Lebanon is famously known for the presence of a very special kind of tree, the legendary cedar tree (cedrus libani). It is emblazoned on the national flag and is one of the most defining features of Lebanon’s culture due to its long history. The country is the most densely wooded in the Middle East, and pines, oaks, firs, cypresses and junipers are also found in the mountain areas. All these species of trees were an important source of timber for early civilisations of the Near East and the Nile.
Wood was one of the most sought-after commodities in antiquity, and references to the cedars go as far back as the beginning of the written script. The episode of the visit of Gilgamesh with his companion Enkidu to a forest to destroy the guardian monster and cut the trees can be traced back to the third millennium BC. In the ancient Sumerian tale of the Epic of Gilgamesh (written c. 2150 – 1400 BC), the king of Uruk raids the forbidden Cedar Forest of Humbaba.
When they had come down from the mountain Gilgamesh seized the axe in his hand: he felled the cedar. When Humbaba heard the noise far off he was enraged; he cried out, ‘Who is this that has violated my woods and cut down my cedar?’ Epic of Gilgamesh
The cedar was vital to the economic prosperity of the Phoenicians who inhabited the Lebanese shores. They used the wood extensively to build their merchant ships, homes and palaces. They were master shipbuilders and were able to navigate the turbulent waters of the Mediterranean Sea. They also exported their timber to the Egyptians in exchange for other goods. The Egyptians used the resin for building their temples and embalming their pharaohs. Sometime between 1075 and 1060 BC, Wen-Amon, an Egyptian envoy from the temple of Amon at Karnak, visited Phoenicia and secured seven great cedar logs in exchange for a mixed cargo, including jars of gold and silver, linen, rolls of papyrus, lentils and baskets of fish. Those logs were then moved by ship from Byblos, the main centre of shipment, to Egypt.
Another compelling account of the exploitation of the Phoenician forests comes from a series of bas-reliefs from the palace of Sargon II (722-705 BC) at Khorsabad and now in the Louvre showing logs being cut, dragged down and loaded onto ships at a Phoenician port. Lebanese cedar was also used in the construction of King Solomon’s temple in Jerusalem. According to the Biblical accounts, King Hiram I of Tyre furnished architects, workers and cedar timbers for the temple of his ally Solomon, king of Israel. Two hundred years after the destruction of Solomon’s temple, Alexander the Great used timber from Mount Lebanon to build the causeway (mole) and towers that ended his siege of Tyre.
The damage done to the forests during the Roman era resulted from the geographical expansion of the Empire, with its increased population, large-scale agriculture, and unprecedented economic development. Timber was the most basic building supply, and trees were cut to build houses, military forts and fortifications and to provide fuel in public baths, homes or industries. Shipbuilding, an important resource for an empire that exercised political control over the Mediterranean, was also a major contributor to deforestation as it required great amounts of wood.
The Roman expansion into Phoenicia and Syria had more harmful effects on the woodlands. This put tremendous pressure on the supply of usable timbers, and by Hadrian’s time, the deforestation of the Lebanese mountains appears to have threatened the industry of shipbuilding. In an attempt to preserve timber for his fleets, Hadrian put up boundary markers around the remaining forests and declared them his imperial domain (property of the Emperor).
Evidence for this early type of environmental management is provided by 200 inscriptions engraved on rocks all over the northern part of Mount Lebanon. These inscriptions have been found at an altitude ranging between 270 m and 2311 m, allowing scholars to make an approximate reconstruction of the ancient forest boundaries. They were carved in abbreviated Latin letters and have been designated by No. 5001-5187 of the IGLS catalogue (Inscriptions grecques et latines de la Syrie – see here). No other inscriptions of this nature have been found elsewhere in the Roman empire, making them a unique heritage.
The census and study of Hadrian’s forest inscriptions have already been the subject of several studies (Renan, 1864 – Breton, 1980 – Abdul-Nour, 2001 & 2011 – Geze & Abdul-Nour, 2006). Ernest Renan, a French expert on Semitic languages and civilizations, first discovered and identified in the 19th century these letters engraved on the rock. In the 2000s, Hani Abdul-Nour discovered more than twenty additional inscriptions and published several articles in the journal Archaeology & history in Lebanon.
Intended to be seen and read by the general public, the inscriptions were inscribed with warnings against timber thieves with different Latin abbreviations. The most common formula was “IMP HAD AVG DFS AGIV CP” (IMPeratoris HADriani AUGusti DeFinitio Siluarum Arborum Genera Quatuor Cetera Priuata – meaning “Boundary of the forests of emperor Hadrian Augustus: Four Species of trees reserved under the imperial privilege). It is not known which species were included in the four that Hadrian protected, but the most appropriate candidates would be the cedar, oak, cypress, and either fir or juniper, those particularly suitable for shipbuilding. The remaining species could be cut without the emperor’s or his procurators’ permission.
Eight inscriptions were found with the acronym VIG which may stand (according to Breton, 1980) for vigilarium, a post for the forest rangers. They are all located in strategic places like high passes or mountain tops from where (whence) guards could observe and control the forest. Three other inscriptions give the name of Hadrian’s two procurators who oversaw the forest’s demarcation: Quintus Vetius Rufus (IGLS 5185 & 5186) and Gaius Umbrius (IGLS 5096).
Imp(eratoris) H[ad](riani) Aug(usti) d(e)f(initio) s(ilvarum) XII p(er)
pr(ocuratorem) Q(uintum) Vet(ium) Ruf[u]m.
(Boundary [marker] no. 12 of the forests of Emperor Hadrian Augustus, by the procurator Quintus Vetius Rufus)
Imp(eratoris) Had(riani) Aug(usti). vig(ilarium)(?).
i(terum) s(alutati) p(osuit).
(Of the Emperor Hadrian Augustus. Gaius Umbrius, guard, procurator of Augustus when saluted for the second time as Emperor, placed it)
A network of roads was built between 64 BC and AD 249, linking the coast of Lebanon to the hinterland. The roads were used for commercial and military purposes but also for religious pilgrimage, resulting in the presence of many religious constructions along the road.
In the centuries after Hadrian, Lebanon’s trees continued to be used extensively, especially as fuel for lime-burning kilns. In the Middle Ages, mountain villagers cleared forests for farmland, using wood for fuel and construction. The Ottomans, in the 19th century, destroyed much of the forest cover to build a rail network in the Levan, and during World War II, allied troops also used the wood to build the Haifa–Beirut–Tripoli Railway.
The destruction of the Lebanese forests never really stopped but worsened as one civilization was defeated and another took its place. As the great Roman orator Cicero said in a speech which no one seems to have paid attention to until recently:
serit arbores quae alteri seculo prosint
‘He plants trees for the benefit of a future generation’
Sources & references:
- H. Abdul-Nour, 2001, ”Les inscriptions forestières d’Hadrien: Mise aupoint et nouvelles découvertes”, Archaeology and History in Lebanon, 14, p. 64-80.
- J.-F. Breton, 1980, “Les inscriptions forestières d’Hadrien dans le Mont Liban”, Inscriptions grecques et latines de la Syrie, T. VIII (3), p.1-98.
- Mikesell, Marvin W. . “The Deforestation of Mount Lebanon”, The Geographical Review, Volume 69, 1( 1969), p. 21; J. Donald Hughes, The Mediterranean: An Environmental History (Santa Barbara, CA.: ABC-CLIO, 2005), pp. 39-44, 47.
- White, K. (1987). Russell Meiggs, Trees and Timber in the Ancient Mediterranean World. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1982 (1983).
- The Epic of Gilgamesh, English version by N.K. Sandars (London, 1960), p. 59.