Aleppo, Syria: On the terrace of the Baron Hotel in Aleppo, the owner’s widow, Roubina Tashjian, sorted through old photographs of its happier past in a more peaceful Syria.
Founded by an Armenian family in 1911, the Baron played host to adventurers, writers, kings, aviators, Bedouin chiefs and presidents until war forced it to close five years ago.
Tashjian sees the Baron as part of a Syria that values religious and ethnic diversity, openness to the outside world, culture and respect for the country’s great antiquities.
“A Syrian is a mixture of all these ethnic groups and cultures … this is a big pot and it’s all mixed up. But we cook the same kibbeh,” she said, referring to a Levantine dish.
Trying to revive that vision of Syria amid a war that has aggravated social fractures would involve reconciliation between political opponents, religious sects and economic classes.
But with hundreds of thousands dead, more than half the country’s pre-war population displaced and fighting ongoing, there seems little hope of that for now.
For the Baron, whose business depended on stability, safety and the draw of Syria’s cultural treasures, the 2011 uprising was a catastrophic assault on everything that allowed it to thrive.
During most of the fighting, Aleppo’s government-held western districts were subjected to shellfire, an influx of refugees and shortages of water, electricity and food.
East Aleppo, held by rebels until December when the army swept through it after months of siege and air raids, was left all but a wasteland.
The Baron, in west Aleppo near the front line, was hit by mortar bombs, including one that sprayed shrapnel across an upper floor and another that crashed through the window of its ‘Oriental Room’ onto delicate floor tiles but failed to explode.
The tail fin from that round now sits in the Baron’s cabinet of curiosities alongside such relics as pottery given by visiting archaeologists and T.E. Lawrence’s hotel bill.
In the upstairs room she always took during her frequent stays in Aleppo stands the glass-topped wooden desk where Agatha Christie wrote part of Murder on the Orient Express.
Secular or sectarian?
For supporters of President Bashar al-Assad it is the fault of rebels they describe as terrorists, viewing them as Islamist militants who despise diversity and criminal gangs who loot cultural treasures.
Assad has cast his state as a secular protector of Syria’s minorities and cultural heritage against Sunni rebels backed by hostile foreign states whose ranks include many hardliners.
It was a view shared by some of the audience at a concert in an Old City church, fluttering fans in the summer heat of the open basilica, its roof ruined by shelling, as they listened to Mozart’s ‘Mass in C Minor’.
But any characterisation of Assad’s Syria as diverse, secular, open and tolerant is rejected by the opposition, as well as some Western countries and rights groups. Critics say Syria’s government has long been one of the most oppressive in the Middle East and this was a root cause of the war.
The privileged position of Assad’s Alawite sect under him and his father, the late President Hafez al-Assad, fed grievances among many in the Sunni Muslim majority even as other Sunnis including urban elites backed the government.
While the government has promoted the idea of a secular Syria throughout the war, the conflict’s sectarian edge has been hard to miss.
As rebels rallied around Sunni Islamist slogans, Assad drew on allies including Shi’ite Islamist militias backed by Iran. They played a big part in the campaign to retake eastern Aleppo.
In the city, the conflict’s socio-economic dimensions are readily apparent. Areas where the rebellion was strongest included places bypassed by economic growth and poor quarters to which rural people flocked.
One west Aleppo resident, who had driven through devastated eastern districts after the fighting ended, said the inhabitants had brought ruin upon themselves by consorting with rebels.
“Those people were the cause. Yes, it’s sad, but…” the person said.
In the Baron, the wood-panelled dining room, the bar stocked with antique bottles, the pink furniture of the high-ceilinged smoking room and the bedrooms all seem worn and tired.
It stopped taking paying guests in 2012 – bar a few old friends – when Syria’s civil war came to Aleppo and mortars and sniper fire began to plague the streets around.
Tashjian, a 66-year-old former teacher, chases away street kittens that creep through broken french windows into the dining room and tries to keep the mostly deserted hotel from falling further into disrepair in a city with little electricity or water.
Her husband, Armen Mazloumian, the grandson of the hotel’s founder, died in 2016, two years after they married following a 30-year friendship. The Baron now belongs to his sisters, who left Syria years earlier, she said.
On the terrace from which Egypt’s nationalist leader Gamal Abdel Nasser once addressed a huge crowd, the boxes of old photographs were surrounded by other detritus recently hauled from a basement after the fighting abated.
Kilims, antique sewing machines, a set of 1950s towels, and mouldering linen imported from Europe and embroidered with the hotel’s name, cascaded from large rattan trunks.
During the fighting, the hotel took in refugee families from east Aleppo. While they were there they used so much water cleaning the floors of their rooms each morning that the elegant geometric tiles were damaged, Tashjian said.
In the late afternoon heat, the hotel is cooled by a breeze that drifts in through broken windows on the ground floor and up the grand staircase.
“Syria was the most comfortable, the most secular country in the Arab world,” said Tashjian. “It was embarrassing if people asked if you were a Christian or a Muslim.”