Twenty-five centuries ago the prophet Ezekiel searched for a symbol, one word to capture for all time a vivid recollection of the Empire of Assyria, then being overshadowed by the Chaldeans under Nebuchadnezzar. He sought one symbol to stand for many things—might, power, beauty, majesty.
Ezekiel found his word, then wrote:
"Behold, the Assyrian was a cedar in Lebanon with fair branches, and with a shadowing shroud, and of an high stature; and his top was among the thick boughs. . . . All the fowls of heaven made their nests in his boughs, and under his branches did all the beasts of the field bring forth their young, and under his shadow dwelt all great nations. . . . The cedars in the garden of God could not hide him: the fir trees were not like his boughs, and the chestnut trees were not like his branches; nor any tree in the garden of God was like unto him in his beauty."
The trees of which Ezekiel spoke—cedrus libani in Latin, arz al-Rabb or "Cedars of the Lord" in Arabic—still grow in Lebanon. Often they attain a height of more than 80 feet and a trunk circumference of over 40 feet. Their branches, which bear dark green leaves, spread horizontally, sprouting from the trunk in ascending tiers.
Highly polished and reddish in color, the wood emits a spicy odor and is impervious to attacks of insects and worms. A legend speculates that the Cross of Jesus, which remained undamaged after three centuries in the ground, must have been made of cedar. The tree itself can live for thousands of years.
Cousins of cedrus libani are found in Asia and Africa. So heroic in size and stature are these members of the family that botanists have given them equally imposing names. The cedrus deodara grows in the Himalayas and is called "wood of the gods," the cedrus atlantica is found in North Africa and is named after mythological Atlas.
Cedars of Lebanon are native to modern Lebanon and Syria, and their location at the crossroads of the ancient world assigned them a significant role in the drama played there by many races long ago. A high commercial value was placed on the cedar, and many uses were found for it.
Assyrian King Ashurnasirpal ordered cedar for the beams of his palace. The roofs of the Temple of Diana at Ephesus and the Temple of Solomon at Jerusalem were made of it. Cleopatra's luxurious Nile barges were constructed of cedar, as were the mysterious solar ships which the ancient Egyptians placed in their pyramid tombs for the use of the dead.
Both Roman natural scientist Pliny the Elder and Greek physician Dioscorides Pedanius recommended the bark and resin of the cedar for a variety of ailments. Egyptian em-balmers employed the sawdust and an extract of the resin (cedria) in ritual mummification ceremonies. They called the resin extract the "life of the dead." The living used an essence of the fragrant gum in perfume.
From the era of the Crusades to relatively recent times, the timber of the cedar tree has been prized as an essential material in the construction of churches. Helen, mother of Roman Emperor Constantine, used it in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which she had built in Jerusalem in the fourth century. Five centuries later cedarwood was shipped to Paris to become part of the Sacre Coeur.
Hundreds of centuries of trade in the valued trees took their expected toll. The oldest trees, the giants, were always felled first, and gradually the forests that covered the mountains became isolated woods. The woods became groves; some disappeared entirely. Three centuries ago a traveler in Lebanon counted only 28 trees that were very old. Today there are a mere dozen. The total number of mature cedars is barely 400, and few are more than a thousand years old.
Most of the 400 are located in two scattered groves: one above the snowline on Jabal Makmal in the north, the other on the western slope of the Barouk in central Lebanon. The groves are surrounded by low stone walls to keep out foraging animals and to discourage the contact of mankind, which admired and destroyed so many cedars long ago.
The reverence and protection accorded the trees today is fitting. These two groves echo a splendid past. In this corner of the world man created his early history. Some of his finest civilizations rose and fell here, many of his finest monuments stand here in ruin.
One tree alone, the most perfect of them all, serves him today—the Cedar of the Flag. Its replica is carried on the flag, stamps and official documents of the Republic of Lebanon. One tree—a symbol of the past and a sign of the future, for on the sloping hills near Hadath, under the care and protection of the Maronite Patriarch of Lebanon, 6,000 young Cedars of the Lord are growing. They will still be growing a dozen centuries from now.
They are the seedlings of the ancients, an assurance to the peoples of the Middle East that what was ... will be.