Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2018.06.38 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2018.06.38

Sara A. Rich, Cedar Forests, Cedar Ships: Allure, Lore, and Metaphor in the Mediterranean Near East.   Oxford:  Archaeopress, 2017.  Pp. x, 280.  ISBN 9781784913656.  £36.00.  


Reviewed by Marcus Ziemann, The Ohio State University (marcusdziemann@gmail.com)

Table of Contents

In this book, which began its life as an archaeology dissertation at the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven, Sara Rich attempts to provide a history of eastern Mediterranean cedars from the trees’ perspective (a “hylocentric antinarrative,” as she calls it). In doing so, she includes biological, philological, historical, archaeological, and, not least, philosophical material relevant to her analysis of the cedars. Moreover, she deals with the cultures of ancient Mesopotamia, Egypt, the Levant, Greece and Rome, as well as the European and West Asiatic cultures of the Middle Ages, and the modern-day nation-states of the eastern Mediterranean. If this sounds like an ambitious project, it is, and Rich signals as much in her introduction. She promises to provide a history of the trees that is “object-oriented” (in the philosophical sense) and stresses the trees’ qualities and interactions with their environment (both ecological and anthropological). In particular, she wants to know how the trees’ qualities affected humans’ perception of them and how this perception in turn affected humans’ interactions with and utilization of the trees as resources. Despite her stated ambitions, I am not sure that she fully accomplishes what she intended. The book resembles a broader application of Carlo Ginzburg’s microhistories onto the cedar “industries” (for want of a better term), especially shipbuilding, from ancient to modern times. When Rich does attempt to broach the more metaphysical and psychological portions of her argument, she is frequently handicapped either by inadequate specialist knowledge (unsurprisingly, given the great number of fields she attempts to cover) or by arguing for the obvious or by pure speculation. That being said, this book is not without merit. Many of the factual errors are superficial, and the book is certainly a useful history of humans’ utilization of cedars in the Eastern Mediterranean.

Chapter 1 is a synthesis of the scientific aspects of the trees, including taxonomic classification, fossil history, and ecology.

Chapter 2 focuses on the role of cedars in cultures of the eastern Mediterranean from the earliest evidence in Mesopotamian and Nilotic cultures down to about the time of Alexander. She stresses that the well-known aromatic resin was one of the most important qualities that contributed to its “allure” for humans. Much as we use cedar-wood today to help protect clothing from moths, the ancients’ appreciated the resin for its anti-rot and insecticidal properties. The resin, a natural sealant that would only be surpassed by artificial resins and pitch in later times, helped protect timber used for ships to withstand rot from exposure to sea-water. In addition, cedar is structurally a much harder wood than pine or cypress, so it was also useful for building permanent structures. Rich maintains that these properties contributed to the ancient Mesopotamians’, Egyptians’, and Levantines’ association of cedars with the divine, proposing that the durability of the timber functioned metonymically for the immortality of the divine realm. While Mesopotamian and Biblical texts do connect cedars to the divine, they do not offer any hints as to why, and she does not cite any ancient textual source that explicitly (or even implicitly) makes this connection. In the case of the Egyptians, the connection to the divine is purely speculative.

The textually oriented scholar will find in this and the following chapters a valuable survey of references to cedars in ancient texts, but will find frequent problems with Rich’s use of them. To give one example, Rich builds an argument on a passage that she as cites as Tablet VI, Column 1, lines 38-49 of the Epic of Gilgamesh, but both her reading and her citation are problematic (p. 58). First, Rich has misidentified this passage (it is actually Tablet VII, and her line numbers are slightly off). Second, in the first portion of the text, the ends of all of the lines are missing (at least three cuneiform signs each), yet Rich’s source has all of the words strung together as a connected sentence. Third, the second portion of the text is misconstrued to make it say something quite different from its actual sense, and this misunderstanding affects Rich’s discussion of the passage. She contextualizes the passage as Enkidu lamenting the destruction of the natural beauty of the Cedar Forest, but that is not the narrative thrust of this episode. Enkidu is about to die because he and Gilgamesh disrespected the goddess Ishtar, and he is angry that the journey to the Cedar Forest set in motion the chain of events that led to their impious acts against Ishtar and his subsequent death. Rich uses a news website called the Assyrian International News Agency as her source, which has no connection to any professional Assyriologists that I can determine. What this website presents as the Epic of Gilgamesh is the creative prose re- imagining of the epic published by N.K. Sandars in 1960 (Penguin Classics). Elsewhere Rich cites information from Andrew George’s introduction to his (standard) edition of the text, but she never uses George’s or any other easily accessible professional translations when she cites the epic. She also uses Heidel’s obsolete The Gilgamesh Epic and Old Testament Parallels. Furthermore, she uses Cowley’s older editions of the Elephantine Papyri rather than Bezalel Porten’s newer, standard editions (which also come with translations into English and Modern Hebrew).

Chapter 3 continues the history of humans’ utilization of cedars up to the modern period. The Greeks and Romans did not share their eastern Mediterranean neighbors’ fascination with cedars, so there is much less to say here. After the Christianization of the Roman Empire, some interest was again paid to cedars because of the importance of cedars in the Bible, but never again did cedar timber become the most sought-after lumber for construction as it was for the Mesopotamians and Levantines. Ships were increasingly built with pine and artificially sealed and treated with other pitches and resins. In the modern period, cedars have become a source of tourism dollars for those interested in the Bible’s Cedars of Lebanon.

Chapters 4 and 5 return to the ancient world to explore the symbolism behind the use of cedar for the construction of ships. These chapters again rely largely on speculation (as Rich admits), without explicit ancient testimony to confirm the arguments. The most convincing part of these chapters is the connection she draws between the Egyptians’ use of funerary boats and sarcophagi made from cedar. She makes a very interesting connection between the cedar industries in Byblos and the interment of Osiris’ body in a cedar box in Byblos. However, absent any confirmation from the Egyptians, it is perhaps premature to attribute the use of cedar to Egyptian religious ideas connecting cedar to the immortal and divine. She does not adequately address the obvious Occam’s Razor counterargument: perhaps cedar was simply used because it is a rugged material that will last and not rot quickly? There is a strong correlation between cedars and the divine only in texts from the Bible and Mesopotamia, yet all of the ships analyzed in these two chapters were built by people from other cultures (ancient Egypt, Phoenicia, and Greece). Can we assume so readily that these peoples shared the Mesopotamian and Biblical writers’ views?

The sections dealing with cedar wood for shipbuilding in the Levant are likewise not entirely persuasive. Rich uses textual and cultural evidence from well after 700 BCE in order to explicate the building practices, symbolism, and beliefs of the builders of ships that sank in the fourteenth century BCE. Nowhere does she indicate how she knows that religious practices and beliefs remained consistent across the different areas of the Levant and over the course of more than half a millennium. Moreover, she treats all Levantine gods/goddesses and cultural practices as though they were “pan”-Levantine and not regional/city specific. Lastly, she does not address the problem of what asherim were, simply relying on the traditional understanding of them as a “cult-pole,” which is problematic for her argument that ships’ masts were understood as asherim. Indeed, we have no archaeological evidence for asherim, so projecting the concept of the asherah as found only in Biblical texts and a few inscriptions from after 700 BCE onto Phoenician ships of the fourteenth century BCE is problematic.

Finally, Chapter 6 maps attitudes towards cedars from late antiquity to the modern day. Rich links the replacement of sustainable harvesting of cedars by the deforestation of lower-quality timbers for ship-building to the more prevalent view that the natural world exists to be exploited by mankind, which seems plausible enough. However, she arrives at this conclusion by an odd route – the idea that St Augustine and al-Ghazali were vehement Aristotelians may raise some eyebrows. It seems simpler to attribute this viewpoint to the influence from Genesis 1:26-30 and the similar belief found in Stoic philosophy.

The epilogue primarily traces the efforts by modern nation-states to establish forestry regulations to rollback the effects of deforestation. The direct mention of cedars by governmental agencies in this section is glaringly absent. It seems that these agencies’ concerns are related far more to the preservation of their forests generally than to the specific qualities of the cedars.

The bulk of this study is devoted to assembling a wide array of information from disparate disciplines, which is a great service to the academic community, and this monograph will undoubtedly be a useful reference for years to come. The problems arise primarily in the areas where Rich attempts to make her most ambitious arguments, speculating beyond the limits to which the evidence can be pushed, and her arguments are weakened by a lack of sufficient specialist knowledge of the texts and cultures with which she deals. Despite my critiques of this book, I would like to reiterate that this project assembles a great deal of useful data about cedars, undoubtedly an important topic in the study of the ancient world.

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