In 1622, during the rule of Prince Fakhreddin el Maani, Zahle was an unpopulated dense jungle spreading on both sides of the Berdawni River. At that time this river was crossing in the middle of a valley which was called the Tigers’ Valley referring to the high number of tigers that was said to live there. It was in 1611 when the first time the name “Zahle” was mentioned, during the war between the Kaysites and Yemenits; these two family branches were ruling at that time in some Lebanese districts. The city was founded more than three hundred years ago in a region where historical and archaeological remains were found and dated to several thousand years ago. In the beginning of the 18th century, a population was based near the Berdawni River and was divided into three clans. Each had its own governor. When Prince Bechir the Great came to Zahle in 1814, he was shocked after seeing most of the houses built on the southern side of the Berdawni River and only 3 houses built on the northern part. The latter was dedicated to equestrian activities and duels. With time, local citizens ran out of building spaces on the southern side so they moved to the other side of the river.
In 1810, Zahle was ruled by Emir Bechir the Great, whose capital was in Deir el Qamar in Mount Lebanon. Local inhabitants were living off planting vineyards and mulberry together with sheep commerce. People used to dye clothes with cotton, brought from Nablous, then manufacture woolen mantles and abbayas (traditional dresses for women).
In 1858, Zahle declared autonomy and had its own flag and hymn. The city was burned and looted in 1771, in 1791, and in1860. Each time its inhabitants defended their city and rebuilt it. Zahle played an important role in the political life of Lebanon. Through railways, which were functioning before the Lebanese War, Zahle was connected to the regional map of the Middle East since 1885. This has increased its role in both agricultural and commercial domains. It became the interior port of Bekaa Valley and Syria as well the main center of exchanges between Beirut, Mossoul and Bagdad.
Starting in 1916 after the Sykes-Picot convention, France ruled the region through a mandate. In 1920 General Gouraud declared officially the annexation of Bekaa, Baalbeck, Rashaya and Hasbaya to the Great Lebanon. Zahle was prosperous and developing during the French Mandate; in 1930 the city became a Caza (district in Arabic) and as a result the capital of Bekaa Province. The fame of the city attracted personalities from all over the world such as Lamartine in 1833,
the Prince of Belgium in 1888, the Emperor of Prussia in 1898, Gouraud who declared in 1920 the birth of the Great Lebanon, Charles de Gaulles in 1942, the Egyptian poet Ahmad Chawki and the great music composer Mohamad Abdel Wahab etc. Zahle is also known to be the place of birth of the actor Omar el Sharif and the grandparents of the famous singer Chakira.
Through history, Zahle figured on ancient caravans itineraries as an important stop on the Berdawni River. In addition, during the International Festival of Baalbeck in the 60’s, Zahle was paired to Baalbeck: people would attend the festival and on their way back to Beirut, dine in Zahle. The word “Zahle” has many interpretations such as “Zahal” meaning land erosion or landslide, frequent in Zahle’s geology or “Zouhal”, Saturn, the roman God of fertility worshiped in the Bekaa region. Over the years Zahle had many names such as “Jarat el Wady” (The valley’s neighbor) due to its location directly next to Berdawni River, “Arous el Bekaa” (the Bekaa’s bride), “Arouss el Masayef” (the bride of summer villages) for its nice weather during summer time, the Grapes Bride, the Peace City, the City of Lions, Berdawni Lover, the Poets Inspirer, the Queen of Arak, the Time Story, the Vineyards Mermaid, the Spring of Tigers’ Milk, Bacchus Lover, the capital of Catholicism in the Middle East, etc