Category Archives: My journalism

Some Egypt-related pieces that I’ve written for various magazines.

A beer drinker’s guide to central Alexandria

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Many years ago an elderly friend of mine presented me with a faded photocopy of a typewritten article entitled ‘A beer drinker’s guide to Alexandria’. She’d been about to go to Egypt and somebody had given the article to her but, in the event, she never went and the article was filed away for possible future use. I got to know this lady because we both drank in the same pub in Soho, London, and when she learned of my interest in Egypt she dug out the article and gave it to me. She couldn’t tell me anything about where it came from but it is signed ‘Ian Simm’ and dated July 1983. My friend worked at the British Council so she wonders if Ian Simm was perhaps someone who worked at the Council too. Rereading his article recently it struck me how different the Alexandria he describes is to the city of 2018. Much of what he describes has disappeared and the character of the city has changed irrevocably. At the time he wrote, family institutions like the café-patisserie Delices served beer – that is inconceivable now. The Alexandria he walks around is far closer to the city of Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet than it is to the Alexandria of today. But then, of course it is – Simms wrote his piece only 23 years after the publication of the Quartet and it’s now 35 years since he typed up his beer-drinking itinerary.

Anyway, here is the piece in full with my notes in square brackets. (Many thanks to my friend and long-time resident of Alexandria Colin Clement for his expert input.) The beer memorabilia images come courtesy of the website Photorientalist, maintained by photographer and former Cairo resident Norbert Schiller.

 

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“Conventional guidebook wisdom has it that there is nothing to see in central Alexandria; and then exhorts the serious tourist to conjure up visions of past glory. Standing on the humdrum intersection where Horreya Avenue meets the Rue Nebi Daniel it is difficult to see yourself at the hub of a Greco-Roman universe, and I have always preferred to seek out remnants of Alexandria’s more recent past – the background to the writings of Lawrence Durrell, Evelyn Waugh and Naguib Mahfouz.

Since soon after I arrived in Cairo I have been traveling to Alexandria regularly for periods of two or three days. Often at a loose end in the late afternoon or evening, I began wandering round the city, observing buildings, shops and people. In the process I happened a number of more or lass pleasant places to drink beer. Subsequently, I discovered that I had been following the advice of EM Forster: in his Alexandria: A History and a Guide, recently reissued, he says ‘the best way to see a city is to walk about quite aimlessly’. He doesn’t actually add ‘stopping for the occasional Stella’ but I am sure it is in the correct spirit that I offer this brief itinerary.

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We start at the Cecil Hotel – where else? It is still the landmark of the city centre which all taxi drivers know, and there are still remnants of the atmosphere in which Durrell’s Nessim met Justine in the lounge. The bar, though still a social institution, has been ‘improved’ and its kitsch is now that of the late 70s [it is now the charmless and often empty Monty Bar – ED]; but the tea lounge is pure 1930s, with its friezes of nymphs, enormous mirrors, potted plants and faded pictures. For those with patience and tolerance of idiosyncracy, the Cecil is still a pleasant place to stay. [I would say this holds true in 2018 – ED]

Turn left along the Corniche out of the Cecil, past the Windsor Palace Hotel – another 1930s remnant with a huge an faded lounge, but alas, no bar. The Corniche was built up only in the early ’30s and its neo-troisieme empire style of architecture is an Alexandrian trademark: Louis Farouk in concrete.

There are from this point a number of variants on the walk. Those with exercise in mind should continue along the Corniche to the huge and ornate 18th-century mosque of Abu el Abbas. Go round the back of the mosque and return almost the way you came but inland. Walking as nearly as possible in a straight line will take you through the city centre’s main market, a fascinating mélange of sight, sound and smell. You will eventually emerge into a square containing a number of incongruous glass and concrete piles, among them the new Hotel Alex. This has two bars, but is recommended only to those dying of thirst.

A left turn here will bring you in a short distance to the centerpiece of Mohamed Ali’s ‘new’ Alexandria, now called Midan el Tahrir. The less energetic may reach this point by turning off the Corniche at the massive war memorial. The building on this corner is a fine example of the architectural confectioner’s art.

In Midan el Tahrir are an equestrian statue of Mohamed Ali, admired by Forster, and St Mark’s Anglican Church, a real oddity in neo-Moorish Gothic. A little past St Mark’s on the left is the Rue de l’Ancienne Bourse.

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The dedicated drinker will reach this street at the other end as it is the second one after that on which the Windsor Palace stands. The dedicated walker enters it from Midan el Tahrir. Either will wish to leave it in the middle. From the Corniche, we reach first the Cafeteria Nationale Grande, a cavernous baladi café which also sells beer. [It stopped selling beer a long time ago – ED] It is one of the few establishments in this guide in which a reasonably adventurous and accompanied female might still feel uncomfortable. Continue across the tramlines and a little further on the Liverpool Bar is on your right.

The Liverpool Bar must have made its fortune in the Second World War; certainly it isn’t making one now as customers seem few and far between. There is a slightly alarming case of stuffed tropical fish and coral near the door, but the proprietors are friendly and speak quite good English. This bar is keeping rather unpredictable hours and never seems to be open in the early evening. [The Liverpool closed its doors for the last time back in the 1980s – ED]

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Further inland on the other side of the street is the Spitfire Bar, obviously another Word War Two creation. It is now often frequented by expansive Germans, which is reflected in the décor. If you can stand the rather garish environment the Spitfire is a pleasant enough place, although it has gone somewhat to seed, particularly in the back room. [Still going, still appealingly seedy – ED]

Continue inland across the small square where the Ancienne Bourse once stood. It has been replaced by one of those unpleasant modern buildings which one is forbidden to photograph, and sees no reason to ever want to. A little further up the street to the left is the Union Restaurant. This is another of Alexandria’s classic institutions: Waugh’s Guy Crouchback would dine here on quails and Forster, writing in 1919, says it is ‘frequented by the British’. Now it seems to be scarcely frequented by anybody, but it is a large restaurant with an ancient and dignified maitre, and a long and very acceptable cooked menu. The walls are covered in Churchillesque paintings. [The Union closed a long time ago – ED]

Return to the square and turn right, back towards the main shopping centre along the road which becomes the main Avenue Saad Zaghloul. Immediately on the right is Frigieri’s, possibly the best general hardware store in Egypt. Then comes Sofianopoulo’s coffee emporium: look inside at the flamboyant torch-bearing statues and the fine coffee-grinding machinery. [Still going strong – ED]

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Sofianopoulo’s is on the corner of the Rue Adib, along which turn right. Walk nearly to the top of the narrow street, trying not to be overborne by the architecture on the left, and you will find the Cap d’Or bar on your right. The Cap d’Or must have a strong claim to be the finest drinking place in Egypt. It is reminiscent of a Brussels’ café, and a most relaxing place to sit, particularly in the early evening. Later it sometimes gets crowded. If you arrive at the right time, your beer will be accompanied by a fine assortment of mezze at no extra charge. Look around at the glass-fronted cupboard displaying a wide range of wines and spirits, the advertisements for beers never sold here, and the photograph of Um Kalthum. The food is recommended too. [Still in business – ED]

When you can tear yourself away from the Cap d’Or, continue to the end of the Rue Adib, and turn left into the Rue Salah Salem (formerly, and still commonly, called Rue Sherif Pasha). Some 150 metres on the right is the sadly diminished but still fine frontage of Youssouffian’s jewellers. Further on to the left are two buildings belonging to the National bank of Egypt. The second, formerly the Banco di Roma, is a remarkable pastiche of Florentine Renaissance.

At the end of the street, turn left into Horreya Avenue. [Had the author turned right he would have found the Havana, easily Alexandria’s best bar until it closed in the early 2000s – ED] Opposite is the former Mohamed Ali club. Soon we come to that hub of the universe where Alexander’s tomb once stood – now the intersection with the Rue Nebi Daniel. At this point, provided it is daylight, the best plan is to turn right, not along the Rue Nebi Daniel itself, but on the slip road beyond which climbs parallel with it for a short distance and then veers left. At night, better to continue along Horreya until you reach Pastroudis. On the back road there is a good view of the excavations of Kom el Dik behind the Roman Theatre. Among other ruins, an extensive baths complex can be seen, and the area is the only place where some real impression of the splendour of Roman Alexandria is visible.

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This road emerges into a parking area opposite Pastroudis (if you want to see more of the excavations, turn right and look through the gate further up the hill). Pastroudis is our third Alexandria institution, the place where Durrell’s characters come to converse over their arak. A genuine Greek café, where you can sit on the pavement and watch the world go by, it also has an interior saloon and bar, a restaurant and a cake shop. Gateaux are recommended according to the time of the day, but I advise against asking for ‘cake’. Even unaccompanied females can feel at home in Pastroudis. [It is now the restaurant Abu el Sid – ED]

From here there are two possible routes to the last group of drinking emporia, and to the Cecil. The obvious way is to turn right along Horreya and left at the first traffic lights. Immediately you pass on your left the Alexandria (formerly Syrian) Club, which is worth a visit if you know a member. [It still exists and is still strictly members and guests – ED] Unlike those of Cairo, the clubs of Alexandria, or some of them at least, still serve alcohol. Next comes the Santa Lucia restaurant, an establishment of mixed standards with a bar open only to diners. [Still around but no bar – ED] Opposite is the Elite, which doesn’t encourage the non-eating drinker. [Recently refurbished and reopened, not sure if sells beer or not – ED] Further down past the crossroads and on the left is the Billiards Palace which is said to have the eponymous tables in a back room but which does not serve beer. [Disappeared in the late 1980s – ED] At the next crossroads you emerge opposite the Trianon.

An alternative route to this point is to cross Horreya outside Pastroudis, turn left and take the second road on the right. This street contains the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate, which bears a celebratory plaque in three languages marking an act of architectural vandalism in the 1970s. Near here is said to be a place identifying the building where the poet Constantine Cavafy lived, but I have never been able to find it. Continue down the road to its end, turn left and first right past Mohamed Ahmed’s celebrated ful restaurant [still going, alhamdulillah – ED], and you will eventually come out across the road from the Trianon.

The Trianon is primarily a tearoom of epic proportions, formerly a place of high fashion, but from the cake shop area at the inshore end of the building one enters a fine and unexpected bar. Unfortunately, it closes rather early in the evenings, but its oriental art deco murals deserve detailed attention at an earlier hour. [The Trianon survives but the bar hasn’t been open since the 1980s – ED]

Left from there is the Metropole Hotel, another ’30s foundation, but its ground floor is rather ruined by restoration. It has a small, quiet bar with some fine wooden paneling. The staircase and first floor better recall past glories, and the first floor loos are about the most sanitary of the whole tour. Further on is Delices, another teashop with a bar, but this one rather lacks character. [Delices survives, but the bar is long gone – ED]

Turning in the other direction – east ­ from the Triannon, you are swiftly into the seething mass of humanity which is Ramleh train station. On the right hand side of the street is the Taverna Dhiamandakis (in English it says only ‘Taverna Greek Restaurant’), which is a good place for cheap light means – and, of course, a beer. The qualification for being a waiter here is to be Greek and less than five feet tall. [Now a pizza/fiteer joint, not Greek and no beer – ED]

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Opposite, beyond the trams, there are some remarkable mosaics at the top story of the building which houses Olympic Airways. In the narrow street leading to the sea beside the new Omar el Khayyam restaurant is Denis seafood restaurant) for ‘Fishes and Crevettes’) which is highly recommended. Indeed, there is a school of thought with which I have much sympathy which holds that the only real reason to visit Alexandria at all is to eat half a kilo of shrimp at Denis. [Now closed – ED]

Returning along the tramlines across Midan Saad Zaghloul towards the Cecil, those with stamina will wish to seek out our last watering hole: George’s Bar. George’s is not easy to find. It is located in the back street immediately inland of the trams about 100 metres beyond the Cecil side of the Midan Saad Zaghloul, just behind the Restaurant Ramses. George’s achieves the curious feat of looking much seedier than it actually is – part of the difficulty of finding it is that you can hardly read the sign any more. In fact, the proprietor is friendly, the mezze are wholesome, and the beer is cheap. For those who like that sort of thing, George’s is decorated with a remarkable collection of heart-shaped mirrors. Nearby is a building whose architecture is startling even in these surroundings; it bears the legend ‘Bombay Castle’ which I suppose explains everything. [George’s, needless to say, is no more – ED]

From here it is only a short stagger back to the Cecil. I should regard it was unwise to attempt to do justice to all the establishments in this guide in a single outing; better to split the route into two or three parts. Doubtless this is not by any means a complete guide to the places of interest in central Alexandria, and I should be delighted to hear of any places omitted that deserve investigation for a future edition.”

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Nights at the palace

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I’ve just written a story on the Baron’s Palace for Eight, a magazine that is distributed through the Dusit Thani hotels. The editors asked if I could contribute something from Cairo on a theme of myths and legends. I was tempted to write about Lord Carnarvon’s tragic end in a room at the Continental-Savoy, or about the well in the courtyard of the Gayer-Anderson house that leads down to the domain of Sultan al-Watawit (the Sultan of the Bats), but I’ve always had a fascination with the Baron’s Palace, a building with more than its share of tall tales. Back in the late 1980s, when I worked up in Heliopolis for a spell, I used to make nocturnal visits to the palace with friends. As I write in the story, there was only an old watchman as security. He occupied a small wooden hut the size of a garden shed, over on the north side of the grounds, towards the Airport Road. If you approached from the southeast, the bulk of the palace was between you and him and, unless he was out on patrol, which was rare, you wouldn’t be seen. The fence was just barbed wire and easily slipped through. Then it was just a quick dash of a couple of hundred metres across the hard, dry ground to the sheltering shadow of the building.

It was easy enough to get in. Somebody had already removed one of the boards covering a window at lower-ground level. You crouched down, squeezed through and dropped. That was scary – it was a short drop but you landed in the pitch black. We never thought to bring a torch. After a few minutes, your eyes adjusted a little bit and then you could make out a doorway across the room, but you still couldn’t see where you were stepping and we were always afraid of snakes. You went out into an equally dark corridor at the end of which were some stairs. As you went up, there were some windows, which the moon just about strained through.

64.	 Baron Palace in Heliopolis, Cairo, 2011

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The light didn’t penetrate far. We could just make out that the rooms and halls on this, the ground floor, were completely empty except for filthy rags, crumpled newspapers and the sort of garbage, covered by a solid layer of dust, that suggested hobos had at some point long ago sheltered here. Once we braved the darkness of a corridor only to trigger a squealing whirlwind as a colony of bats loosed itself from the ceiling and swarmed us. After that we just stuck to the stairs and directed our explorations upwards.

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There were only two floors above basement level but the staircase continued up into the tower, splitting in two, curving in two directions around the walls. Where they rejoined, one narrow, ladder-like flight extended out across the void to an upper gallery. We once took a few steps on it but our nerve wouldn’t take us any further. Instead, we found a door that exited to the roof and there we used to hang out, larking around and looking over at the nightlights of Cairo in the company of stone-carved temple dancers, dragons and elephant gods.

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The rest of my story deals with the various legends associated with the palace, some of which are true – the son of the original builder did throw lavish parties and did marry a former burlesque dancer who used to appear naked except for a coat of gold paint – but most of which are not: the revolving sun room, the Satanist rituals, the suicides and ghosts. But you can hardly blame people for making up tales about the old palace – just look at it. Could you conceive of a better model for a haunted house?

I read recently that work was supposed to be beginning on the first phase of an architectural rescue of the building. As I haven’t been in Cairo for a little while now, I don’t know if this is happening. But as with all stories connected with the myth-shrouded Baron’s Palace, I will believe it when I see it.

All the photographs, by the way, are from Xenia Nikolskaya’s book Dust, which I have previously blogged about here.

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Once grand, still grand

The River Front circa 1904,  by artist Harold Oakley

A couple of weeks ago I was fortunate enough to get to stay a night at the London Savoy. I was writing a story on it for Celebrated Living, the inflight magazine carried in the premium-class cabins of American Airlines. I have visited the hotel before but only to drink at the American Bar, plus once to attend an awards ceremony held in the ballroom, and once in 2007 when the whole place was thrown open for a viewing of lots in advance of the auction of around 3,000 pieces of the hotel’s furniture prior to it closing for three years of refurb. This then was my first visit since the Savoy reopened in 2010 after being taken over by the Fairmont chain.

Charlie Chaplin and wife Oona on the roof

Charlie Chaplin and wife Oona on the roof

Unlike the grand hotels of Egypt, where these days more than a little imagination is required to conjure up any glamour or opulence (or, for that matter, any life), the Savoy still buzzes. The American Bar remains one of the best bars in the world and the Savoy Grill, despite being operated by the group headed by the asinine Gordon Ramsay, remains a truly special restaurant. Fads and fashions hit London’s dining scene with the regularity of January rains but after more than a century in existence the Grill still feels like the place to be. I love that at around 10pm it receives a new rush of energy as a post theatre crowd turns up for a 400g rib-eye or sirloin and a decent bottle of red before bedtime.

Fred Astaire and sister Adele, also on the roof

Fred Astaire and sister Adele, also on the roof

Our room was a river suite, next door to the Monet suite, in fact, and if the view didn’t include the Pyramids or the Nile plus Theban Hills/First Cataract, there was at least Cleopatra’s Needle on the Thames Embankment below. The element of the Savoy I enjoyed most was the lifts, one red, one blue, one green; I don’t know if they are original but they are wooden and certainly old. The Savoy was the first hotel in England to install electric ‘ascending rooms’, which apparently used to take eight minutes to rise up seven floors, each with a lift boy offering cognac stiffeners to calm passengers’ nerves.

Marilyn Monroe with Laurence Olivier at the Savoy for a press conference in 1956 conference

Marilyn Monroe with Laurence Olivier at the Savoy for a press conference in 1956

There are a whole host of firsts associated withe Savoy, a hundred of which are listed out in an article on the hotel’s website, including the following:

* The Savoy was the first hotel to have its own artesian well, 420 ft deep.

* On an infamous evening in 1896, the Savoy was the where the Duchesse de Clermont-Tonnerre became the first woman to smoke in public at the dinner table.

* The first ‘Gondola Party’ not in Venice was held in the Savoy in 1905; the courtyard floor was made watertight and flooded to a depth of 4 feet, scenery erected around the walls, and gondolas floated for a party hosted American millionaire George Kessler.

* The first flight within the hotel took place on New Year’s Eve, 1906, when on the stroke of midnight, an aero-mobile (a hybrid motor-car and aeroplane) set off on rails fitted to the roof of the foyer, landed and ran between the diners as two ladies on board showered party-goers with gifts.

The Savoy entrance, added in 1929 and still a beacon of elegance today

The Savoy entrance, added in 1929 and still a beacon of elegance today

Read the rest here.

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The Gayer-Anderson Museum (and its departed cat)

Earlier this year I had a piece published in Canvas, the magazine of Middle Eastern art, about the Gayer-Anderson Museum in Cairo. It’s one of the most fantastic places I know and I go back every few years just to reassure myself that it really exists.

The museum is named for a British Army doctor who came to Cairo in 1906. From his lodgings at Shepheard’s Hotel, he set one day, accompanied by a dragoman, to see the sights and one of the places he visited was the great ninth-century mosque of Ahmed Ibn Tulun. As he approached he stopped to admire a fine stone-built house that stood either side of the passage leading to the main door of the mosque, its two parts connected by an aerial bridge. A woman leaned out of one of the latticed windows on the upper floor and called to him.

“What does she say?” he asked his dragoman.

“She’s inviting you to view the house.”

The Englishman declined and went on into the mosque. Despite remaining in Cairo for the rest of his working life, it would be almost a further 30 years before John Gayer-Anderson got round to venturing inside the house. When he did, he immediately fell love with the place, and within the year he’d taken possession of it and made it his home.

He only lived there for seven years (1935-42) but in that time he created something so unique that it has been preserved in his name ever since. To begin with the house – actually two houses – is extraordinary, medieval in origin and laid out like an interlocking puzzle, full of jogging corridors, split level chambers, winding staircases and disguised rooms. All this Gayer-Anderson meticulously restored. He had a passion for Egyptology and Oriental studies, and he purchased or otherwise obtained a vast array of art, crafts, furniture and fittings from around the Middle East, Near East and Far East, which he installed in his Cairo home. So you have a Damascus Room with walls and ceiling covered with painted wooden panels acquired from a 17th-century house in the Syrian capital. You have rooms full of pharaonic antiquities. The roof terrace has its edges fenced by mashrabiya screens rescued from demolished houses, while one wall is lined with Ottoman-era marble basins and sink backs. Elsewhere there are Coptic icons, Sufi crutches from the 19th century, galleries of bad art (the portrait of Gayer-Anderson at the head of this post is one of the better pieces), death masks of his family and, a personal favourite, an ostrich egg painted with topographical scenes of Egypt, which can be rotated by means of a little handle on top.

 

 

He collected what pleased him, more taken with novelty than value. The exception to this was one piece of real worth: this was a lifesize, regal-looking cat cast in bronze wearing gold earrings and a gold nose ring, discovered in the necropolis of Saqqara and dating back to around 600 BC. This he bequeathed to the British Museum in London, where these days it’s a prize exhibit – visitors can purchase ‘Gayer-Anderson cat’ T-shirts and necklaces, or a scale replica for the cool price of £450. Cairo’s Gayer-Anderson Museum, which receives fewer visitors in a year than the British Museum does in five minutes, also has to make do with a replica.

The photos here, which were taken to accompany my story in Canvas, are by Cairo-based photographer Barry Iverson.

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The Baron

The previous pair of posts were about TE Lawrence’s stays in Cairo hotels – a year at the Grand Continental, a year and a half, on and off, at the Savoy and two weeks at the Semiramis. In the Middle East it’s not an Egyptian hotel, though, that he’s most associated with but the Baron Hotel in Aleppo, Syria, thanks to an unpaid bar bill that to this day is displayed framed on the lounge wall. I’ve stayed at the Baron a couple of times, most recently in 2009 when I wrote the following text for Jazeera Magazine (the photographs are by Damascus-based John Wreford):

In 1880, when Aleppo was the great cosmopolitan metropolis of the region, the Mazloumian family from Turkish Armenia halted here on the long pilgrimage to Jerusalem. They found only crude accommodations and seeing an opportunity started a small hotel. In 1909 they built a bigger hotel. They called it the Baron because in Armenian baron means “sir”, which was how the Egyptian construction workers addressed the owners.

Exactly 100 years on, reading the entries on website tripadvisor.com, courtesy is no longer a strong suit of the hotel. Nor it seems are plumbing, furnishings, cuisine or service. But in recompense, how many hotels can boast of having played a part in the formation of the country? (In 1918 King Faisal declared Syria’s independence from a balcony at the Baron.) And can waiters at the Four Seasons in Damascus honestly boast that guests used to shoot duck from the hotel roof?

One can almost excuse the dilapidated air of the hotel’s rooms and hallways as fidelity to a century of history. A tour of the second floor is a walk through the passage of the Middle East during the 20th century. The balcony in Room 215 is where King Faisal made his proclamation. Room 203 was favoured by Agatha Christie, although she preferred to sit out on the terrace to do her writing (part of Murder on the Orient Express was supposedly written during stays at the hotel). Lawrence of Arabia slept in Room 202, while the Presidential Suite was once variously occupied by the Shah of Persia, Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser and Sheikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al-Nahayan (principal architect of the United Arab Emirates). Before the Ottoman withdrawal, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey, mounted machine guns on the roof during World War I in case the British or the Arab Legions broke through. These are the claims of the hotel, anyway.

Hard evidence for at least one of the stories is offered in the hotel lounge, where visitors can examine a framed copy of a drinks bill signed by Lawrence. Otherwise, staff (many of whom have been with the hotel for two, three or even four decades) have a blasé attitude to history – the guest books, filled with past signatures, are stuffed along with piles of yellowed, scrunched up newspaper clippings in the top of an old dusty radiogram.

The hotel is still owned by the Mazloumian family, who have always resisted buy-out bids. Baron Street, on which the hotel stands, has recently seen the loss of several neighbouring buildings, torn down by developers, and the old hotel is beginning to look a little besieged. The current owner, a direct descendent of the Baron’s founders, has always insisted he will never sell – after all, it was his family who founded the hotel business in Syria.

 

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