Aleppo’s imperial Baron imperiled by bombs
Tales of a travel addict
The bar of Hotel Baron in Aleppo was full of drop-in tourists wishing they were staying there, while I wished I wasn’t. That was a decade ago, but I remember the bites from the bedbugs whose ancestors may well have bitten Charles de Gaulle and Rockefeller.
This hotel in Syria shared some of the allure of Raffles of Singapore and Mena House Cairo, but not their luxury. Creaky iron beds, crumbling ceilings and percussive plumbing are my memories. Yet, it attracted a crowd curious to see where Agatha Christie began writing Murder on the Orient Express, and where Lawrence of Arabia slept during breaks from shaking up Arab discontent in the Middle East. The A-list of an earlier age stayed here: Mountbatten, Lindbergh, Gagarin, Roosevelt, showing how central Syria was in an era when a direct train line was the equivalent of a Ryanair route now.
It’s sad to think of the Baron now surrounded by blockades, bomb craters and rubble. I’ve read that its owner, Armen Mazloumian, is sheltering from the grenades behind the grand French shutters. His last guests came two years ago, exactly a century after his grandfather opened it in 1911.
Neither rebel nor government forces have directly targeted the building – both valuing its significance: the fact that it was from here King Faisal declared Syrian independence in 1919, and where, in 1915, thousands of Armenians were given shelter in its rooms from the genocide in Turkey.
The Baron was always of barometer of Syria’s status. Mazloumian’s grandad built it just before the planned arrival of the Berlin-to-Baghdad railway, which they felt would put Aleppo on the international map again, as it had been in the Silk Route era. The hotel thrived as Syria flowered in the mid-20th century, becoming a centre of international trade, spying and archaeological excavation. TE Lawrence was there under the guise of being an archaeologist, while actually spying ,and Agatha Christie’s husband Max Mallowan was a genuine archaeologist, suspected of spying.
Aleppo has a cosmopolitan feel – at least it did until the recent exodus. A certain French sensibility lingers from its occupation by France in the interwar years, Russian investors then flooded in, and the Armenian Christian influence is most potent of all, having absorbed large influxes of Armenians fleeing Turkey in the 1920s and Lebanon in the 1980s. New boutique hotels in 17th century Armenian homes now attract the type of tourist who used to frequent the Baron. Their fountained courtyards and jasmine walls photograph well in magazines.
Previously accommodation was in enclosed Medieval courtyard inns with warehouses and stables below (where traders and travellers could protect their goods and animals at night). Aleppo’s great gift was that these old buildings had survived so long; it’s great tragedy is that they are being destroyed so quickly by bombing.