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.
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By Al Akhbar English
Palmyra Hotel, opposite Baalbeck Citadel.
Rima Husseini: +961 33 71 127
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