In the ancient Mediterranean world the Phoenicians were suppliers of timber to kingdoms poor in wood and other natural resources. The cedars of Lebanon, Cedris libani, were especially valued for their fragrance and resistance to rot and insects.
In the Old Testament, Hiram, King of Tyre sends cedar for the temple in Jerusalem and the houses of David and Solomon. Cedar was used in Egypt for constructing royal sarcophagi and the resin was used for mummification. Cuneiform inscriptions tell us the Assyrians imported timber from the region of Lebanon starting at the end of the second millenium B.C.
Assyrian King Sargon II (721-705 B.C) imported cedar from Lebanon for his palace at Khorsabad (present-day Iraq). A series of stone friezes from Khorsabad record how cedar logs were processed and transported in the ancient world. The friezes are in the collection of the Louvre and on permanent display.
The first frieze takes place in a mountainous area. Logs have been cut and are being hauled away. It is thought the logs would have been taken to a port south of Tyre.
The second frieze is a double panel. In a swirling sea teeming with marine life there are ten ships. Seven ships are loaded with logs and are towing even more as they sail north along the Phoenician coast. Towards the bottom there are two guardians in the form of bearded and winged bulls.
In the next panel several ships approach the shore to unload while other ships have already offloaded their cargo and are pulling away. In this scene it is easier to see the wonderful depiction of sea life: crabs, fish, a sea snake, turtles and a few other creatures. If you look to the far left and center (about the 9 o’clock mark) you will see a merman, another guardian of the sea.
The last panel shows the cedar logs are being unloaded and pulled by a rope. Other logs have been trimmed and holes bored to take a rope. Futher movement of the cedar logs to Khorsabad was by river and road. The top of this last panel is a restoration. All of the friezes have some restoration based on drawings done when Khorsabad was rediscoverd in the mid-19th century.
The fact that the friezes were made tells us the importance of cedar as a resource to the Assyian kingdom. We also see the organization the Phoenicians had to accomplish the arduous and months-long work required to transport these massive logs from mountain to port, along the coast to the safety of the next port, and finally the preparation to move the heavy logs over land. Even with the mechanization available today logging is hard work. Imagine what it was like in the time of the Phoenicians.
I must also mention, as someone who has spent many hours in and on salt water, my absolute delight in the swirling waters and marine life in the friezes…and the merman.