The Baron, Aleppo: Remembering Syria’s legendary hotel
Text and photos by Duncan J.D. Smith
“Confort parfait, situation unique, le seul recommande par les Agences de Tourisme.”
So reads an old glass advertisement extolling the virtues of the Hotel Baron in the Syrian city of Aleppo. It hung in the hotel’s foyer but like the oversized Stephens’ Ink thermometer on the wall outside (below), it’s probably been hidden for safekeeping, stolen or destroyed. Fortunately the storied hotel has survived the worst of the country’s recent and vicious civil war, but it’s uncertain whether paying guests will ever return. Even had the Baron been destroyed though its legend would live on, thanks to the important part it’s played in Aleppo’s eventful history.
The Baron’s beginnings go back to the late 19th century, when European tourism in the Middle East was in its infancy. The story goes that sometime around 1870 an Armenian farmer and devout Christian, one Krikor Mazloumian, undertook a pilgrimage from Turkey to Jerusalem. Whilst there he noticed how well visitors were accommodated in purpose-built guest houses. The impression was compounded on his way home when he passed through Aleppo, where by comparison Europeans were obliged to stay in traditional caravanserais, with none of their usual home comforts. The canny Krikor spotted a business opportunity, and it was one he was happy to take given the persecution faced by Armenians in Turkey. So it was that the Mazloumian family relocated to Aleppo and built the city’s first guest house for foreigners, the Ararat, named after the mountain revered by Armenians.
A few years later Krikor’s sons, Armenak and Onnig, enlarged the family business by building Syria’s first hotel. They chose a location that at the time was on the outskirts of Old Aleppo, at the edge of a marsh teeming with wildfowl (it is today a part of the city’s built-up Aziziyeh district). The ground floor, with its breezy terrace, wood-panelled dining room, lofty bar and smoking lounge, was completed in 1909; the first storey bedrooms reached by a grand stone staircase were finished two years later, with a further storey added in 1940. It is remarkable to think that the hotel’s first guests would have had the opportunity to shoot duck from the terrace without getting their feet wet!
The Baron Hotel still stands in Aleppo's Aziziyeh district
When the hotel opened, Syria was a French protectorate, which explains why the street outside was originally named after a French General, Henri Gouraud (1867–1946). As commander of French forces during the Franco-Turkish War (1918–1921), he presided over the creation of the French Mandates in Syria and Lebanon (only after Syria gained independence in 1946 was the street renamed Baron Street).
The hotel’s unusual name has never been fully explained but perhaps it too was the result of French influence. Having established itself as a centre for Aleppo’s expatriate community, it is said that the hotel’s French patrons affectionately elevated Armenak Mazloumian to ‘Le Baron’ in return for his hospitality. Alternatively his own family may have dubbed him ‘Paron’, an Armenian word meaning ‘gentleman’ or ‘master’. Whatever the reason the name stuck and the hotel followed suit.
The fortified entrance to Aleppo's citadel
(Image: Bernard Gagnon CC BY-SA 3.0)
The opening of the Baron was a small but significant milestone in Aleppo’s long and tumultuous history. Unlike the capital, Damascus, which was always Syria’s holy city, Aleppo had been a trading centre since Roman times, with traces of human settlement stretching back a further 6,000 years. It was the Romans who made the city into a major staging post on the desert trade routes, notably the Silk Road connecting China to the Middle East and Europe.
Aleppo’s fortunes waxed and waned over the years. The city was sacked by the Persians in 611 AD, taken in the late 10th century by the Byzantines, shaken by earthquakes and rebuilt by the Seljuks, besieged by the Crusaders in 1124, and raided by the Mongols in 1260 and 1401. Through it all, though, Aleppo survived thanks to its strategic position between the Euphrates and the Mediterranean. Eventually in 1519 it came under the sway of the Ottomans, where it would remain for the next four centuries.
Syria prospered under the Turks well into the 19th century, with Aleppo attracting European merchants, especially from France and England. Latterly the country benefitted from Turkey’s good strategic relations with Germany, notably in 1903, when the Germans commenced construction of the Berlin–Baghdad Railway (Baghdad in those days being an Ottoman city). Trains called in at Aleppo, where in 1912 an attractive station known as the Gare de Baghdad was opened not far from the Baron (it is still there today). The railway brought with it a new class of European traveller – from aristocrats and adventurers to soldiers and spies – and inevitably they chose the Hotel Baron as the place to stay.
T.E. Lawrence and archaeologist Leonard Woolley at the excavations at Carchemish
By the turn of the century, however, an increasingly harsh Turkish government had begun prompting the growth of Arab nationalism and thoughts of independence. One of the key players in the events that followed was Thomas Edward Lawrence (1888–1935), better known as Lawrence of Arabia. He first walked into the Baron in 1914, whilst working as an archaeologist at the Hittite city of Carchemish. He slept in Room 202 and his bar bill is proudly displayed in a glass-fronted curiosity cabinet in the hotel’s smoking lounge. It was Lawrence who managed to unite the region’s disparate tribes after the Emir of Mecca had taken up arms against the Turks in 1917. At the head of the so-called Arab Revolt, he encouraged Arab forces to take Damascus and in 1919 helped install the government of King Faisal I (1883–1933). It was from the balcony of Room 215 at the Baron that the King declared Syrian independence.
The Berlin–Baghdad Railway was not completed until 1940. Until then parts of the journey had to be made by motor coach, and this also went for the fabled Simplon–Orient Express, which from 1930 used the railway for its Eastern extension between Istanbul and Baghdad. Known as the Taurus Express and also run by the Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits, it brought more customers to the Baron, which by now had established itself as one of the best hotels in the region – and the only one recommended by Thomas Cook.
The most famous visitor was writer Agatha Christie (1890–1976). Already known for her detective novels based around super sleuth Hercule Poirot, she began frequenting the hotel in 1930. That was the year she married her second husband, the archaeologist Max Mallowan (1904–1978), whom she met two years earlier, when he was an assistant to Leonard Woolley (1880–1960) at Ur in Iraq (Christie’s Murder in Mespotamia was inspired by the royal tombs found at the site). Mallowan was now digging his own sites at Chagar Bazar and Tell Brak in north-eastern Syria, and Christie used Aleppo as a convenient stopover en route to visit him (photo: Christie & Mallowan at Tell Brak in 1930).
Considering how long and arduous the journey from England was in those days, Christie’s excitement at stopping off in Aleppo was understandable: “Alep! Shops! A bath! My hair shampooed! Friends to see!” She was no softie though and with one failed marriage under her belt, she was determined to make this one work. Resilient, hardworking and genuinely interested in her husband’s work, she embraced expedition life and eventually wound up as dig photographer, as recounted in her charming book Come, Tell Me How You Live.
The colourful roster of passengers travelling on the Orient Expressin in the 1930s provided Christie with the dramatis personae for one of her most popular books, Murder on the Orient Express (1934). She stayed in Room 203 at the Baron and wrote parts of the book on the hotel’s terrace, whilst sipping tea. Although the main body of the story takes place on the Simplon-Orient Express, the book opens in Aleppo with Hercule Poirot boarding the Istanbul-bound Taurus Express.
Guests could plan their sightseeing on this archaeological map of Syria found in the foyer of the hotel
Agatha and Max frequented the Baron numerous times thereafter, and became friends with Armenak’s son, Gregory ‘Coco’ Mazloumian. He was now managing the hotel with his English wife, Sally, who had arrived in Aleppo from Cyprus in 1947 in answer to a newspaper advertisement for staff at a nearby maternity hospital. The pair oversaw a golden age at the Baron as recorded in the hotel’s leather-bound visitors’ book.
A Who’s Who of the period, it includes French leader Charles de Gaulle, Mr. and Mrs. Theodore Roosevelt Swedish, King Gustaf VI Adolf and his wife Lady Louise Mountbatten, Egypt's Gamal Abdel Nasser, and founder of the United Arab Emirates Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan. They all used the Presidential Suite, whereas Kemal Ataturk, the father of modern Turkey, preferred to stay in Room 201. Other notable guests included seasoned travel writer Dame Freya Stark, the aviators Amy Johnson and Charles Lindbergh, American billionaire David Rockefeller, and even the first man in space, Yuri Gagarin.
By the time of ‘Coco’ Mazloumian’s death in 1993 times had changed, with son, Armen, now in charge and Syria a different place politically. Moreover there were fewer celebrities at the hotel and instead more tourists, who after flying into Damascus were moving on to Aleppo, with its ancient Citadel and labyrinthine souk, as part of a packaged circular tour of Syria’s cultural treasures.
The bar at the Baron has hosted many famous guests
Syria had finally taken control of its own affairs in 1946 after British and Free French troops ousted pro-German Vichy forces. Any dreams of civilian rule were short-lived though, with a series of coups bringing to power military men with nationalist and socialist interests. By 1954, the Arab Ba’ath Socialist Party had secured support from Syria’s Alawite and Druze minorities and had no rivals. It was an Alawite air force lieutenant-general, Hafez al-Assad (1930–2000), who in 1971 seized power and became President. Again the Baron was a witness to history as Hafez visited the hotel shortly afterwards and later helped save it from bankruptcy when it needed a long overdue makeover.
Hafez ruled Syria for thirty years with an iron fist before his son, Bashar al-Assad (b. 1965) reluctantly took over. His father’s shadow loomed large though and, despite a promising start, Syrian intellectuals and Western observers were disappointed when Bashar began curtailing political and press freedoms, and suppressing any protests against the regime. He also continued the cult of personality started by his father ensuring that large photos of both men adorned the Baron’s public rooms.
Views of the Baron, left to right: The well-appointed entrance hall, the hotel's wood-panelled dining room and reception area with its old fashioned telephone and photograph of President Assad
It was the violent suppression of one such protest in March 2011 that triggered the Syrian Civil War. Part of the broader Arab Spring, the incident was quickly hijacked and exploited not only by various competing rebel factions inside Syria but also by the burgeoning Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and the West. The war reached Aleppo a year later and the Baron found itself in the regime-controlled western part of the city. In November 2014, with the front line just metres from the hotel and mortars whizzing overhead, Armen Mazloumian reluctantly closed his doors.
He vowed not to leave the city though and instead began offering his empty bedrooms to homeless refugees. Not for the first time was the Baron used in this way. Exactly a hundred years earlier Armen’s grandfather, Armenak, had taken in Armenian refugees deported from Turkey. With international aid for Armenians forbidden, Armenak used his contacts to secure safe passage for them to Europe. It was a risky business and for a while the family were forced to abandon Aleppo, only returning once Syria was free of the Ottoman yoke (it’s worth noting here that the Walker children in Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazonswere based on some of these real-life Armenian refugees from Aleppo called the Altounyans).
Sadly Armen Mazloumian died in 2016 and didn’t live to see the winding down of hostilities in Aleppo. The Baron, its age-old windows broken and walls cracked, is currently being watched over by his widow, Rubina Tashjian, on behalf of Armen’s sisters, who own the building but live elsewhere. Having survived wars, deportations and coups, and all the while acting as a mirror on Syrian life, it would be a great shame if the Baron was not able to rise one more time, phoenix-like from the ashes.
Explorer and travel writer Duncan first got the history bug when his grandfather unearthed the grave of a Roman soldier. He opened his own museum aged eleven and went on to study archaeology at Birmingham. After many years in travel publishing, in 2003 he relocated to Vienna, where he writes and publishes his Only In Guides, a series of city guides for independent cultural travellers. Duncan is a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society. www.onlyinguides.com and www.duncanjdsmith.com