A surprising little amount of national flags feature a tree in its design, given the fact that trees are so intrinsically and naturally connected to a country’s land, its nature and its identity. There are, however, exceptions. The flag of Belize features a mahogany tree. The flag of Norfolk Island, an Australian external territory, has a Norfolk Island pine tree at the center of its design. Haiti has a royal palm standing tall on its national lag. The most characteristic representation of a tree on a nation’s banner, however, goes to the cedrus libani libani, the cedar tree on the flag of Lebanon.
The cedar tree has several different subspecies, growing in mountainous regions like the Atlas and the Taurus Mountains. All of these, however, are considered subspecies or ecotypes of the cedrus libani, a specific epithet referring to Mount Lebanon, where the species was first described. In order to classify the trees by variation, the trees native to Mount Lebanon and, to a lesser extent, the Akrād and Turkmān Mountains in western Syria, were classified as cedrus libani var. libani.
Historically, this evergreen conifer, that can reach 40 m high and grow thousands of years old, played an important role in ancient shipbuilding. Cherryl Ward, who does research on the subject for the British Museum, writes in British Museum Studies in Ancient Egypt and Sudan 18 (2012) that the ancient Egyptians were, among others, dependent on cedar wood for their vessels. “Military actions, tribute and trade with peoples controlling the coastal zones of modern Lebanon and Syria provided the ancient Egyptians with cedar, a conifer that produces long, straight timber. This lightweight, durable and strongly scented resinous wood was valued for ships, furniture, statues, coffins and other finely crafted objects in the ancient world. The Egyptians had a nearly insatiable appetite for it.”
The cedar indeed provided a very lucrative business for the Phoenicians, a people centered on the coastal areas of modern day Lebanon, who traded it and made their famous ships from its wood. Zachary Anderson in his Ancient Civilizations of Western Asia and the Mediterranean (2015) writes: “One of Phoenicia’s most valuable resources was timber. The region’s mountains were covered in forests of Lebanon cedars, trees that were valuable for the exceptionally hard timber they yielded. The Phoenicians built their own ships out of this material, but also exported a great deal, particularly to Egypt, which had no trees of its own apart from palm trees.” He also mentions that according to the Biblical texts, king Solomon imported Lebanon cedar to use as the beams for his temple in Jerusalem around 950 BC. Indeed, the reputation of the cedar as an excellent and majestical tree earned it a proper mention in the Bible, more exactly in Psalm 92:12-13: “The righteous will flourish like a palm tree, they will grow like a cedar of Lebanon, planted in the house of the Lord.” Not only the Bible, but also the Epic of Gilgamesh mention the cedar tree of Lebanon. Often regarded as the earliest surviving great work of literature, the Neo-Assyrian Akkadian script of the fifth tablet, as translated and analysed by Maureen G. Kovacs in her The Epic of Gilgamesh (1989), reads: “They stood at the forest’s edge, gazing at the top of the cedar tree, gazing at the entrance to the forest. Where Humbaba would walk there was a trail, the roads led straight on, the path was excellent. Then they saw the Cedar Mountain, the dwelling of the gods. (…) Across the face of the mountain, the cedar brought forth luxurious foliage.”
When the Ottoman Empire collapsed after World War I and was subsequently split up by the Treaty of Sèvres in 1920, it was decided that four of its territories in the Middle East should be League of Nations mandates temporarily governed by the United Kingdom and France on behalf of the League. France was formally given a mandate over Syria and Lebanon. One of the territories of this newly made mandate was declared by French general Henri Gouraud (1867-1946) to be the State of Greater Lebanon, with Beirut as its capital. Its flag, as depicted in the 1934 version of Larousse encyclopedia, was the French tricolour with a cedar tree in its center. The reason was quite obvious actually. The State of Greater Lebanon was in fact an artificial enlargement of the former Mount Lebanon Mutasarrifate, a Christian-led autonomous statelet created in 1861 under European diplomatic pressure as a homeland for the Catholic Maronites following the 1860 Mount Lebanon civil war. Mount Lebanon is traditionally a region with a Christian majority, Muslims living more towards the coastal areas and the Biqā‘ Valley. Since the Maronite Mutasarrifate was taken as the original blueprint for the newly created Greater Lebanon, its main symbol was considered the cedar, the Mutasarrifate largely corresponding to the Mount Lebanon area. In 1920, in a text of the proclamation of the State of Greater Lebanon, it was said: “[a]n evergreen cedar is like a young nation despite a cruel past. Although oppressed, never conquered, the cedar is its rallying. By the union, it will break all attacks”.
After de Gaulle decided to recognize the independence of Lebanon in 1941, elections were held in 1943 and the new Lebanese government under (Maronite) president Bishāra al-Khūrī unilaterally abolished the mandate. The last French troops withdrew in 1946. The Constitution of Lebanon promulgated on 7th December 1943, “The Lebanese flag is made of red, white and red horizontal stripes, with the cedar in green in the center of the white stripe”. This concept was drawn down by members of the first Lebanese parliament. The cedar kept its original meaning. The white color on the flag represents the snow as a symbol of purity and peace. The two red stripes refer to the Lebanese blood shed to preserve the country against the successive invaders.
The cedar generally represents the whole of the Lebanese nation and is quite ubiquitous in the public political sphere. It forms a characteristic feature of the Lebanese Armed Forces’ logo, as well as the municipality of Beirut, the capital of Lebanon, which has the tree incorporated in its shield. Tripoli as well, being the second biggest city of the country. Some ministries also feature the tree in their official logo. However, many different Christian Maronite political groups and parties in Lebanon claim the cedar symbol for their own cause, which shows the unmistakable sectarian lines over which Lebanon is still divided. A number of these groups share the common idea of Lebanon being created by France as a Christian-majority country to serve the Christian interests in the region, as is illustrated by Stacy D. Fahrenthold in her Between the Ottomans and the Entente (2019). “Greater Lebanon would be a confessional republic under French tutelage, built on France’s claim as historic protector of Lebanese Christians in an overwhelmingly Muslim region. (…) In Gouraud’s vision presented that day, France had been invited to transform Lebanon’s confessional diversity into a political asset, to build a nation that would protect the future of Lebanon’s Christians who, although they were a religious minority in the region, would comprise a a numerical majority within Greater Lebanon’s borders.”
Besides this idea of Lebanon as a Christian state as originally intended by the French, common concepts adhered to by these Maronite groups are anti-Arabism, Phoenicianism (the idea of Lebanon as a non-Arab, Phoenician culture unique to the region with a proper language) and nationalist Falangism. They symbolize these ideas through the cedar tree, which they consider a symbol of Mount Lebanon, and thus the Christian homeland of the Maronites. The most well-known of these groups is the Katāʾib Party (Lebanese Phalanges Party), founded in 1936 by Pierre Gemayel. It was intended as a Maronite paramilitary youth organization modeled after the Spanish Falange, and its Regulatory Forces played a major role in the Civil War. Another major party is the Lebanese Forces (al-Quwwāt al-Lubnānīya), founded as a separate group in the early 1990’s by Samīr Jaʿjaʿ. Besides the flag of a colored cedar tree in a red circle, members also form the triangular cedar through a hands gesture. The Free Tigers (al-Numūr al-Aḥrār) was the military branch of the National Liberal Party, which was founded in 1958 by Camille Nimr Chamʿūn. Though more liberal than the aforementioned groups, the Free Tigers fought alongside the Falangists during the Civil War. The Guardians of the Cedar were a far-right ultranationalist militia founded by Etienne Ṣaqr in the early 1970’s. Its ideology was based on Phoenicianism and that the Lebanese nation is an independent non-Arab entity and not part of the Arab World.
Some other Christian factions to have played a role in the war and Lebanese politics but not necessarily ideologically aligned with the above-mentioned groups, featuring the cedar in their symbolism, are the Free Lebanon Army, the Marada Movement and the South Lebanon Army. Conversely none of the Civil War factions of a Muslim, leftist or Pan-Arabist background featured the cedar in its logo, which again emphasizes the sectarian lines when shit hits the fan. That includes Jamāʿat al-Tawḥīd, al-Murābiṭūn, SSNP, Amal, Ḥizballāh or Progressive Socialist Party.
Omer Sayadi (*1993) is a former student of the Catholic University of Leuven with a special love for the Middle East and North Africa. After receiving his Master’s degree in Arabic Language and Islamic Studies, he’s working with both refugees from the region as well as foreigners seeking to learn the Dutch language. He wrote columns on Islam in Europe and migration, and started MENA Symbolism as a means of combining everything history, politics, symbolism and society in one place.