A red-roofed town set among the eastern foothills of Mount Sannine, Zahleh 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 the town on the upper elevations of the west bank and the shopping district on the east bank.
At the northern end of the town is the Bardouni river valley known as Wadi el-Aarayesh (Grape Vine Valley) – the site of Zahleh's famous outdoor restaurants.
Zahleh styles itself "The City of Wine and Poetry", and with good reason. Over the past century alone some fifty poets and writers have been born here and almost as many excellent wines and araks have been produced in the area.
The romance of wine and poetry is balanced by Zahleh'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.
Zahlé is also an agricultural town in an area which produces vegetables, fruit, grain and, most importantly, grapes.
Tucked away from Lebanon's busy coastal centers, the people of Zahleh 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.
Zahleh in History
Zahleh 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.
Zahleh was burned in 1777 and 1791, and it was burned and plundered again in 1860.
But during the rule of the Mutasarrifiah, Zahleh 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, Mossul and Baghdad. Considered the birthplace of the Lebanese army, Zahleh has played a major role in the political life of the country.
Zahleh's Bardaouni Restaurants
The Bardaouni is a river that flows out of Mount Sannine and down through Zahleh. It is also a name synonymous with Lebanon's famous mezze and the delights of outdoor dining.
The Bardaouni 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", each one more inviting than the other. 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 mezze as 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 Bardaouni are the restaurants of Kaa El Reem, also known for their excellent food and atmosphere.
Our Lady of Zahleh and the Bekaa
For a spectacular view go up to the top of the 54m of the tower of Our lady of Zahleh. A lift will take you to a panoramic platform overlooking the city and the plain of the Bekaa. The top is crowned with a statue done by an Italian artist named Pierroti: A 10-meter bronze statue representing the Virgin Mary. In the basement of the tower you can find a small vault which can contain 100 persons.
Wine and Arak
Zahleh'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 the town with names like Wadi Hadi, Harqat, Bir Ghazour and Tell Zeina are covered with the neat rows of vineyards that supply Zahleh's wine and arak industries.
Many of the wines have been formally recognized abroad for their fine quality–equal to some of the best in Europe. A tour of Zahleh'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.
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 national symbols.
Zahleh 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 festival.
The next morning a Mass is celebrated place at Our Lady of Najat Church, followed by a procession of townspeople following the Holy Eucharist through the streets.
- Zahle, The Bride of the Beqaa: >> View Movie << (2002-06-01)