Agatha Christie wrote part of Murder in the Orient Express there. King Faisal declared Syria’s independence from one of its balconies in 1918. It was whispered that Lawrence of Arabia conducted British intelligence business during WWI from its terrace. Other notable guests include Charles Lindbergh, Theodore Roosevelt, Julie Christie, Yuri Gagarin… and countless refugees. For more than a century the small but prestigious Baron Hotel in downtown Aleppo has been the scene of glamour, pride … and intrigue.
Photos of Baron Hotel: (top) 2010 Jon Martin, Creative Commons; (small) 2010 Joshua G. from Joshua’s World Odyssey
Facing Starvation and Death in 1916
In 1915-16 hundreds of thousands of Armenians were deported from Turkey to this oasis city in the Syrian desert. Many Assyrians who lived in Turkey were caught up in the deportation, too. Aleppo was the third-largest city in the Ottoman Empire, but it was overwhelmed by the need of those who survived the forced march. And it was ill-equipped to help. Missionaries who were already working in the area did what they could. However, without additional money and supplies, it was a pitifully small amount. The Ottoman government refused to allow international aid workers in. As a consequence, thousands perished. But many were saved, thanks to the Mazlumyan family, the owners of the Baron Hotel.
The Baron Hotel
Krikor Mazlumyan had moved from Arabkir to Aleppo in the late 19th century, and started a hotel called Ararat. Over the next few years, with his sons Armenak and Onnig, he ran three other hotels in the newer parts of the city. In 1911, Armenak and Onnig opened the Baron Hotel in the centre of the city1, not far from the rail station. It was designed as a high quality inn, and was made from the best materials from Egypt and Europe. It soon gained a reputation as the place to stay.
Helps Refugees, But Trouble for Mazlumyan
By the summer of 1916, with the deportations of Armenians from Turkey nearly complete, Aleppo was crowded with refugees. Mazlumyan, it seemed, had been using his influence with high-ranking government officials to save many of his compatriots, certainly at great risk to himself and his family. This activity attracted the attention of Talat, the Ottoman Minister of the Interior. He personally ordered an investigation into the rumours. Turkish historian Taner Akçam translated the text of the following telegrams [see Genocide Studies and Prevention, April 2008]. On July 22 Talat wrote:
“From a reliable source we have been apprised of the following facts: An alien Armenian by the name of Baron, and manager of the hotel bearing the same name2, is using his hotel more as a gambling venue than a guest house. He is not only providing the means to accommodate high-ranking local and regional officials in terms of their needs for pleasure, but offering them ample loans against the debts these people are incurring as a result of their gambling. Owing to these acts, he has not only been able to attain an elevated position for some time now, but additionally is said to have succeeded in obtaining favorable treatment … and … exploiting the inﬂuence he possesses in the province in connection with the matter of deportations.”
On August 10th, Talat sent this coded telegram to Cemal [Djemal] Pasha, the governor of Syria: “It is reported that an alien Armenian by the name of Baron is using his hotel more as
a venue for gambling, as well as a whorehouse, than as a guesthouse. His way of obtaining fame is said to be inﬁltration with respect to people with high positions, and domination with respect to officials with lower ranks. Being a fanatic Armenian, he will not miss any opportunity to help Armenians. Even though he undoubtedly was aware of the initiative of an insurrection in Aleppo, the investigation nevertheless failed to reveal any clue in this respect; this is based on reliable information. Accordingly, your esteemed thoughts about the relocation of the above-mentioned person will be appreciated.”
Given Talat’s fluid relationship with the truth (like a certain current president-elect), we are left to wonder how reliable the information actually was. But as Akçam noted, it’s the identity of telegram’s author that is as important as the telegram itself. It confirmed that Talat was directly involved in the deportation matters, and in some cases, such as with the Baron Hotel, directly intervened.
- My thanks to Armenak’s granddaughter, Mary Mazloumian-Momdjian, for correcting the locations and timelines.
- Talat referred to Mazlumyan as “Baron, and manager of the hotel bearing the same name.” It is possible that since he could not speak Armenian, he or his informants confused the name. It’s also possible that Mazlumyan was known familiarly as “Baron”, a name close to the Armenian word “paron,” a courtesy word for “mister” or “gentleman.”
In the Intervening Years
In Barons of Aleppo, currently available only in Italian or Turkish, authors Flavia Amabile and Marco Tosatti describe how the Mazlumyans helped many refugees escape to Europe through Damascus, Beirut and Alexandretta (now İskenderun). The family itself left their hotel and Aleppo for Zahlé, Lebanon to avoid Talat’s executioners. They returned only after the war was over and Syria had gained its independence from the Ottoman Empire.
In a review of the book, Tuğba Esen describes how Armenak Mazlumyan took over the running of the hotel. Later with his son Koko (Krikor), the hotel survived quite a few “glory days”, but also several military coups and dark times. In the early 1970s, Koko’s son Armen became the new hotelier. Faced with financial difficulties and potential forfeiture, the Baron Hotel was saved with the help of one of its famous guests, Hafez Assad, President of Syria (1971-2000), and father of current President Bashar al-Assad.
Syrian Civil War
Following the unrest in the Middle East after the 2011 Arab Spring, protesters in Syria called for the removal of Bashar al-Assad. He responded with violence. The conflicts soon escalated into a civil war with various factions fighting almost non-stop, including the radical Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). Due to its central location, the Baron Hotel was often caught in the middle. It was forced to close its doors, and has had no paying guests for a few years.
In 2014 the Daily Mail’s John Hutchinson visited 63-year-old Armen Mazlumyan. With no guests, but plenty of empty rooms, Mazlumyan took in people whose homes had been destroyed, and who had no place to go. Once again, a hundred years later, the Baron Hotel helped refugees in Aleppo. In January of this year, Armen died. In March RT News filmed a brief tour of the deteriorating hotel with Mazlumyan’s widow, Rubina Tashjian:
Facing Starvation and Death in 2016
As I post this, Aleppo is in ruins from the constant bombardments. UN humanitarian advisors have gained agreement from the anti-government forces to bring in aid, but they must wait for permission from the Syrian and Russian governments to enter the city with the desperately needed food and medical supplies. They estimate 275,000 people are trapped in the eastern quarters and are about a week away from starvation. The Syrian Civil Defence, a voluntary aid group within Syria, more commonly known as the White Helmets, are doing what they can but have limited supplies and equipment. Just like the aid workers of 1916.
The present-day story of Aleppo is a sad, familiar horror.