November 06, 2015

Paradise Lost

The entrance with the double staircase
Still rummaging around in the hills around Beirut, still into remnants of our once so illustrious past. This particular house – at least, that is what I thought it was for years – stands along the main road of Sawfar, facing the (now also derelict) train station in Sawfar.

 And it is not a someone’s private residence, but rather a hotel, built in 1890, because once the train was running between Beirut and the Beqaa Valley (Rayak), it was thought that people would be enticed to take the train up into the mountains to enjoy the cool weather in summer. And so it was. Bhamdoun and Sawfar became synonymous for summer. And the hotel, called Grand Hotel, was doing brisk business for many years. Apparently it once housed Lebanon’s first casino.

The lights on the top floor is sun light coming in from the other side
Edward Said shares his memories of those summers, and the hotel in Paradise Lost.
We would stop at the Grand Hotel Sofar for tea after having lunch at the neighboring Hammana's Shaghour Spring (or mountain rift, with its small cascade of water) and sit awkwardly in the elegant garden surrounded by all sorts of meticulously dressed, distinguished guests among whom my parents would point out an Egyptian pasha or two, a former Syrian cabinet minister, a super-wealthy Iraqi industrialist, a Jewish department store owner.'

You can imagine how ‘grand’ life must have been back then just by walking through its halls. Ground floor only, I’m afraid. The elevator is gone, and the fancy double staircase has been destroyed in order to make it difficult to reach the upper floors. Nothing is left. In 1976 the Syrian army moved in, and they acted like a Hoover; anything of value got sucked in, and spit out somewhere in Syria. First the furniture, the cutlery and the chinaware.  Than the curtains and the towels. When all that is gone, it’s the turn of the toilets, the sinks and the kitchen cabinets and anything else that is bolted to the wall. But still more can be taken apart.  I’ve visited villas in Bois de Boulogne, where the tiles were chipped off the wall, the electrical wiring was taken out and even the copper piping was dismantled and taken home.
Right now it’s the perfect setting for a Halloween party. It seems the owners do not have the money to restore it to its former glory, and investors are hard to come by, because ever since the war broke out in Syria, the ‘Arabs’ (as we generalize inhabitants of the Arabian Peninsula here) are not coming to Lebanon anymore, so why pour money in the place? Who’s going to stay in the hotel anyway? It may be packed in summer, but come fall, it will be empty again.

In old pictures, the hotel is sat all alone on the mountain, in a bare landscape, with just a few houses around it. Nowadays, it is surrounded by a couple of fantastically majestic trees. A cedar, a buckeye and a platane tree are standing on its right, where once there was a dance floor. With some imagination, you can see in the picture that the cedar tree was just planted then.
I was especially pleased with finding that buckeye tree. I grew up around buckeye trees, and every fall, every teacher of every class would suggest we make a fall diorama in a shoe box. And the buckeye would always be there, because they were so shiny and smooth. Yet I had never seen a buckeye tree in Lebanon. We have chestnut trees, but not many buckeyes. Buckeyes remind me of autumn in Holland.

Buckeye Galore
If it were mine, I’d divide it into apartments. Would love to have a place in such a grand palace.
Well, there are many more beautiful stories to share about this place, but since I am blogger number umpteenth to write about this abandoned hotel, I’ll just share some other bloggers with you here:

1 comment:

ehden said...

great read, we visited Bhamdoun recently on our trip to LEBANON since my wife's aunty lives there. she was pointing out it's glorious past to us with large hotels and the railway station.