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Cedar of Lebanon

Cedrus libani Near Slenfeh, Syria. Cupressaceae
Cedrus libani needles. Slenfeh, Syria.

Trees in the Koran and the Bible See a discussion of Bible and Koran trees that includes cedar.

Cedars of Lament

The King of Bible Trees(1)

Would Hiram's lumberjacks recognize where I was(2)? I was in the region's last natural cedar of Lebanon community (in contrast to planted or maintained groves) on a ridge about 4000 feet above sea level. The steep slope in front of me dropped precipitously to the fertile valley of the Orontes River far below. I could see white barley fields and ripening wheat framed by the boughs of the cedars. Some of these cedars are hundreds of years old, tenaciously anchored in the rocky mountain(3). Branches and trunks are festooned with lichens, indicators of fresh air on this ridge, once moistened by the wetlands, rapidly disappearing, far below. In fact, this stand is unusual because it is on the eastern slope of the mountain unlike the once extensive forests of Lebanon which received moisture in clouds formed from the Mediterranean. Three millennia earlier, Hiram sent men to harvest cedars of Lebanon in a forest like the one I was in on this June day. I was harvesting images, they were harvesting timber. After cutting, logs were taken to the sea, rafted in booms, and floated to Joppa. From Joppa, they were taken overland to Solomon's building projects in Jerusalem.

Did Hiram's brawny men with their saws and rigging trample the wild peonies like those I saw on this spring day? Their large pink flowers in sun dappled openings contrasted with the more sacerdotal grey green of the cedar. Did the crashing trunks of the forest giants smash the numerous wildflowers of the forest floor? How foolish these questions would seem to the workmen assigned this difficult and dangerous task in a remote mountain fastness! After all, their mountains were covered with cedars; they were virtually unlimited on the Lebanon and Anti-Lebanon ranges. That was then. Now, instead of clothing mountain ranges in verdant splendor, these communities are reduced to a few hundred acres surrounded by an overgrazed and abused landscape. Cedar, a non-flowering seed plant , a gymnosperm like pine, is another Middle East refugee in its own land.

Like pines, two kinds of branches are found on cedar, known botanically as short shoots and long shorts. The leaves, or needles, are clustered in groups. Each group of needles is actually a modified shoot, called a short shoot. These are borne on the long shoots or branches. Two types of cones are also produced, male and female. The male cone is a few inches long, wormlike, and falls from the tree after pollen is shed. The female cone, on the other hand, is about the size of a lemon, but egg shaped. Like all true cedars, the cone is erect when mature, not pendant like the cones of pines. Two years are required for maturation At maturity, the cone breaks apart. Seeds are carried on winged structures, like gliders, which ensures a wide distribution. Seeds are not viable for long and must germinate in cool temperatures. At these high elevations and low temperatures, growth must be slow and require centuries to produce the majestic trees.

An old cedar is noble in bearing. No wonder it is an image of a mighty king-- regal, strong, tenacious(4). It is also likened to an upright man(5). Noble as a timber, cedar is resistant to decay, fragrant, and has a beautiful grain. Apparently it could not be harvested without a royal decree. This was true for the building of Solomon's temple as well as the rebuilding of the temple in the days of Ezra(6).

The first construction use in the Bible was for king's palaces(7). The most famous building of cedar, though not the largest, was the temple built by Solomon In addition, Solomon built a magnificent home for himself entirely out of cedar (I Kings 7); so grand was this building that it took thirteen years to complete, six more years than the temple. Earlier, his father had built a house out of cedar (II Samuel 7:2). The wealth of Solomon's reign, expressed in Semitic hyperbole, was indicated by cedar of Lebanon being a common building material(8). Other references associate the use of cedar with fleeting opulence(9). Like a Mercedes in every driveway, cedar was a status symbol during Solomon's reign(10).

A lesser known use of cedar was in oblations for purification. One example is the cleansing for leprosy(11). This offering required cedar wood. Details are not given, but it seems likely that small pieces of cedar were used for their fragrance.

Timber, uprightness, purification, fragrance-to these aspects of cedar we must add a final, perhaps obvious, image-- that of the most majestic plant(12). Solomon, the greatest botanist in the Bible, spoke about plants from the cedar of Lebanon to the "hyssop" suggesting that the cedar was the greatest(13). Was cedar of Lebanon the biggest tree known in Bible days?

Perhaps because it is widely planted or maybe because it is such a definite, well recognized symbol, the lore of cedar of Lebanon rapidly spread to the New World with European settlers. When these immigrants came to North America, in a day when Bible literacy was the norm, they called many different trees cedars-whether or not they were true cedars or even in the same family. For example, the widespread "red cedar" of Eastern North America is evergreen. And it does have a pleasant, enduring fragrance. But the cone is a fleshy, berry-like structure (known as juniper berries and one of the flavorings in gin), unlike the large spindle shaped cone of cedar of Lebanon. Nor is the name restricted to trees. Many herbaceous plants have "cedar" as part of their name. Ironic that the fame and planting of the cedar of Lebanon has expanded around the globe while the preservation of its natural habitat has not.


1. The definitive work on the religious symbolism, wood anatomy, and other aspects of the biology of the cedar is found in: Bikai, P. M. 1991. The Cedar of Lebanon: Archaeological and Dendrochronological Perspectives. PhD Dissertation, University of California, Berkeley.

2. The story of the building of the temple and the contract with Hiram is recorded in I Kings 5 and II Chronicles 2. Financial details are in 1 Kings 9:11.

3. Amos 2:9, Hosea 14:5.

4. Specifically, the king of Assyria (Ezekiel 31:3), and the Amorite (Amos 2:9). See also Jotham's parable of the trees in Judges 9:15.

5. Psalm 92:12

6. Ezra 3:7

7. II Samuel 7:2 describes David's concern over his majestic house, "... while the ark of God remains in a tent."

8. Kings 10:27

9. Jeremiah 22:7, 14, 15 and 23.

10. I Kings 10:27. The reference here no doubt refers to the timber of the cedar rather than to planted trees. Cedars would probably not survive at the lower elevations of the Judaean Mountains.

11. Leviticus 14. See also Numbers 19:6 (the red heifer sacrifice). Both the leprosy and the red heifer offerings were burned which would volatilize the cedar resin.

12. See also Numbers 24:6. The use of "aloes" (see Aloes) with cedars is confused ecology as they would not grow together. However, Balaam, who was from the northern part of Mesopotamia, no doubt saw cedar of Lebanon as he traveled south to serve Balaak.

13. 1 Kings 4:33.

Cedar of Lebanon. Near Slenfeh, Syria. May 2000 Cedar of Lebanon. Near Slenfeh, Syria. May 2000

The Surprising Cedars Of Syria

Cedrus libani, cedar of Lebanon, was the topic of a recent article in Plant Talk (17: 19-21) where stands of this magnificent tree and restoration efforts in the nation of Lebanon were discussed. Cedar of Lebanon is also found in Syria where a spectacular stand has recently been preserved as The Cedar-Fir Protected Area. This site is east of the mountain resort town of Slenfeh in the coastal range. Driving east from Slenfeh-and steeply up-the slope is covered with young cedars of Lebanon and large specimens of Juniperus drupacea. As the specific epithet implies, this juniper has large fruits, the size of plums. Understory plants include Cotoneaster nummularia, Veronica sp., Ranunculus sp. and spectacular populations of hellebore (Helleborus sp.).

On the west slope are vestiges of the Cilician fir (Abies cilicia). Some large specimens are present and there is evidence of regeneration. In May, the male cones were abundant. Like other species of firs, Cilician fir has a strong, pleasant fragrance.

The preserved area covers 1350 ha and ranges between 1100 to 1562 m above sea level. Large cedars are located at the summit and for a short distance down the east slope which presents a spectacular view of the Qa'ab Valley. The presence of a cedar forest on an east facing slope is hard to understand until one realizes that the valley, now a patchwork of fields dramatically spread a thousand meters below, was a wetland until about fifty years ago. Pierre Bikai, in his definitive study of the archaeology and dendrology of cedar of Lebanon, points out that the moisture in the valley may have enhanced the survival of the cedars far above. In the summer, clouds laden with coastal moisture linger at the ridge, flow downward a short distance, and then dissipate in the heat. Most of the rain comes in the winter, as expected. January rainfall is about 300 mm. Because of the clouds, about 4 mm of rain is recorded in August while all of Syria to the east is parched.

Associated with the cedars are genera of trees that would be familiar to residents of Europe and North America including maple (Acer hermoneum), ash (Fraxinus ornus), oak (Quercus cedorum-an endemic), hop hornbeam (Ostrya carpinifolia), and hornbeam (Carpinus orientalis).

I visited the site twice, in May and July 1999. In May the spectacular peony (Paeonia corallina, also known as P. muscula) was just beginning to flower. Cones on the cedar were still tight. It takes at least two years for the cones to mature. In mid-July, the fruits of the peony are opening. They are also spectacular. The follicles open to reveal bright-red seeds which turn a shiny blue. This is the time the cedar cones begin to separate, revealing the tips of the wings of the seeds. Like all cedars and firs, the cone disintegrates, releasing the winged seeds. Most of the cones I examined were severely damaged by insects. Only a few had seeds.

Thankfully, this area is protected by the Syrian government. However, it is still grazed. The drought of 1999 has been so severe that the government of Syria felt compelled to open all gazetted areas to grazing because of the scarcity of fodder.

From: Musselman, L. J. 1999. Surprising Cedars of Syria. Plant Talk 19:6. Cedar of Lebanon References

Cedar Natural Areas

Cedar of Lebanon is the national symbol of the Lebanese. This veneration has led to the establishment of several preserves for this magnificent tree. Visit some of these preserves.

Click here for additional images of Cedrus libani and its products.