..

Riding to Jerusalem



Fortunately the hotel I was headed for appeared as if by magic before I went completely mad.


Anybody who was anyone and passing through Syria since 1900 stayed at the Hotel
Baron. The Royalty of Europe, heads of state, titled nobility, authors, aviators,
archaeologists, all stayed here as did some quite ordinary travellers like Evans (my
bicycle) and me. It is a fine building with about a hundred rooms arranged on three
floors. Arabic-Baronial would describe the style I think. When it was first built it was
outside the city walls and guests could shoot ducks from their bedroom windows. Now
busy roads hem it in on all four sides, and its solid magnificence is somewhat
threadbare.

Even so I didn't know if I could afford to stay there, but having put it to the young man
at the desk that I was a bicycle traveller just arrived from England anxious to sleep
where Lawrence of Arabia had rested his head, he was so taken with my enterprise that
he offered me special terms, as long as I did not mind doing without a private bath.
He was the grandson of the man who had built the Baron and an ex-cyclist. As a very
young man, he said, he had wondered what it would be like to cycle to England - the
idea was as imbued with romance for him as riding through the Middle East was for me.
He had decided that it was not possible to get to England because there were so many
mountains in the way. He was most impressed with Evans, and carried him up the wide
imposing staircase to my bedroom. You can always tell the quality of an hotel by the
attitude they adopt towards bicycles.

I was invited to lunch with his parents and that was the beginning of three memorable
days in Aleppo listening to the anecdotes of Krikor Maxmoulian, who as a boy had been
around when Lawrence of Arabia was a young scholar working on his thesis on Crusader
castles. He was, I gathered, a rather arrogant young man. Both Krikor and his wife
Sally were very kind to me while I was there inviting me to meals and generally making
me welcome. I was invited to sign the special guest book which contained such names
as Agatha Christie, Freya Stark, Lindbergh, and of course, Lawrence - exalted company
indeed.

Aleppo is the most attractive city in Syria which is not saying very much. What charm
the Syrian cities undoubtedly possess is serious jeopardized by the awful traffic and the
massive rebuilding which is taking place everywhere, as though an enormous amount of
foreign aid had suddenly poured into the country. Traffic ruins even the souks of
Aleppo, which would otherwise have no equal anywhere. There are about ten miles of
them, all under their ancient heavy roofs, which shelter them from the burning heat.
They sell every conceivable commodity, and around their perimeters are the Khans, like
miniature fortresses. where the foreign merchants used once to secure themselves and
their goods at night, with the camels stable in the enclosed courtyards. Hardly a camel
remains in Syria; it is an unending stream of cars and vans which pin people to the walls
of passageways only just wide enough for them to force a way through. I found it
impossible to admire the exotic spices, perfumes and jewellery under these conditions.


From 'Riding to Jerusalem', a Mountain House paperback

Return to Books Page