Spies, Nuns, Presidents, and a Broken-Hearted Lover
Room 203: the Agatha Christie room. It's easy to imagine the English lady seated on the Thonet chair at the dark dressing-table with its bevelled mirrors, its fine marquetry, and its gold-handled drawers. "These are the original furnishings from the 1920s", says Armen Mazloumian, and points to the matching wardrobe and twin beds. "Restored, and with new mattresses", he adds, with a smile. Air-conditioning, mini-bar, TV and bathroom are new, while the tiles on the floor are originals; in this way, contemporary standards of comfort and cleanliness are combined with an authentic historical ambience.
My tour of the Hotel Baron's second floor becomes a journey through the history of the 20th century: Lawrence of Arabia slept in Room 202; from the balcony in Room 215, King Faisal declared Syria's independence. The Presidential Suite was occupied in turn by Sweden's King Gustaf Adolf, Egypt's Jamal Abdel Nasser, Syria's former President Hafiz Al Assad, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan (the founder of the United Arab Emirates), and the American billionaire David Rockefeller.
T.E. Lawrence's framed bill
In the main dining room on the ground floor, the Hotel Baron once held lavish banquets in their honour. Today, the guests have their breakfast here, surrounded by wood-panelled walls, massive double doors, crooked lampshades, and ceramic tiles of green, beige and brown. It's the details that make the Baron so unique: the chunky, grass-green telephone system at the reception; T.E. Lawrence's (Lawrence of Arabia's) bill, framed and displayed in the lounge; the scratched brass plate at the entrance, commemorating "The German Automobile Association, established 1899"; the dusty bottle of Jägermeister herbal liqueur on the shelf behind the bar.
Rather than radiating perfect professionalism, the Baron has the air of a charming, family firm. Like the art deco tables and chairs, the staff are practically part of the furniture: Lucine, the receptionist, has been working here for the last 35 years; Walid started off as a night porter in 1963 and now organises day trips for the guests.
The story of the Hotel Baron is also the tale of the Armenian family Mazloumian, who founded the establishment and still own it. Armen Mazloumian, 54, has been in charge since the mid-70s. He describes the hard times the Baron has survived, including two World Wars, numerous deportations, several coups, and 35 years of socialism. Armen insists proudly that he will never sell the hotel, and that he will continue to stand firm against takeover bids. He feels he owes it to his family – for it was, after all, a Mazloumian who founded the hotel business in Aleppo.
Sometime around 1870, Armen's Anatolian great-grandfather went on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. He passed through Aleppo (which was, even at that time, a cosmopolitan centre of commerce) and noticed how uncomfortable Europeans felt when staying at the traditional caravanserais. When he saw the hotels in Jerusalem, he resolved to build something equally modern in Aleppo. The result, at the end of the 19th century, was the Ararat, the first hotel in the region.
"Each room had a small stove, a candle, a bed, and a water tank", says Armen. His great-grandfather's two sons started off in business by opening their own hotels, before teaming up to realise a major project: the "Baron's Hotel". In 1909, amongst the gardens on the outskirts of Aleppo, they built the first floor of the current building; the second floor followed in 1911, and the third in 1940. In recent years, this top storey has been thoroughly renovated and modernised.
Accommodation for the movers and the shakers
European guests were enchanted by the "Baron's Hotel". From the terraces, they could shoot ducks; in the deep leather armchairs, they could pursue diplomacy; at the bar, they discussed the latest goings-on in international politics. Word soon spread about the hotel's first-rate atmosphere, and the Mazloumian brothers' establishment quickly developed a reputation far beyond Aleppo. Anyone who had anything to say in the Middle East – in politics, economics or military affairs – stayed at the Baron.
Until the Second World War, says Armen, most of the guests were British or German. He leafs through the guestbook. British agents posing as archaeologists spied on German generals, who arranged opulent banquets for their Ottoman allies while German engineers built the rail line from Berlin to Baghdad.
Agatha Christie trilled a cheery "Good morning!" every day as she descended the broad staircase on her way to the terrace; there, she sipped tea while writing "Murder on the Orient Express".
Armen orders beer and caviar as he warms to his theme. He used to love hearing the stories told by his father Gregory, who died in 1993. When Armen can't recall a name immediately, he phones his mother Sally – a British lady who came to Aleppo as a nurse in 1947 and married Gregory Mazloumian (known as "Koko"). She enjoys reminiscing about the distinguished guests of previous years. But besides the state visits, receptions and conspiratorial meetings, there were also personal dramas at the Hotel Baron.
Many years ago, for instance, Paul, the German head waiter, fell in love with Sister Anna, little Koko's nursery teacher. Armen tells the story: "At that time, there was a kindergarten run by German nuns; it was located behind the hotel. As a child, my father went there every day. Paul used to make up my father's playground snack, and he told him to hand over his lunchbox to Sister Anna. He had hidden love letters to the German nun amongst the boy's sandwiches… but he never succeeded in winning her affections." When the letters remained unanswered, Paul put an end to his heartache: "He went down to the cellar of the hotel and shot himself in the head", says Armen. He adds that his father had never forgotten it.
The hotelier closes his guestbook, though he could easily tell many more tales – of double agents, belly dancers and ailing Crown Princes. The Hotel Baron offers enough material for a thrilling movie, and more than enough for an unforgettable stay.
© Qantara.de 2006
Translated from the German by Patrick Lanagan