Bride of the Beqaa
A red-roofed town set among the eastern
foothills of Mount Sannine, Zahlé enjoys a prime location in
the Beqaa valley. Snowcapped mountains tower above it in
winter, while in summer its 945-meter elevation keeps the air
light and dry.
The city center spreads along both banks of
the Bardouni River, with the older section of town on the
upper elevations of the west bank and the shopping district on
the east bank.
At the northern end of town is the Bardouni river valley known
as Wadi el-Aarayesh (Grape Vine Valley) – the site of Zahlé's
famous outdoor restaurants. Zahlé styles itself "The
City of Wine and Poetry", and with good reason. In
this century alone some 50 poets and writers were born here
almost as many excellent wines and araks have been produced in
The romance of wine and poetry is balanced
by Zahlé's more businesslike position as the administrative
and commercial capital of the Beqaa valley (42.27% of
Lebanon's territory) as well as its rank as the country's
third largest city (population 150,000).
Zahlé is also an agricultural town which produces vegetables,
fruit, grains and most importantly, grapes.
away from Lebanon's busy coastal centers, the people of Zahlé
have developed their own brand of individualism and way of
doing things. Even their spoken Arabic has a particular flair.
The city's reputation for intellectual vigor comes from a long
line of writers, thinkers and poets who have contributed to
Lebanon's cultural and political scene.
Zahlé in History
was founded about 300 years ago in an area whose past reaches
back some five millennia. In the early 18th century the new
town was divided into three separate quarters, each of which
had its own governor.
The city enjoyed a brief period as the
region's first independent state in the 19th century when it
had its own flag and anthem.
Zahlé was burned in 1777 and 1791, and it
was burned and plundered in 1860.
But during the rule of the Mutasarrifiah, Zahlé began to
regain its prosperity. The railroad line which came through in
1885 improved commerce and the town became the internal
"port" of the Beqaa and Syria. It was also the
center of agriculture and trade between Beirut and Damascus,
Mosul and Baghdad. Considered the birthplace of the Lebanese
army, Zahlé has played a major role in the political life of
The Bardouni is a river that flows out of
Mount Sannine and down through Zahlé. It is also a name
synonymous with Lebanon's famous mezze and the delights of
The Bardouni restaurant tradition began
over a hundred years ago with a few simple riverside cafes.
Today it is a virtual bazaar of tree-shaded eating places
known as "casinos," every one more inviting than the
next. Not surprisingly, competition is fierce, so each
establishment outdoes itself with fountains, pools, and
cooling shade to tempt potential customers.
Here you can enjoy the traditional Lebanese
it is served nowhere else. To add to the sense of
timelessness, delicious mountain bread is baked before your
eyes and a man in baggy trousers and fez is on hand to pour
Lebanese coffee. He can also provide diners with a hubble-bubble
(water pipe). On the cliffs above the Bardouni are the
restaurants of Kaa el Reem, also known for their excellent
food and atmosphere.
Zahlé's association with the grape
is pervasive, for it lies at the heart of an area that
has been making wine since early antiquity. At the
city's southern entrance the statue of a graceful female
personifies wine and poetry, but you don't have to look
far to see evidence of the real thing. The hills north
of town with names like Wadi Hadi, Harqat, Bir Ghazour
and Tell Zeina are covered with the neat rows of
vineyards that supply Zahle's wine and arak industries.
Many of the wines have been formally recognized abroad
for their fine quality–equal to some of the
in Europe. A tour of Zahlé's Ksara winery is a good way
to see how wine and arak are made. Of special interest
here are the extensive underground caves built around a
natural grotto known and enlarged by the Romans.
Monastery of Our Lady of Najat
Each year between the 10th and 20th
of September Zahlé mounts its week-long "
Festival of the Vine", a celebration shared
with the city's " Flower Festival".
In a carnival-like atmosphere "Miss Vine" is
elected and cars are decorated with flowers representing
Zahlé is also famous for its
Corpus-Christi festival which dates back to 1825 when
the town was spared the ravages of a contagious disease.
Corpus-Christi is celebrated on the first Thursday of
June with a torch-light parade held on the eve of the
next morning a mass takes place at Our Lady of Najat
Church, followed by a procession of townspeople
carrying the "Holy Bread" through the streets.
H A T T O S E E I N
Z A H L E
The Geha House
good example of Zahlé's local architecture is the restored Geha
House in the old part of town. Although this is a private
home, one can easily appreciate its courtyard, garden and
arched upper galleries – all typical of 17th century
underground tunnel 1,400 meters long leads from the
house to the church of St. Elias (Al-Tuwak). Built by
Sheikh Khalil Geha in the early 17th century, today the
seventh generation of the Geha family resides in this
Other private residences in the same
area are the lovely al-Hindi, Youssef Azar and Wadih
Skaf houses. These are several hundred years old and
also designed with arcades and walled gardens.
Serail (The municipality)
The restored Serail or government
house in the old part of town dates from 1885. This
beautiful building, whose architecture reflects the
European and Arab influences of the Ottoman period, will
soon house the offices of the municipality and a museum
illustrating Zahlé's history.
the start of the 20th century Zahle began building hotels to
serve its budding tourist and summer resort trade. Although
the "Sohat" (health) Hotel built in 1878 has been
demolished, three establishments from this era can still be
seen: the Hotel America, the Hotel Akl and the Hotel
Kadri (undergoing restoration).
The Kadri, built in 1906, has seen its
share of history. The hotel was taken over by the Turkish
army in 1914 and used as
headquarters and a hospital during World War I.
It was from the Kadri as well that in 1920 the French Mandate
authorities announced annexation
Hotel America in Zahlé
judiciary areas which would give "Greater Lebanon"
its present-day borders.
The Souk al-Blatt,
or "tiled market" is a market street leading to one
of the oldest parts of the city. A large part of Zahle's
history was written in this souk, where in former times
travelers to and from Syria, Baghdad and Palestine bought and
sold their goods. A project is planned to restore the street
and make it a center for crafts and other traditional
El-Zarani is located near the post office on the east side of
the river. In past centuries this housh, or market
area, was a conglomerate of khans (caravansaries), craft
center and shops. Here shoemakers, woodworkers weavers, copper
workers and saddle makers plied their trades. It was also an
important commercial center where vendors sold agricultural
and industrial products.
Many of the old buildings, embellished by
carved ceilings, vaulted interiors and decorated façades,
still stand. Today these structures are somewhat obscured by
modern shopfronts, but projects are afoot to restore the area.
In the meantime you can still discover a taste of old Zahlé
Zalzaly is Zahlé's oldest church. Built in 1700, it
originally stood at the center of the city.
The Church of St. Elias
Church of St. Elias is the second church built in Zahlé
(1720). This impressive structure is also known as Al-Moukhallasiah.
The Monastery of Our Lady of
Monastery (1720) has the largest bell tower in Lebanon.
The monastery is known as well for a beautiful icon of the
Virgin Mary, a gift from the King of Prussia.
of Saint Elias at-Tuwak
Monastery of Saint Elias at-Tuwak,
which dates to
1755, was renovated in 1880 after a fire. Today it
remains one of Zahlés most venerable monuments.
Tell Shiha Hospital
landmark Tell Shiha Hospital, with its red tile roof,
was opened in 1948. Located on a high hill of the same
name, this site is a good spot for photographs.
Our Lady of Zahle and the
For the most spectacular view, go to the
54-meter-high hill-top tower of Our Lady of Zahle and the
Beqaa located east of town. here an elevator takes you up to a
viewing platform overlooking the city and the extending plain.
The structure is crowned with a ten-meter-high bronze statue
of the Virgin, the work of the Italian artist, Pierroti. The
base houses a small chapel seating about 100 people.
Our Lady of
and the Beqaa
The Zahlé area has some
scattered ancient remains indicating a history going back at
least to the Bronze Age (1200 - 3000 B.C.). You can see cave
tombs in the cliffs of the Wadi el-Aarayesh, while Byzantine,
Roman and Canaanite sarcophagi and ancient pottery sherds have
been found in the hills around the city.
All amenities are available in Zahlé,
which has plenty of good shopping and souvenir shops. There
are 12 working hotels, numerous restaurants and cafés, plus
recreational centers, night clubs and cinemas. Sixteen banks
do business in this commercial center in addition to insurance
and currency exchange companies.
Zahlé's Tourism Office, a part of the
Ministry of Tourism, has offices on the third floor of the
Chamber of Commerce, Industry and Agriculture building.
Fifty-four kilometers separate Beirut from
Zahlé going via Sofar and Chtaura.
A slightly longer route is by way of Dhour ech-Choueir in
Mount Lebanon. Both roads bring you to the south end of the
T H E A R E A
Karak (Noah's Tomb)
kilometer beyond Zahle is the 'tomb of Noah" found in the
village mosque. Although Noah's tomb is 42 meters long and 2.5
meters wide, tradition says that he still had to be buried
with his knees bent. There is an ancient Arabic inscriptions
on the walls of the mosque, which was apparently constructed
of reused Roman stones.
In nearby Furzol you can see the scant
remains of a Roman temple just off the central roundabout.
Beyond the upper end of the town is the Wadi el-Habis
(Valley of the Hermit) with tombs and rock-cut sanctuaries
from Roman and Byzantine times. A fascinating place to
explore, hickers can also venture up the rocks above the site.
At the base of the caves is a café with paved terraces.
in Niha village, this restored temple of the Syro-Phoenician
god Hadaranes is imposing in its size and beauty. A much
smaller temple nearby, perhaps dedicated to a divinity related
to water, has not been restored.
Upper temples: From Niha a steep
rural roadway, usually traveled by foot, takes you up 300
meters to Husn Niha, or the "fortress of Niha". Here
you will find two partially preserved Roman temples.
estate, now a farm, is located on the main road just south of
Chtaura and is identified by a large sign. A visit to
Tannayal, owned by the Jesuit fathers since 1860, is a good
introduction to agriculture in the Beqaa valley. In addition
to the usual farm animals you can see a large collection of
exotic fowl including peacock and doves.
A teaching facility for the Faculty of
Agriculture at Saint Joseph University, Tannayel also has
vineyards and fruit orchards. An artificial lake adds to the
beauty of the site. Locally produced dairy products are for
sale here too.
Kfar Zabad and Ain Kfar
steep footpath from this village leads to the remains of two
Roman temples located on a high hill. Northeast of the lower
temple is a rock-cut relief of Venus locally known as
"Bint el Malik" or the king's daughter.
For those interested in spelunking, a
beautiful little cave, explored to 125 meters, can be entered
with the use of ropes. Drive about a kilometer along a dirt
road from Kfar Zabad towards the Anti-Lebanon mountains. A
mountain footpath (15 minutes) brings you to the entrance.