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Volume 48, Number 4July/August 1997

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Hotels With a History

Written and photographed by Arthur Clark

Looking for legends—along with bed and board? Across the Middle East, a handful of exceptional hotels has retained the magic of a bygone era while still offering the care and comforts that attract experienced travelers. Some of the best of them can boast histories going back 100 years or more.

These hostelries have cosseted the likes of Agatha Christie, T.E. Lawrence and Winston Churchill. Presidents and potentates stay there still, but so do ordinary travelers with a taste for peace and patina. From Morocco in the west to Turkey, the Levant and Egypt, many of these hotels have undertaken renovations and additions that demonstrate their owners' confidence in the future of tourism and business travel throughout the region. Indeed, properties in the region are "fighting for market share with highly customized design and services," notes the trade magazine Hotels, "and the 'historical' hotels are holding their own against stiff competition from newer, often larger, properties."

The Middle East's early luxury hotels grew up in the second half of the 1800's along routes opened by railroads and steamships. Focusing first on Palestine and Egypt, tourism pioneers such as Thomas Cook both stimulated and satisfied European fascination with the region. Often, world politics and economics combined to cement the importance of the hotels, which served tourists and statesmen alike.

Some guests, like Churchill, left behind objects that are now treasured mementos. Of others, all that remains is a signature in a dusty guest book, and sometimes a hint of intrigue or mystery.

Lawrence, for example, sojourned at the then-stately Baron's Hotel in Aleppo, in northern Syria, in April 1914. He said he was studying the ruins at Carchemish, about 100 kilometers (60 miles) away, but some believe he was already spying for Britain, before moving on to help raise the Arab revolt against the Turks in the Arabian Peninsula during World War I.

Christie began traveling to the Middle East in the late 1920's. (See Aramco World, July/August 1990.) She wrote part of Murder on the Orient Express at Istanbul's Pera Palace Hotel. In Syria, she stayed at Baron's, as well as at the Reine Zenobia Hotel in Palmyra. In Egypt, she visited the Winter Palace in Luxor and the Cataract Hotel in Aswan, incorporating what she saw at the Cataract in Death on the Nile.

Churchill checked into the Cataract for the inauguration of the first Aswan Dam in 1902. But the Mamounia Hotel in Marrakech, Morocco, where he painted scenes of the Atlas Mountains from his balcony, was his favorite, and he returned there frequently until the 1950's. He even brought Franklin Roosevelt to the hotel after the Casablanca Conference early in 1943, both of them mud-splattered after their car broke down en route. Today, Churchill's homburg and umbrella hang in a luxurious suite that bears his name, and the hotel displays in the lobby the silver tea service he used.

Opened in 1922 by the Moroccan national railroad company, the Mamounia was renovated and redecorated in 1986 with a daring mix of twenties Art Deco and such traditional Moroccan features as intricately carved plaster and zillij tilework. The hotel is just a 10-minute walk from the city's bustling ancient markets and Djemaa el-Fna, Marrakech's raucous main square (See Aramco World, July/August 1993), but inside the Mamounia's rose-colored walls, the watchword is "peace," says Najib Mountasir, assistant hotel director.

The hotel's 13 hectares (32 acres) of gardens give substance to his words and link the hotel to the city's past. In the 18th century, Sultan Sidi Muhammad gave these gardens to his son Mamoun as a wedding gift. The ruler's three other sons were also given gardens in the city, but today only Mamoun's gardens remain, generously planted with palms, olives, Seville oranges and flowering plants.

The hotel, where heavy-scented damask roses are scattered in the fountains every morning, has long been a favorite of artists as well as politicians. Maurice Ravel, whose piano still graces the lobby, found inspiration in the music of a Gnaoua troupe at Djemaa el-Fna when he stayed here in 1935. Some six decades later, members of the rock group Led Zeppelin signed the register while in town to mix their rhythms with the Gnaoua's for an "MTV Unplugged" concert. When Ronald Reagan stayed in 1991, the hotel arranged an expert briefing on Arabian horses. Yasser Arafat praised the "warm welcome" he received when he signed the guest book in 1992.

The welcome is also warm—even resonant—at the Palais Jamaï Hotel, some 280 kilometers (175 miles) to the north, in Fez. Now a sister hotel of the Mamounia, the Palais Jamaï is perched on the rim of the bowl-shaped valley that contains the madinah, or old city. Besides this world-class historic panorama, the hotel also has one of the most thrilling of all wake-up calls: The dawn call to prayer gathers volume from one after another of the mosques of the city below, floats up to the hotel—Prayer is better than sleep!"—and draws guests to their balconies to watch the millennial madinah stirring from its slumbers.

The Palais Jamaï opened in 1933 in what had been the palatial residence of two wealthy brothers of the Ouled Jamaï family. Government ministers during the reign of Sultan Moulay Hassan, they lost their opulent estate—and one lost his life—after falling from favor after the death of the sultan early this century.

Built in 1879, the palace was "the gem of the quarter," says a hotel history. Its architectural legacy includes two high-ceilinged suites with intricate, hand-crafted woodwork, elaborately carved plaster and glazed tiles. Along with a similarly decorated restaurant, they form the heart of today's 119-room hotel and set the theme for the decor of a six-story addition that opened in 1970.

The hotel is preserving its own and the country's heritage by using local craftsmen for the renovation scheduled to be completed this fall, explains spokesman Abdelkader Chattabi. "In Fez, with just a little difficulty, we can still find people who are qualified to build in the old style," he says. "The hotel is a living symbol of the continuity of our history and culture."

Guest Gottfreid Zantke, chief architect of the city of Bremen, Germany, agrees. "Craftsmanship hasn't been replaced by kitsch," he says. "Here you see handicrafts, with all their irregularities, rather than the mindless reproduction of earlier models."

In Istanbul, too, it's a railroad—or at least a rail travel company—that created the city's noblest old hotel. The Pera Palace opened in 1892 specifically to serve passengers of the deluxe Paris-to-Istanbul Orient Express. The firm that ran the trains also owned the hotel, and so the old lion-and-laurel logo of the Compagnie des Wagons-Lits et des Grands Express Européens is preserved today.

In those early days, porters carried pampered guests on cushioned chairs from the train station at Sirkeci, in Istanbul's old city, to the rowboat landing on the Golden Horn. On the other side of the inlet, in the "European" quarter, Pera, guests caught an electric undergroynd funicular train for a 70-second ride to the hotel.

Today's Pera Palace Hotel exists thanks to the efforts of one man, Hasan Süzer, who came to its rescue in 1977. "It was in very bad condition when I took over," he says. "It was not even listed as a hotel in the documents of the Ministry of Tourism."

Süzer says his company, the Istanbul Hotel and Tourism Association, has spent some $2.5 million on renovations. He's promoted the hotel by publicizing its well-known guests: 27 of its 145 rooms bear bronze plaques with the names of famous visitors, including the father of the Turkish Republic, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, Agatha Christie, the glamorous spy Mata Hari and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. After losing money for five years, Süzer says, the hotel is now turning a profit and is full in the spring and summer.

Süzer's company leases the property from three vakifs, or charitable foundations, which were willed the hotel's income by its Lebanese previous owner, Misbah Muhayyes. Süzer's motivation was to save the hotel as a living monument. "The Pera Palace was a link between Europe and Asia," he explains. "The people who stayed here were traveling from one continent to the other, and Istanbul was the edge of Europe for all of them."

To keep the flavor of the original hotel, Süzer's company purchased its old furnishings from the Muhayyes family. While the rooms have been modernized, their hardwood floors, brass beds, hand-woven carpets and vast bathrooms reflect a more expansive past, and that reflection, Süzer says, is what the Pera Palace has to offer that its modern, five-star competitors do not. "The parents or grandparents of some of our clients stayed here," he points out, "and that's why they continue to come."

Agatha Christie's Room 404 is a mini-museum, but Atatürk's, No. 101, is the biggest drawing card for local visitors. The chamber features original furniture and such memorabilia as the revered Turkish president's driving goggles and his Panama hat. Busloads of wide-eyed schoolchildren are often among the visitors.

Christie also turns up in Aleppo, a stop on another important luxury rail service—Wagons-Lits' Taurus Express. There, she frequented the Baron's Hotel. Perhaps she found it fascinating because an earlier guest, T.E. Lawrence, might have been leading a double life there. Was Lawrence, the archeologist and scholar, in fact engaged in espionage?

"Spying was the fashion then. Everyone was sort of mixing archeology and espionage, and public relations and diplomacy, all at the same time," says Armen Mazloumian, the Baron's manager, whose grandfather and great-uncle founded the hotel in 1909. Regardless of what Lawrence was really up to, he's held in high esteem at the hotel, where a copy of his signed bill is preserved in a glass case in the faded lounge.

No one alive at the Baron's today remembers Lawrence. But that's not true of Christie, who signed the guest book in 1934. (See Aramco World, May/June 1997.) The register is kept by Mazloumian's mother, Sally, a Briton who married Baron's owner Krikor Mazloumian after World War II. "[Christie] came back to the hotel constantly, and my husband knew her very well. He often found her sitting on the terrace, bundled up against the cold, scribbling away," says Mrs. Mazloumian, who also became friends with the author.

The three-story, 40-room hotel once lay in the midst of gardens, with a view of the city's old markets and its ancient citadel. Along with Lawrence and Christie, guests included writer and traveler Freya Stark, King Faysal of Syria, Charles Lindbergh, British spy Kim Philby and financier David Rockefeller. Now, the gardens have been replaced by ordinary commercial buildings, and the disappearance of luxury trains and the advent of bigger, newer hotels have cut into the number of guests. Despite these harder times, however, the hotel is renovating several of its huge, old-fashioned rooms, and the Mazloumians have rejected offers to sell it. "Nightclubs and discos would ruin it," says Armen Mazloumian.

Nostalgia and character are the Baron's two key attractions today, Sally Mazloumian says. Elizabeth Todd, a guest from Cambridge, England, concurred. "I like it here," she said. "It's a little like staying in the British Museum."

One of the suitors of Baron's Hotel has been the Damascus-based Orient Travel and Tours Company, which in 1991 bought the rundown Reine Zenobia Hotel in Palmyra, in central Syria, renovated it and shortened its name to plain "Zenobia."

Built on the edge of the Palmyra's Roman-era ruins, the Zenobia was established in 1924 as a rest house for oil workers traveling to Baghdad by bus, says hotel manager Hani Malek. Five years later, the French baroness d'Andurin acquired the property and transformed it into the Reine Zenobia, after the Palmyran queen who challenged the rule of the Roman Empire—and was finally crushed in the year 274.

"The hotel has a very, very good position," says Malek, gesturing through new glass lobby doors to the stone skeleton of the ancient city that begins just a few meters away. "The government no longer allows construction so close to the ruins."

In 1936, the hotel passed into the hands of a local family named Essad. But Baroness d'Andurin left her own idiosyncratic legacy. "She liked to dress up as Queen Zenobia herself, and she liked to watch hotel guests in the lobby from a small window in her room," says Malek. Today, her old room is a bi-level suite and the hotel, which declined rapidly after she left, bustles again with busloads of guests from Damascus.

Among European travelers to the Middle East, Palestine has long been a focus, since Jerusalem is sacred to Christians as well as to Muslims and Jews. The 95-room American Colony Hotel in East Jerusalem, just a few hundred meters north of the Old City, started life early this century. The hotel got its name from a small group of Americans from Chicago who put down roots in Jerusalem's Old City in the late 1800's. Led by members of the wealthy Spafford family, who came to seek solace in good works after several personal tragedies, the group had not intended to run a hotel. But the "American colony" rented as a residence the mansion of an Arab landowner named Rabbah al-Husseini, who died without male heirs in the 1890's. And in 1902, a Jaffa hotelier named Ustinov asked them to put up guests of his hotel who were visiting Jerusalem. Over time, the residence evolved into a wintertime hostel for tourists and Christian pilgrims who traveled inland from the coastal ports, and then into the American Colony Hotel, one of the city's most sophisticated, with a mix of guests from throughout the region and around the world.

Since 1980, a Swiss company has managed the hotel—now known locally as "The Colony"—although it is still owned by descendants of the colonists. The pasha's original large bedroom is, appropriately, Room One, and the domed "court room" opposite is used for concerts, parties and conferences.

The Colony reestablished a tie with the past when British actor and writer Sir Peter Ustinov visited in 1995 and planted a palm tree to replace one of two that his grandfather, the Jaffa hotel owner, had originally provided for the courtyard. "I think this hotel is remarkable," Ustinov was quoted as saying, adding that people of diverse backgrounds "have always been able to come here and discuss whatever they wished. It's an extraordinary place...even at the height of the most difficult situations."

Egypt's oldest top-notch hotel, the Mena House Oberoi in Giza, also has roots in the 1800's. Built in the shadow of the Great Pyramids as a hunting lodge for Egypt's ruler, Khedive Ismail, it was enlarged to house Princess Eugenie of France when she visited Egypt to open the Suez Canal in 1869. (See Aramco World, September/October 1975.) In the 1880's, English owners dubbed it the Mena House, after the pharaoh who first united Egypt. New owners turned it into a hotel in the 1890's, installing mosaics and mashrabiyyah (traditional wooden window grilles) and outfitting the rooms with balconies and other luxuries.

At first, horse-drawn coaches linked the hotel to Cairo, which lay some 15 kilometers (nine miles) away across open farmland. When Cairo laid the tracks for its electric streetcars in the early part of this century, one line ran west from the Nile to the Mena House. In World War I, the hotel became a military hospital, and its extensive grounds hosted an Australian cavalry unit.

Wealthy travelers flocked back to the Mena House in the 1920's and 1930's. Even Prince (later King) Farouk liked to drop by. Once, says the hotel history, the manager discovered the prince in the kitchen "enjoying a beef sandwich which he had just made himself" after a late-night drive.

The Oberoi hotel group of India took over management of Mena House in the early 1970's. In the extensive renovations that followed, workers discovered a room piled high with original 19th-century furnishings. These were restored and placed in the lavishly decorated suites.

Over the years, metropolitan Cairo has steadily crept toward the Mena House's gates. But the 520-room hotel, which boasts a golf course and gardens, remains a restful outpost. In 1990, it completed a new business and conference center. "We're not old in quality or service, but old in history," says spokesman Atef Goubran, adding that the hotel is especially popular among families from the Arabian Gulf.

Also in Cairo—but quite different from the resort-like Mena House—is the Nile Hilton. The hotel has hosted stars like Jane Russell and Frank Sinatra, but key clients today are waves of buttoned-down business travelers attracted by its central location and commercial services, says manager Armin Schrocker.

That location—in the heart of modern Cairo, next door to the Egyptian Museum—makes it a gateway into Egypt's business and cultural heart. But Schrocker adds that the hotel is also "a door to the world for people in Cairo." And Cairenes have adopted the hotel with gusto. It hosts a remarkable 300 weddings a year, says public-relations manager Hoda El Maghraby, some of them "second-generation" weddings, as children follow in their parents' footsteps.

Built on the east bank of the Nile where an English army barracks once stood, the 433-room hotel has an unusual pedigree: The brainchild of Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser, it was inaugurated in 1959 by Nasser and president Josif Broz Tito of Yugoslavia—at the time both leaders of the generally socialist non-aligned nations movement—and by Conrad Hilton, pillar and epitome of American capitalism. The property is a landmark because of its "strong affinity with local people" and because it was the first hotel in Egypt built "by a public-sector co"mpany in a management agreement with a foreign company," says Schröcker. Since then, numerous deluxe hotels have risen in Egypt and elsewhere that are operated on the same pattern: some form of government ownership, management by a private, foreign corporation, and locally-hired staff.

"Nasser wanted the hotel to be a showcase, something to show off to foreign visitors," Schrocker says. But despite its spacious rooms, each with a balcony, the Nile Hilton hasn't been able to rest on its laurels. A sharp business downturn in the early 1990's left many rooms empty and sparked fierce competition. The hotel replied with a renovation program that included the creation of executive floors and new decor for suites. One, the Thomas Cook Suite, complements such late-20th-century comforts as a Jacuzzi with accouterments of the 19th-century Grand Tour traveler—including high-top boots and leather toiletry kit—and rents for a cool $1,400 a night.

The hotel has also been a leader in training its Egyptian staff. A number of local employees have risen through the ranks to become Hilton executives. Ahmed el-Nahas, for example, was hired as a headwaiter at the Nile Hilton in 1962, and became Hilton International's vice-president for the Middle East and Africa. Other former Hilton employees play significant roles in the hospitality industry in Egypt, Syria and Lebanon.

Tami Daoud of the Egyptian Hotel Association calls the Nile Hilton "a pride and a treasure for Egypt, along with our monuments and museums." It ranks, she says, "among the special hotels that speak, 'I am Egypt!'"

At the 136-room Old Cataract in Aswan, guests can still find their way around using Agatha Christie's thriller Death on the Nile as a guide. Only the name has been slightly changed—it was "The Cataract" in her day—to distinguish the original building from a 1963 addition. Like the Winter Palace in Luxor, the Old Cataract has adopted the strategy of physically separating its more modern facilities, such as 24-hour coffee shops, from its historical heart; also like the Winter Palace, it is managed by Sofitel, the hospitality arm of the Paris-based Accor group. The original part of the hotel underwent major renovations in 1986.

The Cataract opened in 1899 on the site of a British military training mission, overlooking the southernmost section of the beautiful, boulder-strewn Nile rapids just north of the Sudanese border. Although the first Aswan Dam, just upstream from the hotel, tamed the rapids, the hotel lost none of its charm.

"The Old Cataract has a unique historical background as well as a historic view," says hotel manager Hesham Youssef. "The rooms on the river side aren't just facing the Nile, they're practically in the Nile." The secluded, club-like atmosphere adds to the hostelry's intimacy with the river.

The Old Cataract has hosted "most of the world's presidents," adds Youssef. French President François Mittérand was a regular winter guest; though very ill, he returned to the hotel in December 1995, just a few days before his death.

The Winter Palace, some 160 kilometers (100 miles) to the north in Luxor, opened in 1886. It was built under the supervision of Thomas Cook for the exclusive use of Egypt's royalty and nobility. Later opened to the public, it still attracted royalty—King Farouk kept a permanent suite there—and the yachting classes. Today, the hotel is the gateway to the trove of pharaonic monuments clustered at Thebes, once the capital of ancient Egypt. Its Nile-side rooms and broad first-floor terrace offer splendid views of the river and its west bank—pharaonic Egypt's most important burial ground. When a frequent guest at the hotel, archeologist Howard Carter, discovered the tomb of Tutankhamen in 1922, it was on the Winter Palace's bulletin board that the first notice of his discovery appeared.

In 1994, the Winter Palace completed an $11 million renovation of the original 102-room building "to return the atmosphere and reputation of the hotel," says manager Denis de Schrevel. Not every old touch was kept, however. The old ballroom, with its spring-supported floor, was transformed into a spacious lounge. After a hard day's sightseeing among the ruins and tombs, explains de Schrevel, "there just isn't much demand for dancing." Rooms, however, remain in demand: A 125-room addition to the modern wing opened early this year.

Investing in tradition has proved good business for the Winter Palace, as it has for other classic Middle Eastern hotels. A key reason for success, says de Schrevel, is that "I'm running a hotel with a history." That description—and that success—is equally true of the hotel's mellowed and comfortable counterparts elsewhere across the Middle East.

Arthur Clark is a Saudi Aramco staff writer based in Dhahran. His fondness for hotels and foreign lands dates back to childhood trips to Chicago, where his family stayed in stately old hotels that served guests from around the world.

This article appeared on pages 24-33 of the July/August 1997 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for July/August 1997 images.