ALEPPO, Syria (Reuters) – 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…