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.