Majestic cedar trees towered over dozens of Lebanese Christians gathered outside a small mid-19th century chapel hidden in a mountain forest to celebrate the Feast of the Transfiguration, the miracle in which Jesus Christ, on a mountaintop, shined with light before his disciples.
The sunset’s yellow light coming through the cedar branches bathed the leader of Lebanon’s Maronite Church, Patriarch Beshara al-Rai, as he stood at a wooden podium and delivered a sermon. Then the gathering sang hymns in Arabic and the Aramaic language.
For Lebanon’s Christians, the cedars are sacred, these tough evergreen trees that survive the mountain’s harsh snowy winters. They point out with pride that Lebanon’s cedars are mentioned 103 times in the Bible. The trees are a symbol of Lebanon, pictured at the center of the national flag.
The iconic trees in the country’s north are far from the clashes between Hezbollah militants and Israeli troops along the Lebanon-Israel border in recent weeks against the backdrop of the Israel-Hamas war.
The long-term survival of the cedar forests is in doubt for another reason, as rising temperatures due to climate change threaten to wipe out biodiversity and scar one of the country’s most iconic heritage sites for its Christians.
The lush Cedars of God Forest, some 2,000 meters (6,560 feet) above sea level near the northern town of Bcharre, is part of a landscape cherished by Christians. The preserve overlooks the Kadisha Valley — Aramaic for “sacred” — where many Christians took refuge from persecution over Lebanon’s tumultuous history. One of the world’s largest collections of monasteries remains hidden among the thick trees, caves and rocky outcroppings along the deep, 35-kilometer (22-mile) valley.
The United Nations’ culture agency UNESCO in 1998 listed both the cedar forest and the valley as World Heritage Sites. They’ve become popular destinations for hikers and environmentalists from around the world. A growing number of Lebanese of all faiths visit as well, seeking fresh air away from the cities.
“People from all religions visit here, not just Christians … even Muslims and atheists,” said Hani Tawk, a Maronite Christian priest, as he showed a crowd of tourists around the Saint Elisha Monastery. “But we as Christians, this reminds us of all the saints who lived here, and we come to experience being in this sacred dimension.”
Climate change and mismanagement
Environmentalists and residents say the effects of climate change, exacerbated by government mismanagement, pose a threat to the ecosystem of the valley and the cedar forest.
“Thirty or 40 years from now, it’s quite possible to see the Kadisha Valley’s biodiversity, which is one of the richest worldwide, become much poorer,” said Charbel Tawk, an environmental engineer and activist in Bcharre — unrelated to Hani Tawk.
Lebanon for years has felt the heat of climate change, with farmers decrying lack of rain and forest fires wreaking havoc on pine forests north of the country, similar to blazes that scorched forests in neighboring Syria and nearby Greece. Residents across much of the country, struggling with rampant electricity cuts, could barely handle the summer’s soaring heat.
Temperatures have been above 30 degrees Celsius (86 Fahrenheit) in Bcharre, not uncommon along Lebanon’s coastal cities but unusual for the mountainous northern town.
Nuns in the medieval Qannoubin Monastery, perched on the side of a hill in the Kadisha Valley, fanned themselves and drank water in the shade of the monastery’s courtyard. They reminisced about when they could sleep comfortably on summer nights without needing much electricity.
Impact already seen
Already, there are worrying signs of the impact on the cedars and Kadisha.
Warmer temperatures have brought larger colonies of aphids, which feed on the bark of cedar trees and leave a secretion that can cause mold, Charbel Tawk said. Bees normally remove the secretion, but they have become less active. Aphids and other pests also last longer in the season and reach higher altitudes because of warmer weather.
Such pests threaten to stunt or damage cedar growth.
Tawk worries that if temperatures continue to change like this, cedars at lower altitudes might not be able to survive. Fires are becoming more of a potential danger.
Cedar trees usually grow at an altitude from 700 up to 1,800 meters (about 1 mile) above sea level. Tawk’s organization has planted some 200,000 cedars over the years at higher altitudes and in areas where they were not present. Some 180,000 survived.
“Is it climate change or whatever it is happening in nature that these cedars are able to survive at 2,100 to 2,400 meters?” Tawk asked, while checking on a grove of cedars on a remote hilltop.
Local priests and environmental activists have urged Lebanon’s government to work with universities to do a wide-ranging study on temperature changes and the impact on biodiversity.
But Lebanon has been in the throes of a crippling economic crisis for years. State coffers are dried up, and many of the country’s top experts are rapidly seeking work opportunities abroad.
“There is nothing today called the state. … The relevant ministries, even with the best intentions, don’t have the financial capabilities anymore,” Bcharre Mayor Freddy Keyrouz said. He and the mayors of nearby towns have asked residents to help with conservation initiatives and Lebanese diaspora abroad to help with funding.
The Maronite Church has strict rules to protect the Cedars of God Forest, including keeping development out of it. Kiosks, tourist shops and a large parking lot have been set far away from the forest.
“We don’t allow anything that is combustible to be brought into the sacred forest,” said Charbel Makhlouf, a priest at Bcharre’s Saint Saba Cathedral.
The Friends of the Cedar Forest Committee, to which Tawk belongs, has been looking after the cedar trees for almost three decades, with the church’s support. It has installed sensors on cedar trees to measure temperature, wind and humidity, watching for worsening conditions that could risk forest fires.
Trouble beyond the forest
Below the forest, in the Kadisha Valley, Tawk points to other concerns.
In particular, the spread of cypress trees threatens to crowd out other species, “breaking this equilibrium that we had in the valley,” he said.
“We’ve seen them increase and tower over other species, whether it’s taking sunlight, wind or expanding their roots,” he said. “It will impact other plants, birds, insects and all the reptile species down there.”
Steps to protect the valley have actually hurt its biodiversity by removing human practices that had been beneficial, Tawk said.
In the past, herders grazing their goats and other livestock in the valley helped prevent the spread of invasive species. Their grazing also reduced fire hazards, as did local families collecting deadwood to burn in the winter.
But residents left the valley when it became a heritage site and the Lebanese government implemented strict regulations. Few live there now other than a handful of priests and nuns.
“Trees have overtaken places where people lived and farmed,” Tawk said. “Now a fire could move from one end of the valley to the other.”
Sitting in a cave near the Qannoubine Monastery, Father Hani Tawk listened to the variety of birds chirping in the valley. He said he believes in the community’s faith and awareness of nature, engrained since their ancestors took refuge here.
“When you violate that tree, you’re intruding on a long history, and possibly the future of your children,” he said.