Dec. 04–BAALBEK, Lebanon — Located directly across the street from the ruins at Baalbek, the Hotel Palmyra owes its existence and success to the site’s ability to attract tourists. A list of its foreign visitors would include French Gen. Charles de Gaulle, German Kaiser Wilhelm II and Albert Einstein. Lebanese icons, such as Fairuz and Sabah, were known to frequent the renowned hotel in the ’60s during the popular Baalbeck Festival.
“It was the best hotel in Baalbek at the time,” Ghassan Karaa, the current manager of the Palmyra, says from his spacious office off the grand entrance hall, with a desk that features the building’s sole phone — and not much else.
Very few people have stayed at the hotel in recent months, let alone drunk or danced till dawn among the ancient statues and antique furniture as they did.
Founded in 1874, the Palmyra is on the verge of entering its 140th year, and the memories of its glory days have faded as much as the tapestries that seem to cover every surface in the building.
Karaa has been with the hotel since 1989, but his two employees Ahmad and Abu Ali — down from as many as 40 at its peak — have been there much longer. Ahmad, who has worked in the restaurant for over 50 years, knows all the stories from the golden age when the festival brought guests in by the carload to eat, drink and party till the wee hours of the morning — and he’s more than happy to share them with any visitors that ask.
The Palmyra was built by a Greek entrepreneur and served as an exotic retreat for the more adventurous European tourists that trickled through to see the ruins on tours of biblical lands in Palestine and Syria and craved the Oriental feel the hotel still exudes.
Before WWI, Kaiser Wilhelm II stayed there when he signed a charter for a joint excavation of Baalbek with the Ottoman Empire, and later his troops took up residence in the hotel, just as the British forces would do 20 years later during WWII.
And through all this, the Palmyra never closed its doors.
Even during the most violent days of Lebanon’s Civil War, the hotel welcomed guests, Karaa says. The most illustrious are immortalized with signed black-and-white pictures on the Palmyra’s wall of fame and include the likes of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk and Jean Cocteau. Cocteau, who stayed for a month in 1960, left several sketches that now hang throughout the building.
These days, however, there are not many people famous or otherwise frequenting the hotel, and Karaa says business is worse than it ever was during the Civil War: ” Baalbek didn’t have as many problems then.”
Karaa and his employees blame the conflict in Syria, saying they have no bookings till New Year’s Eve and that the number of guests was even abysmal in the summer.
“This year has been hard. Very hard,” Karaa says.
But despite the city’s proximity to the Syrian border, the Hezbollah security checkpoint steps away from the hotel and the Army tank positioned directly in front of the entrance to the ruins, he says, “The security concerns don’t affect us.”
“They don’t involve us,” bellhop Abu Ali adds.
With a single room going for $80 a night, the rates are a bit too steep for Syrians fleeing the violence next door, and Karaa struggles to make ends meet.
“There is a little trouble with money. We are paying the bank more than we are taking in,” he says sadly.
It seems that closing the doors to the gently lit rooms and halls steeped in history would break the hearts of the three men that have cared for it all these years.
“The hotel is like a house, we have been here for such a long time,” Karaa says. “So just like everyone else, we say ‘God willing, everything will be fine.'”