Baalbek, Lebanon – For more than 140 years, through two world wars and a civil war lasting 15 years, the Palmyra Hotel in Baalbek has never closed its doors for a single day.
Built in 1874 by an Orthodox Greek businessman from Constantinople who recognised the tourist appeal of Baalbek’s spectacular Roman ruins, in its heyday the hotel hosted kings, queens and emperors, as well as writers, artists and world-famous musicians.
The hotel is reminiscent of the Grand Budapest Hotel in Wes Anderson’s bittersweet comedy.
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The turbulent history of the region has seen the Palmyra Hotel transformed into a pale imitation of its former glory, manned by ageing retainers who remember its golden years with nostalgia.
Ahmed Kassab, now in his 70s, has worked at the hotel for more than 60 years.
“It is part of me,” he says simply, seated in the lobby in an ancient tailcoat. He smiles as he recalls his first day of work, during Eid al-Adha of 1954.
“The father of a friend told me to come inside and help in the kitchen,” he says. “I was so small that they had to bring a wooden box for me to stand on so I could reach the table.”
When Kassab finished school, he wanted to become a teacher but the owner begged him to stay on and work at the hotel, where they began throwing dinner parties for hundreds of guests.
“I started with two tables, then four, then six, and then eventually they gave me all the tables,” he laughs uproariously, wheezing a little. “This was my happiest moment.”
At its peak, The Palmyra Hotel had 40 rooms and more than 60 staff, Kassab says wistfully. Today, only 20 of the rooms remain open and the seven staff members sometimes have nothing to do, as days go by without any guests.
Bitterly cold in winter and lacking modern amenities such as mini bars and a swimming pool, the Palmyra no longer caters to high-society guests.
But for history lovers it remains a fascinating place; a relic of Lebanon ‘s colonial past that bears testament to almost 150 years of local, regional and global events, all of which have impacted the hotel in different ways.
In the entrance of the hotel, there is a huge portrait of Germany’s last Emperor and King of Prussia, Kaiser Wilhelm II, standing to attention. The Kaiser stayed at the hotel in 1898 while planning a joint German-Ottoman excavation of Baalbek’s archaeological site. His troops later stayed at the Palmyra, which was occupied by Ottoman forces during World War I.
The Declaration du Grand Liban – which established the boundaries of modern-day Lebanon as determined under the French Mandate – was signed at the hotel following World War I and the collapse of the Ottoman Empire.
Reflecting the shifting balance of power in the Middle East, the Palmyra later served as headquarters for British troops during World War II.
Three guestbooks dating back to 1889 shed light on the Palmyra’s history. In the 1920s, dozens of entries from American tourists attest to the hotel’s position on the pilgrim trail to Jerusalem. Kings and queens used to stop at the Palmyra while touring Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and the Holy Land.
“It was the first hotel that had a private bathroom and the lady-in-waiting would have the key,” says Rima Husseini, who owns the hotel with her husband Ali.
Royals and heads of state to have stayed at the hotel include Charles de Gaulle, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, King Faisal I of Iraq, King Abdullah I of Jordan, the Shah of Iran and the Empress of Abyssinia, among many others.
The challenge was – and still is – never to close the hotel's doors for a day
Inside the cavernous entrance hall, with its worn tiles and fraying rugs, hang sketches and letters signed by Jean Cocteau, who spent a month in the hotel in 1960.
Other famous guests include local stars such as Fairouz and Sabah, as well as Nina Simone, Ella Fitzgerald, Albert Einstein and George Bernard Shaw.
The hotel’s stream of showbiz visitors began with the founding of the annual Baalbeck International Festival in 1955.
But the 1967 war put an end to the pilgrim trail, and then came Lebanon’s 1975-1990 Civil War during which the festival was suspended. The guests went with it. “When my husband Ali bought the hotel during the [civil] war, the old owner wanted to leave because there had been no festival for over five years,” says Husseini.
“Ali tried to convince him to stay, because he knew during the war that no one with a sense of preserving such a place would come in. So he took it, just to preserve it.
The challenge was – and still is – never to close the hotel’s doors for a day.”
The civil war now entering its sixth year across the Syrian border, which lies less than 15 miles away, has compounded the hotel’s troubles.
Today, the Palmyra Hotel no longer hosts kings and queens or stars of the stage, but tourists seeking history, rather than luxury, among the creaking beds, gurgling pipes and ancient furnishings, which include hand-carved mahogany furniture, enormous colourful tapestries and green ostrich-skin lampshades.
With this in mind, the owners purchased a traditional house nearby in 2000, intending to create a more up-market alternative.
Known as L’Annexe, the second venue features five bedrooms, each decorated in a different style.
As of last November, they are being rented out via a boutique hotel company called L’Hote Libanais. The idea is to offer a more comfortable alternative for guests who find the Palmyra’s ancient infrastructure off-putting.
“Bit by bit we’ve tried to make it more comfortable but at the same time keep this atmosphere, with everything – even the walls – speaking,” says Husseini.
“Any outside contractor will want to showcase what he can do.” No single person should have the right to transform the hotel, she believes, because “the Palmyra has the soul of so many different people”.
Instead, Husseini is inviting local designers to come and add a personal touch to a single room or expanse of wall. “This is a place that was marked by people,” she says. “It has stories to tell.”