ALEPPO, Syria: Indifferent to the sniper fire and shelling around him, the owner of the oldest hotel in Syria’s Aleppo sits gloomily in the storied property he has been forced to close.
Just a few meters from the front line separating government and rebel forces in the city, Armen Mazloumian smokes a cigarette on the terrace of the Baron Hotel.
The hotel was founded in 1911 by Mazloumian’s grandfather, whose name it bears, and was once the fanciest in Aleppo, Syria’s former commercial hub.
In 1958, Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser delivered a speech here. It was also at the Baron that Agatha Christie wrote parts of “Murder on the Orient Express”.
But since fighting arrived in the city in 2012, paying clients have dwindled to zero and the once-glamorous building is falling into disrepair.
“It’s been nearly four years since the war began and I see nothing that inspires any optimism in me, quite the contrary,” says 63-year-old Mazloumian, unshaven and wearing a blue woolen hat.
Aleppo has been divided between government control in the west, and rebel control in the east since shortly after fighting began.
The conflict, which started with anti-government protests in March 2011 and has since spiraled into a brutal civil war, has ravaged large parts of the historic second city.
Mazloumian is the last of four generations of Armenian hoteliers in Aleppo in his family.
His great-grandfather Krikor opened the family’s first hotel, named Ararat after the mountain revered by Armenians, in the second half of the 19th century.
- ‘The only first-class hotel’ -
In the Baron’s lobby, on a yellowing wall, an advert from the 1930s can still be seen. “Hotel Baron, the only first-class hotel in Aleppo,” it proclaims.
“Central heating throughout, complete comfort, uniquely situated. The only one recommended by travel agencies.”
Nowadays, it’s a different story. Everything inside seems outdated and dusty — the reception hall, the telephones, the polished wooden bar with empty liquor bottles.
The roof has been perforated by incoming shell fire, with water leaking inside when it rains.
Rooms that once hosted celebrities and political leaders are empty, or home to a handful of displaced families who have been allowed to take refuge in the hotel.
The hotel is not far from the Aleppo Museum, which has been closed since the war began, and near the rebel-held Bustan al-Qasr district.
“You think all this will stop? It will take years,” Mazloumian says over the sound of gunfire.
It’s a world away from the hotel’s glory days of glitterati.
Many of the hotel’s rooms are forever linked to the famous guests who once stayed in them — Room 201 was that of Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey, while Room 215 was where King Faisal I of Iraq and Syria stayed.
Lawrence of Arabia stayed in Room 202 and Christie preferred Room 203 for her visits.
“I met her in 1959, but I was too young to know why she was important, I only learned that later,” said Mazloumian.
“She came every year with her husband, the archeologist Max Mallowan, who did excavations at Chagar Bazar and Tell Brak” in northeastern Syria.
Every Syrian president except Nureddin al-Atassi has stayed at the hotel.
Hafez al-Assad, father of Syria’s current President Bashar al-Assad, visited the Baron shortly after the coup that brought him to power in 1970.
“There were so many famous people who came here that if I started listing them all for you I wouldn’t finish before tomorrow morning,” he said, ticking off names like billionaire David Rockefeller, former French leader Charles de Gaulle and aviator Charles Lindburgh.
“But this is all in the past now. Honestly, the hotel will never go back to how it was,” Mazloumian sighed, stroking Sasha, his black terrier.
“The best years are behind us now.”