Location in Lebanon

Coordinates: 33°50′N 35°55′E / 33.833°N 35.917°E / 33.833; 35.917Coordinates: 33°50′N 35°55′E / 33.833°N 35.917°E / 33.833; 35.917
Country  Lebanon
Governorate Beqaa Governorate
  Mayor Asaad Zoghaib
  City 8 km2 (3 sq mi)
  Metro 90 km2 (30 sq mi)
Highest elevation 1,150 m (3,780 ft)
Lowest elevation 900 m (2,953 ft)
  City 40,000
  Metro 200,000
Time zone EET (UTC+2)
  Summer (DST) EEST (UTC+3)
Postcode 1801
Area code(s) 8

Zahlé (also transliterated Zahleh; Lebanese Arabic: زحلة  pronounced [ˈzaħle]; Armenian: Զահլէ) is the capital and the largest city of Beqaa Governorate, Lebanon. With around 50,000 inhabitants, it is the fourth largest city in Lebanon after Beirut, Tripoli [1][2] and Baalbek, and the fifth largest taking the whole urban area (the Jounieh urban area is larger).

It is 55 km (34 mi) east of the capital Beirut, close to the Beirut-Damascus road, and lies at the junction of the Lebanon mountains and the Beqaa plateau, at a mean elevation of 1000 m.[3] Zahlé is known as the "Bride of the Beqaa" and "the Neighbor of the Gorge" for its geographical location and attractiveness, but also as "the City of Wine and Poetry" [4] It is famous throughout Lebanon and the region for its pleasant climate, numerous riverside restaurants and quality arak. Its inhabitants are predominantly Greek Catholic and are known as Zahlawis.


Zahlé in the 19th century

The name Zahlé is a Syriac word that refers to "moving places". The occasional landslides that take place on deforested hills around the town are probably at the origin of the name.


There has been human activity in the area for at least 5000 years. In the 18th century, Zahlé was a small village of some 200 houses.[5] Its relative geographic isolation from the local centres of power in Mount Lebanon and Syria made the village not have any significant allies in the region to fall back on in case of conflicts or attacks. Zahlé was burned in 1777 and 1791.

Tradition holds that many Christians quit the Baalbek region in the 18th century for the newer, more secure town of Zahlé on account of the Harfush dynasty's oppression and rapacity, but more critical studies have questioned that interpretation by pointing out that the dynasty was closely allied to the Orthodox Ma‘luf family of Zahlé (where Mustafa Harfush took refuge some years later) and showing that depredations from various quarters as well as Zahlé’s growing commercial attractiveness accounted for Baalbek's decline in the 18th century.What repression there was did not always target the Christian community per se. The Shiite ‘Usayran family, for example, is also said to have left Baalbek then to avoid expropriation by the Harfushes and established itself as one of the premier commercial households of Sidon and later even served as consuls of Iran.[6]

By 1820, Zahlé's population had grown to 5000. By 1850 it was 7000 to 8000 and the town had become the commercial centre for the Beka'a and main depot for the local grain harvest. Some of the factors for the expansion included the Egyptian Occupation (1831-1841), which lead to the opening of the country to European trade, the Crimean War which had caused grain shortages in Europe and the expansion of silk production in Mount Lebanon.[7]

Besides controlling the grain trade Zahlé became a centre for livestock from Kurdistan and Arabia and produced leather, woven and dyed goods, trading with Aleppo, Damascus and Beirut. By the 1860s and 1870s the local merchants were prosperous but were still dependent on banks in Beirut for credit for their transactions.[8]

Sectarian Wars 1840 and 1860

Zahlé enjoyed a brief period as the region's first independent state in the 19th century, sporting its own flag and anthem

Quoting a contemporary Christian historian of the siege of Zahlé in the year 1841:The Harfushes did not credit Zahlé only, but also all Christians in Lebanon. The Christians would have been humiliated if they had lost their battle (Zahlé) against the Druze, who had (the Druze) earlier won the battle in Deir Al Qamar ( The Harfushes stood behind the Christians and defeated the Druze in the battle field of Zahlé).[9]

At the time of the civil war of 1860 Zahlé had a population to 10,000 with its prosperity based on wheat, sheep and silk. In June of that year the town came under siege from a mixed Kurd, Arab and Druze force, numbering 8,000, which approached from the Beqaa valley. The Druze contingent was led by Ismail el Atrash and they were reported to have killed 700 Christians in Rashaiyat el Wady. On 14 June the defenders launched an attack with 200 horsemen and 600 men on foot. They were defeated and 70 killed. A similar sortie was launched the following day with the same result. The local Ottoman Kaimakam offered the population protection if they surrendered their weapons. This offer was rejected. On 18 June the attackers launched a diversionary attack which drew most of the towns 4,000 defenders into the open upon which a force of 1,200 Druze attacked the town from the surrounding hillsides quickly occupying the town centre. The defenders abandoned the town and retreated into the mountains rising 3,000 feet to the Northwest. All the buildings including "The Lady of Refuge" Church were burnt to the ground. The Maronite leadership, with 15,000 armed men less than six hours away, were accused of not doing anything to assist the town. Zahlé was one of the first towns to be re-built with its citizens returning in the autumn, and much of their wealth having escaped the looting.[10]

The construction of the railroad line between Beirut and Damascus in 1885 brought prosperity to Zahlé, which became a freight hub on the trade route between Lebanon, Syria and Iraq, while continuing to serve as a regional agricultural centre. The town then grew slowly, but steadily, over the following century.

Civil War 1975 - 1990

The Lebanese Civil War from 1975 to 1990 brought upheaval to the region. Overall, Zahlé was not affected by the war as much as other regions in the country, and many people from those regions chose to take refuge there because it was considered safe. The city's geo-strategic position, however, sparked the initial setbacks of the Battle of Zahleh. At the beginning of the war in 1975, the Syrian army briefly deployed in the town. On December 21, 1980, Syria wanted to deploy its troops in Zahlé again and take over it, but those were intercepted by Zahle's citizens, who received some aid throughout the fights from Christian parties (such as the Lebanese Forces). After the killing of five Syrian soldiers, the Syrian army retaliated by continuously bombarding Zahlé. These attacks during Christmas produced a great reaction in the West, especially in France, who described the Syrians' actions as barbaric.

A similar incident occurred six month later: on April 1, 1981, a fire exchange between a Zahlawi position and a Syrian emplacement developed into a full scale Syrian onslaught. Syria proceeded to shell Zahlé for eight days, cutting all routes and preventing any type of aid from reaching the town. Syrian troops tried to enter the town many times but failed repeatedly, making little headway with the Lebanese resistance, and losing several armed vehicles. Syria's actions towards Lebanon created an outrage in the international community. Following the plea of Lebanese communities all over the world, foreign countries, France in particular, pressured Syria to stop their onslaught on Zahlé.

The town has enjoyed much calm ever since the end of the war. However, a bomb detonated inside the local Syriac Orthodox church on March 27, 2011. This incident was possibly connected to the abduction of seven Estonian cyclists not far from Zahlé earlier that month. Fortunately, there was no one inside the church when the bombing occurred, and the next morning, parishioners attended the Sunday mass which was held in the frontyard. [11][12]

Geography and climate

View of Zahlé from the Wadi Al Aarayesh neighborhood.

Zahlé is built upon a series of foothills of the Lebanon mountains, at the Western edge of the Beqaa plateau, with Mount Sannine (2,628 metres (8,622 feet)) towering above it. The hills form a narrow valley, which itself is an extension of a ravine to the Northwest ("Wadi el Aarayesh", meaning "Gorge of Vines") Due to this particular topography, most of Zahlé's neighborhoods spread vertically on steep hill slopes, and the town features an elevation difference of 200 metres (656 feet) in a narrow geographical area. The municipality also extends onto the Beqaa plateau, until the Litani River.

The town is bisected by the Berdawni River, which flows out of the ravine towards the plateau, and joins the Litani after a course of 15 km (9 mi). The Berdawni was at a time Zahlé's sole source of drinking water and its most prized natural emblem, but has become polluted with sewage and solid waste in the last decades, and partially covered up to create parking lots.


Like the rest of Lebanon, Zahlé enjoys a typically Mediterranean climate (Köppen climate classification (Csa)), characterized by hot and dry summers, and mild to cool winters where most of the precipitation is concentrated (spring and autumn being pleasantly warm transitional seasons). However, due to the town's altitude and inland location, in the rain shadow of the Lebanon mountains, its climate features some continental characteristics: summers are usually hotter than in coastal areas, with peaks of over 40 °C (104 °F) occurring on a few days each summer, but humidity is low, and temperatures usually fall below 22 °C (72 °F) at night, which makes summer particularly pleasant compared to coastal cities.

On the other hand, winters are cooler than on the coast, but the wind chill index is usually low, because the hills surrounding the town shelter it from the Northern winds that sweep through the Beqaa plateau. Precipitation is also less abundant than in coastal areas (around 600 mm (24 in) per year, compared to 900 mm (35 in) in Beirut). Snowfall occurs a few times per year, during cold fronts coming from Turkey or Eastern Europe, and heavy snow accumulation is possible, although becoming a rarer occurrence. In spring, weather is sometimes affected by the notorious Khamsin winds, whose typical effects include a rise in temperature, characteristic yellow/orange skies and muddy rain.

Climate data for Zahlé
Month Jan Feb Mar Apr May Jun Jul Aug Sep Oct Nov Dec Year
Record high °C (°F) 23.4
Average high °C (°F) 11.8
Average low °C (°F) 2.1
Record low °C (°F) −6.8
Average precipitation mm (inches) 126.5
Average rainy days 15 13 10 6 3 0 0 0 1 4 7 12 71
Average snowy days 2 3 1 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 1 7
Source: Meoweather[13]


Brazil Street in Zahlé

At the end of the 18th century, Zahlé had one thousand inhabitants and two hundred houses. By the late 1850s, the population had grown to between seven and ten thousand people. The current population is not accurately known, since no census has been conducted in Lebanon since 1932, but a sensible estimate gives 60,000 people in the town proper, making it the country's fourth largest (the locals tend to give figures of 200,000 or 300,000 inhabitants, which however are misleading and completely unrealistic) The urban area includes the neighboring towns of Saadnayel, Taalabaya, Chtaura and Jdita to the Southwest, which have come to form a single urban entity since the late 1990s due to anarchic growth, and is home to about 100,000 people. The metropolitan area extends over much of the Zahlé District, and additionally comprises:

with a total population close to 200,000.

Zahlé is the largest predominantly Christian town in Lebanon and the Middle East (with Christians forming around 90% of its total population) and the one with the largest number of Catholics. While several Middle Eastern cities (Damascus, Cairo, Jerusalem...) have larger Christian communities, these do not constitute a majority. In Lebanon, Beirut also has a larger Christian population than Zahlé (in the city proper), most of which however belongs to the Orthodox confession.

The Christian population of Zahlé has the following approximate composition:

Only two Muslim families remained inside Zahlé during the civil war: Hindi and Zrein. Zahlé's Muslim minority (around 10% of the population) is concentrated in the districts of Karak Nuh (where Noah's tomb is allegedly located) and Haoush el Oumara, on the Northeastern and Southwestern edge of town respectively. Seventy of Muslims in the area are Shia, while the remaining 30% are Sunnis. In the past the town also had a Druze minority and even a small Jewish population, most of which however emigrated during the Lebanese Civil War.

Zahlé has been a land of emigration since the early 19th century, with most people emigrating to the United States, Australia, Mexico, Brazil and Argentina. During the Civil War in the 1970s and 1980s, a new flow of migrants left the town for the United States, Canada, Australia, and Brazil. In recent years, emigration has continued, with Canada and the United Arab Emirates being the main destinations. Today, an estimated 250,000 people of local descent live abroad, most of them in Brazil.


Zahle grapes

Being the main town of the Beqaa valley, Lebanon's most important agricultural region, the economy of Zahlé has long been built on agriculture. Grapes are the area's chief product, with vineyards forming a prominent feature of the surrounding landscape. Vines are also individually grown on lattice, on many of the older houses' terraces. A sizable part of the local produce supplies the three wineries present in and around the town, and the numerous distilleries producing arak, the local liquor which Zahlé is famous for.

In addition to vineyards, the hillsides around Zahlé are covered with cherry, pomegranate, plum and mulberry orchards, while potatoes and leafy vegetables are cultivated on the plateau to the East. Livestock is also an important resource, with trout fisheries on the upper course of the Berdawni river, and poultry farms on the surrounding hills. The Civil War struck a blow to local agriculture, when the Syrian army closed off many vineyards, transforming them into military areas, and the town's siege cut it off from potential markets, but the sector has since recovered.

Zahlé saw at a time a prosperous commercial activity due to its location midway between Beirut and Damascus.[14] Paradoxically, it regained some of that activity during the Civil War, when the growing instability in Beirut led to a decentralization of economy. Furthermore, taxation was nonexistent due to the collapse of State authority, which Zahlé took advantage of to expand its industrial and commercial sectors. The town's main industrial area lies to the Southeast, with the chief sectors being paper mills, chemicals, plastics, canning and food processing.

A number of companies and state bodies have their headquarters for the Beqaa region in Zahlé, including the Central Bank of Lebanon and the Lebanese Chamber of Commerce.


Zahlé is evolving into a regional center of higher education, after many universities have opened branches there in recent years. Institutes of higher education currently represented in the town include:


Zahlé is connected to Beirut (55 km (34 mi) to the West), and from there to all coastal cities, through the Beirut-Damascus road, which passes to the Southwest of the urban area. The journey can take anywhere from 45 minutes to 2 hours, depending on the traffic. Damascus, Syria, is 73 km (45 mi) to the Southeast, and is normally reached within 1:30 hour, excluding the waiting time at the border. Despite continuously undergoing works and repairs, the Beirut-Damascus road remains in poor condition, and is due to be replaced by a new, multimillion-dollar highway as the main international route, however the completion date is still unclear.

Zahlé is also connected to Baalbek (36 km (22 mi) to the Northeast) by the trans-Beqaa road, which continues further North towards Homs, Syria. The section stretching along the Zahlé urban area (from Chtaura to Karak Nuh) was recently upgraded.

Due to widespread car ownership, public transportation remains underdeveloped. There is a single bus line, which runs on the central avenue at rather irregular times. Interurban transportation is done by minivans, which stop on the Manara roundabout at the town's entrance. Zahlé's railway station was located in Muallaqa, but was abandoned after all rail transport in Lebanon stopped during the Civil War.

There were plans to convert the nearby Rayak Air Base (located 10 km (6 mi) to the East of Zahlé), into a civil airport serving the town and the whole valley. A regional airport could prove vital when the road to Beirut is closed because of heavy snowfall. However, the project froze in the early 2000s, after the runway extension had been initiated.

Main sights

Berdawni Promenade

Cafes along the Berdawni River

The banks of the Berdawni River have long been a place where people of Zahlé and other parts of Lebanon come to socialize. The town's most popular attraction is a 300 m (984 ft) promenade along the river, referred to as "Al Wadi" ("the valley"). Sheltered between the ravine's limestone cliffs, it is lined up with large outdoor restaurants, cafes and playrooms, and shaded by trees. These restaurants specialize in traditional Lebanese meze served with arak. The promenade is closed during late fall and winter, when cold winds from the mountain sweep through the ravine.


Our Lady of Zahlé and Bekaa

Our Lady of Zahlé and Bekaa. Taken in the 1970s

Located on a hilltop to the Southwest of Zahlé, this is a 54 m (177 ft) high concrete tower, entirely clad in white marble, and topped with a 10 m (33 ft) high bronze statue of the Virgin Mary, the work of an Italian artist. It is by far Zahlé's most prominent structure, and is visible from practically every spot in town, as well as from several miles around in the central Bekaa Valley. At its base is a chapel that can seat a little over of a hundred people. The top of the tower features sweeping views over Zahlé and the Bekaa valley.

Town Hall (Old Serail)

The Old Serail, turned into the prison of Zahlé in 1991, serves today as the town hall

This Ottoman building was constructed in 1850 to serve as the town's Serail. Located just downhill from Our Lady of Zahlé and Bekaa, it is a mix of local and Ottoman architecture, and features an atrium occupied by an inner garden and surrounded by arcades. Though still known as "the Old Serail", it currently serves as the Town Hall. In the past, the ground floor used to house the local prison, which suffered of severe overcrowding and substandard conditions. The prison was transferred in 2009 to a new location in Muallaqa, with room for about 800 inmates and much more adequate infrastructure.

Souq al Blatt

The Souq al Blatt ("Tiled Market"), as its name implies, used to be a narrow tiled street, which during Ottoman times housed a street market and a number of khans, visited by traders from Syria, Iraq and Palestine. During the 20th century, it became the main craftsmen area in town, and the khans and market gave way to dozens of workshops. Today, the Souq has changed again: it is no longer tiled, and the only remaining shops are grocery stores. Only the stone slabs lining the pavement give some idea of its former appearance. There have been talks to renovate the Souk al Blatt, which however still haven't materialized.

The Catholic Cathedral (Our Lady of Salvation)

This grandiose complex dates back to 1720, and consists of a series of stone-clad buildings around a large inner courtyard: the church itself (which is the oldest part), the seat of the Archbishop (a converted former monastery), and a small chapel housing an icon, which is said to be a reproduction of a portrait of the Virgin Mary by Saint Lucas. It also features a monumental entrance, an underground cemetery, and a 40 m (131 ft) high bell tower, atop of which a large marble clock was mounted in 1993. Part of the complex was destroyed by a bomb attack in April 1987, and rebuilt ever since.

Grand Hotel Kadri

the grand Hotel la Kadri is a prime example of the traditional stone architecture of Zahlé, both in and out. It has long been used by most officials and dignitaries visiting the town, as its largest and most luxurious hotel. The Ottomans converted it to a hospital during World War I. During the Lebanese Civil War, it was occupied by Syrian troops and sustained enormous damage.[15] An ambitious restoration project in the mid 90s was able to bring it back to its former glory. The hotel closed in February 2011 due to a conflict between its direction and the Catholic Church (its effective owner since 1999) and reopened later in 2013.

Memshieh Park

Situated across the street from Grand Hotel Kadri, Memshieh is Zahlé's oldest and shadiest park (newly opened J.T.Skaff Park is larger, but contains considerably fewer trees). The park houses a collection of marble tables with mosaic depictions of several sites in Lebanon, a small pond with waterlilies, a semi-circular marble tholos, and several sculptures representing famous locals. In 2003, the municipality covered a 25 m (82 ft) fir (the park's tallest) with thousands of lights, in an attempt to break the world record for the largest natural Christmas tree.

Archaeological sites

Zahlé in itself offers little archaeological interest, however the Château Ksara winery is worth a visit for its maze of vaults which dates back to Roman times. The suburb of Karak Nuh also features a curiosity: a 40 m (131 ft) long stone structure inside the local mosque, which local tradition believes to be the Tomb of Noah (but is probably a section of a Roman aqueduct) [15]

Furthermore, there are several ancient sites of interest in nearby locations:

Two more sites worth visiting are a more distant trip away:


Zahlé's culture has long revolved around its signature crop, the grape, and its products, wine and arak. Arak, in particular, has traditionally been served in cafés at virtually any time of the day. Together with the town's gorgeous natural settings, it might have provided with inspiration many of the fifty poets and writers who were born Zahlé over the past century, leading to its designation as "the City of Wine and Poetry". A graceful personification of this nickname stands at the town's entrance: a statue of Erato, the Muse of love poetry, holding a bunch of grapes.

Zahlé's most important cultural event is the "Festival of the Vine", traditionally held each September, during which concerts, plays, poetry evenings and artistic exhibitions are organized daily over the course of two or three weeks. The final Saturday evening features the crowning of the "Maid of the Vine", the local beauty queen, and the next afternoon, the festival closes with arguably its most popular event: a parade of floats held on the town's main avenue. The floats are entirely decorated with flowers according to a central theme.

The other central aspect of the local culture is religious devotion. Zahlé is still a very Catholic and conservative town, and many of its inhabitants display a pride with their religious identity which comes close to fanaticism. Church attendance is high, although it often constitutes a form of social, rather than religious, gathering. In particular, it is customary to pay visit to 7 churches on Good Friday. Holidays also endorse a very social character, being a time to visit friends and relatives.

Prophet Elias (Elijah) is the town's patron saint, whose feast on July 20 is traditionally celebrated with fireworks. Another notable holiday is Corpus-Christi, celebrated on the first Thursday of June with a large-scale procession, with a torch-lit parade being held on the previous evening. The Corpus Christi celebration dates back to 1825, when the town was spared the ravages of bubonic plague.

Notable natives

International relations

Twin towns — Sister cities

Zahlé is twinned with:


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Wikimedia Commons has media related to Zahlé.

Hage Chahine, Carlos and Nevine (2008). C'etait Zahle. Imprime au Liban. 

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