An untimely rain lashed onto the mountains of Baalbek, Lebanon, in mid-May and painted a divine tableau. Clouds bellowed right above the pillars of Jupiter’s temple, the Roman god of thunder and sky, and sporadic lightning bolts split the air as if the Olympian deity sought relevance in a world that has long forgotten him. The mesmerizing sight which made the mythological divinity come alive was granted by the Palmyra hotel, historic in its own right.
When I heard the news that the hotel owners were pondering shutting it down, encumbered by the crisis unleashed by an economic meltdown made worse by the coronavirus lockdown, I rushed to the hotel to make sure I squeezed in one last night. From the window of room 27, where the famous French playwright Jean Cocteau had once stayed, I looked at the ruins of a pre-Christ world and visualized the play between gods predating Christianity. Washed by the waters, the temples of Jupiter – also known as Zeus, of Bacchus – the god of wine, and of Venus – the goddess of beauty, glistened under Helios’ light.
They served as a remembrance of the Roman Empire and its long gone might. The view of the temples from the hotel, separated only by a street a few hundred meters wide, surely held the power to transport back in time. Yet it was the realization of the power of time itself that was most gripping. A reminder of how the biggest dynasties, cruelest emperors, and kindest sages are subject to its whims.
Hotel Palmyra is one of a few places in the world which offers such undisturbed and overwhelming access to history. It opened its doors in the 1850s and hosted celebrities of all hues—from Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany in 1898 to Nina Simone a hundred years later. The hotel boasts of its famed guest list but it made sure to keep its prices affordable for middle-class tourists and European backpackers alike.
Over 150 years old, the Palmyra hotel has outlived the two world wars, Lebanon’s freedom struggle, the Israeli invasions, the 15-year long civil war, and the recent Syrian war next door. However, as the Lebanese Lira devalued by 60 percent over the last four months and the coronavirus cut off tourism entirely, the hotel owner says this is the worst it has ever been.
Rima Husseini, the co-owner of the hotel, walked us to the Nina Simone room, which was named after the iconic singer stayed there. Husseini recounted the story of how Ms. Simone was carried on a chair by four men to her room after she had downed a fair bit of Veuve Clicquot champagne.
“There are thousands of such stories and that is what makes this place special. Everyone who visits has a personal experience, unique to them,” said Ms. Husseini. “Do we want to close the hotel? No. But we may have to. It is struggling for its very survival. We have not been able to pay the employees for the last six months. And frankly, we don’t know what the future holds.”
The condition of the hotel corroborated Ms. Husseini’s account. The paint on the walls was peeling off, the furniture was falling apart, the wine rack was stuffed but with empty bottles, and the famous morning breakfast that offered Lebanese delicacies was missing.
Al Abbas, the 71-year-old employee who took care of most jobs at the hotel, was dusting off the torn tapestries hung on the wall and told the story of the good times and what the temples and the hotel meant to Lebanon as well as the global community.
“The temples are our collective heritage. They belong to all Lebanese – Shia, Sunni, Christians, Killon [everyone],” he said. “And the hotel, it used to be packed with people from all over the world, that made it global heritage, I think. It will be packed again soon, inshallah [god willing].”
Al Abbas was optimistic but the going had been tough since late last year as the Lebanese economy deteriorated and a million-plus Lebanese took to the streets demanding the ruling elite be replaced by a technocratic government and fresh elections were called in. But the hardship of the locals was compounded earlier this year as the Lebanese pound lost two-thirds of its value.
In 1997, it was set at a fixed exchange rate of 1,500 LBP to a US dollar. But over the last three months it plummeted to 4,000 LBP to $1 USD, substantially increasing the cost of living. The onset of the corona lockdown was the last nail in the coffin. Since March, the hotel has been visited only by journalists.
It is still running because of the commitment of employees like Mr. Abbas who has not been paid for months. He says he has worked at the hotel for over 50 years and is not going to leave it now even if he doesn’t earn a penny.
But for others, forgoing an income is impossible. Husain used to double up as a tour guide for the tourists who stayed at the Palmyra but along with the owners of the hotel, his business has also dried up. Hoping any of the many gods may be listening, he looked at the sky and shouted, “There is no work, no money, no food. How do I raise my family?”
Hussain stood between the hotel and the temples and struggled to sell trinkets to a few locals who had come for a walk around the locked temples to celebrate Eid. “It is the dullest Eid,” he said, “no one has money to buy anything.”
Hotel Palmyra’s fans abroad have offered to help to sustain it. A businessman from Italy proposed to start a campaign to raise funds for it and an Australian suggested writing a book to bring in the cash. But none of that may be enough to keep it afloat. It is open for now but no one knows for how long.
Rima Husseini looked dazed and confused when I asked if the family had taken a decision. “It is a dark tunnel ahead. I say a tunnel because it must have an opening and light at the end of it but I am not sure,” she said.
For now, the hotel, currently more of a museum, lies vacant waiting for a miracle—a quick discovery of a coronavirus vaccine that can reassure people’s health concerns, allow for the airports to reopen, and revive the tourism industry.
 In June 2020, the parallel exchange rate reached an unprecedented high of 7,000 LBP to the Dollar
Until Further Notice! COVID-19 Strains Lebanon’s Already Fragile Economy