Into the Dark Wood

A needleaf forest in the the Troödos Mountains of central Cyprus. Trees have been an important natural resource on this Mediterranean island for millennia. In ancient times, even the plains of Cyprus were covered in forest. See Strabo’s Geography 14.6.5. Here is a link.

We park the RHD (right hand drive) vehicle on the “wrong” side of the road and walk to the lookout. The mountains of Western Cyprus unfold. It is magnificent. One does not expect such vertical drama on an island. Clinging to crumbling slopes are some of the oldest trees on planet earth. I rehearse my paradigms. It is “highland forest” in Mediterranean style: windswept, cool, dry. Scientists use the term biome to describe regions with unique constellations of climate, fauna, and flora.

A Cyprus cedar (Cedrus brevifolia), considered by some to be a subspecies of the better-known Cedrus libani or the “cedar of Lebanon.” Cedar wood is fragrant and valuable. It was famously used by Solomon to build the Jerusalem temple. I bagged this one at an elevation of about 3,000 feet in Cedar Valley, Cyprus.

An astonishing diversity of biomes are identified with modern-day landscapes of the Biblical arena. Long peninsulas and high mountain chains enhance this (as we say in class, raw geography does more here to divide than to unify). Pushing against these fragmenting forces, however, are warming patterns (deciduous forests are clearly marching north) and human abuse (take your pick: axe, fire, sheep, or goat?). Clearly, the impoverishment of nature is already well along the way by the first millennium BC (see Blondel and Aronson’s Biology and Wildlife of the Mediterranean Region, 1999). And unfortunately, dry environments are fragile environments with little tolerance for abuse.

Still, four primary categories characterize the biblical world: forests, shrublands, grasslands, and deserts (“No, Matilda, it is not all desert!”). A brief survey of these groups provides a departure point for identifying some of the more prominent plants and animals mentioned in the Bible. For the moment consider the trees of the highland forest.

A stand of Aleppo pines (Pinus halepensis) near Jerash, Jordan are a reminder that great forests once covered these hills. In the Bible, this is the region of “Gilead,” a word that may describe the “hump” of a camel!

Needleleaf evergreen forests extend the length of Northern Europe and Asia. In the lands of the Bible, parallel conditions exist in sub-alpine areas of high ranges (e.g., Lebanon, Troödos, Pontic, and Zagros Mountains). The climate here is damp, cool to cold, with distinctive floral and faunal communities.

The bark and leaves of the Palestinian Oak (Quercus calliprinos). Like its cousin, the Mt Tabor Oak, the Palestinian Oak is a small semi-evergreen tree. Both are gnarly and shrub-like but produce a hardwood with many uses.

Climax vegetation in these forests includes coniferous trees of pine, fir, cedar, and juniper. In many cases, these were cleared in antiquity; limited stands remain today. Biblical references allude to the height, strength, and value of the cedars of Lebanon (Cedrus libani; Heb. ‘erez), while the Aleppo pine (Pinus halepensis) and the highland juniper (Juniperus phoenicia) have yet to be positively identified in the Biblical text. At lower elevations these needleleaf forests blend and yield to broadleaf forests.

A lovely specimen of the Mt. Tabor Oak (Quercus ithaburensis). I found this one wandering far from Mt. Tabor (!), near Çanakkale, Turkey. In antiquity, this species dominated the highlands of Israel-Palestine.

Mixed broadleaf forests exist in areas of southern Europe and press southward into the Levant as well as the Italian, Balkan, and Anatolian peninsulas.  These regions resemble areas of eastern North America; temperatures and rainfall fluctuate and give rise to biomes rich in life. Climax vegetation includes the maple, beech, and oak. The latter (Quercus; Heb. elon), is noted in the Bible as a specimen or landmark tree (e.g., Gen 13:18; Gen 35:8) or part of a dense highland forest (2 Sam 18:8, 9).