessors in using cedar for naval construction, but the Crusaders, whose maritime affairs were in the hands of the Italian city states, seem not have concerned themselves about the prized trees, even though they created the Lordship of La Buissera (Becharre) under the County of Tripoli in the 12th Century.

This fief might atmost have been called the "Seigneurie des Cedres", for, with its feudal castles and chapels at Becharre and Ehden, it included all the country between Ehden and the top of Mt. Lebanon. above the Old Grove, and extended south through the cedar forests of Hadeth and Tannourine as far as Laklouk.

It was left to the Ottoman Turks to deforest all of the cedar-growing areas within easy transport distance of their Hijaz rail, way in 1914-1918 to provide fuel for their wood-burning engines. Only, the highest and most remote groves escaped, of which Becharre's was the best. The eating of young cedars by goats has prevented significant extension of the existing cedar areas except in Barouk, where an area left goatless for about 20 years has given rise to the thickest and most lush young cedar forest in Lebanon.

© Børre Ludvigsen

Protected by Republic

Protection of the "Old Grove" by the Republic of Lebanon as a major national treasure, and the reforestation work being carried out by the Dept. of Agriculture, have given new hope for the restoration of the "glory of Lebanon" in the near future, however.

Since the Jej, Hadeth-Tannourine and- Barouk-Ain Zhalta cedars, as well as other less-known smaller and more isolated patches, totalling several thousands trees in all, are all more difficult of access than the "Old Grove", it is usually more practical for visitors to go to Besharre (between two and three hours out of Beirut through spectacular scenery) to get an idea of what Lebanon's ancient cedar forests actually looked like and to see the venerable giants, which, as small saplings, may have been viewed by Emperor Hadrian in the Second Century.

The quickest route of approach is to drive up the coast to Ras Shakka. and the Shakka cement works, between Batroun and Enfe. Turning inland from Shakka Jedid (79 km. out of Beirut) on a branch road marked "Les Cedres", Amiyoun, capital of the olive-growing Koura plateau, is reached after 10 kilometers, and at 15 kilometers, Kusba, on the edge of the mountain, guarding the south entrance to the great Gorge of Qadisha, stronghold of Maronitedom and guardian of the road to the cedars.

Qadisha Gorge is a truly spectacular and magnificent sight. For more than 15 kilometers it extends eastward into the heart of Mt. Lebanon, with its tiny River Qadisha - the same that washes the foot of the castle hill of St. Gilles of Tripoli - winding like a silver thread far, far below.

Cliffside Monasteries

Cliffside monasteries begin to appear, built like the cliff dwellings of the southwestern United States, under overhanging crags or partly within vast natural caverns. It was in these secure retreats that the rite of Mar Maroun first took root on the western slopes of Mt. Lebanon in the late Byzantine and early Arab days of the country's history. It was here that the Maronites first became a strong selfgoverin g community under their patriarchs (18 of whom are entombed in the Qannoubine monastery in the cliff side) and f rom here they spread south into central Lebanon in the days of the Maanid dynasty during early Turkish suzerainty over this coast.

Diman, passed en route, is still the summer palace of the Patriarch, within sight of Qannoubine, and the Patriarch's own cedar forest of Hadeth is only a few kilometers southwest of the patriarchal palace.

While passing around the. east end of the gorge, the tomb of Becharre's famous son, Jebran Khalil Jebran, author of "The Prophet" may be visited in an abandoned cliff side cave monastery, while the writer's memorial museum and library are to be seen in Becharre proper, to which municipality Jebran willed the continued royalties from his still-popular books. Beyond Besharre only the stalactite grotto, from which gushes the River Qadisha, remains to be seen bef ore entry is made into the "Old Grove".

400 Trees

The 400-odd Cedars of Becharre are in a little protected pocket sheltered by Mt. Lebanon, extending down the slopes of a small, hill from the tiny Maronite chapel of 1843 amid the 12 most ancient trees. These cedars, growing at about 6,000 feet above sea level, have a height of some 80 feet and their trunks are up to 40 feet in circumference. They range between 1200 and 2,000 years in age and are greatly reverenced by the Maronite community who term them "the Cedars of God " and compare their stubborn survival to that of the ancient community itself down through the centuries of danger and insecurity.

The interesting stone wall that encircles part of the grove, running up hill and down dale like the great wall of China, is the successor of one originally built in the 19th Century entirely at the personal expense of Queen Victoria of Great Britain.

Her Majesty, on being informed of the destruction of the young cedar trees by goats, and the probable extinction of the species unless preventive measures were taken, extended this pioneer Point IV-type assistance to Mt. Lebanon as a landmark in the growing campaign to save the Cedars of Lebanon, with their biblical connections, for posterity. Cedar saplings brought back to England by early travellers flourished on Britain's soil to remind the Queen of their progenitors on Mount Lebanon.

Buildings to Be Removed

As unsightly buildings now mar the beauty of the Old Grove" the government has decreed that all installations at "the Cedars" must be moved away to a discreet distance, including the Army's own famous ski school. When this transfer is accomplished, the sacred grove will reassume somewhat its primeval appearance.

Aside from Jezzine-ware and certain embroideries, Lebanon residents from overseas are often at a loss for "typical souvenirs of the country " to give to visiting friends or to send home. This should present no problem to those who visit the cedars at Besharre, for fallen limbs of the giant trees are carefully gathered up after storms or heavy snowfalls (they may not otherwise be cut) and made by the local folk into charming little souvenirs. Of these. perhaps the most fitting are the round ashtrays (with bark all around), into the bottom of which have been fitted brass coins with the Cedar of Lebanon motif. They make a handsome and ever-useful memoire of a pilgrimage which everyone must make before leaving Lebanon.

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