The Remains of Baalbeck’s Palmyra Hotel

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With windows overlooking the ancient Roman temple ruins of Heliopolis, the hotel has entertained famed and favored visitors to Baalbeck for many an era.

By: Rebecca Whiting

Published Monday, December 10, 2012

Since it was built in 1874, the Hotel Palmyra has never been closed, not for one day.

With windows overlooking the ancient Roman temple ruins of Heliopolis, the hotel has entertained famed and favored visitors to Baalbeck for many an era. As it now stands, guests are seldom, but those who do arrive might have been drawn by the 19th century lore that makes this hotel something of a remnant of colonialism’s history.

The hotel was built by a Greek entrepreneur in response to the growing number of tourists to the region. Beginning in the mid-1860s, European tour operators offered package tours of the Middle East, and Baalbeck had become a renowned destination. Western academics had been drawn to the ruins for years. Scholar Ussama Makdisi noted in Baalbek: Image and Monument, 1898-1998 that they were often searching for traces of a European past in the region, perhaps with imperialist agendas at heart, and ignored the contemporary settings of the ruins.
A myriad of archeologists, artists, and self-styled adventurers followed in their wake, in what would become known to some as the ‘golden age of travelling.’

The last German Kaiser Wilhelm II stayed at the hotel in 1898 and paved the way for a joint German-Ottoman excavation of Baalbeck’s ruins. This venture led to some of the site’s later history, namely the Arab influence, being effaced.

All the current travel guides and hotel booking websites boast that the Palmyra hosted the Germans during World War I and served as English headquarters during World War II, an anecdote that somehow seals the hotel’s fate as a colonialist monument.

A glancing Internet search will show that several guests in recent years were less than thrilled at the lack of 24-hour hot water and luxuries such as AC or fans, though the hotel’s antique authenticity has purportedly been purposefully preserved by its owner, Ali Houssani, who took over in 1987. Instead of refurbishing, he built a new annex with more modern conveniences just next to the original building where, apparently, Fairuz has been wont to stay.

When entering Baalbeck from the south, clumsy green and red letters are seen hanging from a concrete wall spelling PALM RA HOTEL, a far cry from the anticipated antique splendor. Follow the street round, though, enter a leafy courtyard and there she lies.

Stepping through the front door into the dimly lit inner sanctum, the antiquated hand-carved mahogany hall-stand, green ostrich skin lampshades, and the excavation finds on plinths stand to attention. And there is the total silence.

With a guest book (now being restored) bearing entries from the Empress of Abyssinia, Nina Simone, and Ella Fitzgerald, and its collection of photographs and pieces of art, the Palmyra is a museum to itself.

The bellhop, Manhal Abbas, has worked at the hotel continuously since he was 19, 40 years ago. He is not even the longest-serving; Ahmad who works in the kitchen has been there a decade longer.

Abbas’ love for the establishment and its place in history is evident. He tells us that the very first telephone in Baalbeck was in the hotel, and then talks with great fondness of times when the hotel would be full to its capacity, the bar open and brimming with life until dawn.

As there are no guests in the hotel, the generator is switched off. The long, shadowed halls are almost an optical illusion, with peeling paint and antique Persian and Turkish rugs on the walls and floors that have been there since the hotel’s opening. Some of the rugs have been carefully folded to one side, as, Abbas explains, the ceilings leak in winter.

Abbas unlocks a few of the rooms, starting with number 30, where Charles de Gaulle once stayed. Pulling back the heavy drapes, he lets the sunlight slip into the room, perhaps for the first time in some while. Some drawings by the French poet Jean Cocteau are framed on the wall. He drew them while he stayed at the Palmyra for a month in 1960.

Of the original 40 rooms, only 20 are now in use, or rather are ready to be used. The others didn’t have appropriate bathrooms and are locked, maybe to be forgotten forever.

Downstairs, the dining room is beautiful and places are set as if company was expected, but it has remained deserted since the summer.

For many years, groups of men from Beirut wanting to hunt fowl would come up every weekend and stay at the Palmyra. Hotel manager Ghassan Karaa, who has been at the hotel since 1989, explains that the majority of their visitors have, however, always been large groups of tourists on guided tours of historical sites through Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon. For them, staying at the Palmyra is a moment to be part of Baalbeck’s history.

The July 2006 war affected tourism in North Lebanon drastically, though a few years later it picked up again until the crisis in Syria has all but completely halted it. Now, the Palmyra sees but a few guests a month.

“Tourists get scared to come to Baalbeck these days,” says Abbas, “and those who do come to see the ruins don’t want the spend the night.” Karaa says that most of their guests’ bookings are arranged by travel agencies and that thus far no bookings have been made for the coming year. The allure of exotic artifacts is not potent enough to tempt visitors to what maybe feels too close to the wars making today’s history, the contemporary settings no longer possible to ignore.


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