A slave to luxury: Modern oasis in Damascus
• Photo gallery: Damascus
By Guy A. Sibilla
Special to The Advertiser
"Beit al Mamlouka means The House of the Slaves," explained May Mamarbachi, owner and visionary of the first boutique hotel in Damascus, Syria.
"I named it after the Mamluks, who were the slave class of Egypt in the 13th century but then they rose to rule as kings over much of the region that is now known as Jordan, Syria, Palestine and Israel."
Beit al Mamlouka is slavishly luxurious, a resplendent oasis of sublime Middle Eastern art and textiles amid the bustle of one of the oldest cities on earth. So old in fact, that to my taxi driver this metropolis is still known by its classic Arabic name, Al Sham.
And for May, no detail is too small or insignificant. "It took me over one year to decide on the right name," she told me.
We were sitting in the central courtyard of what was once a Damascene home built in the mid-1700s. May explained, "My family is from Aleppo in the north, and I love it there. But I knew I wanted to do something special here in Damascus."
Special doesn't quite capture what she has accomplished.
"I looked for years for the right home to convert into a boutique hotel," she confessed. "It is not an easy thing to do in Syria."
Finding the right Damascene home and buying it in June of 2001 was the easy part. It seems bureaucracy translates to bureaucracy whether one is Arabic or American or French. "The (owner) had to be assured I was going to preserve all of the frescoes and basic architecture," she confided, as if the Syrian bureaucrats thought she was going to raze the structure and build a McHilton.
May was particularly well suited for what she fondly and repeatedly refers to as her 'labor of love.' "I received my degree in Middle Eastern Art and Architecture," she said with obvious satisfaction, and "Beit al Mamlouka became my master's thesis." She laughed joyously and the courtyard filled with echoes of her voice.
Construction in Syria is exactly what you might imagine. She was the project foreman. In the Arabic world, having a woman in construction clothes breaking down walls and tearing out concrete is not what men will readily accept. By offering street-smart incentives for the workers, the renovation was completed in two years and seven months.
Like May's personality, the solution was simple and direct. "I established weekly goals for the men; if they met the goals by Friday, they would receive their regular pay; if they completed the tasks ahead of schedule, they would receive a free lunch with meat; and if they met the goals a day early they would receive lunch and a bonus." Without saying so, May suggested that the carrot approach worked.
"When you look around you should know that every single item here was handpicked by me; every piece of furniture, all of the textiles, every piece of art," she said with great pride but without a hint of conceit. "Every room is different and I made each of them with the idea that I wanted to stay there. I knew then that all of my guests would like it." She's right.
One of the main reasons this home is so exceptional is the Christian-themed frescoes. Syria is top-heavy with Islamic faithful. But in a city that predates Christ by about 5,000 years, it has not always been so. To this day, there is a Jewish section within the historic, walled city of Damascus. It borders the Muslim quarter. And both of these hem in the Christian quarter, known mostly for its nightclubs and bars, which, unlike the Muslim areas, serve promiscuous amounts of alcohol.
At Beit al Mamlouka, perfection is in the details. On the bedside table are exquisite sweets from Ghraoui, master Arab chocolatier. And you can feel the richness of Arabian cotton as you slide between the sheets. The sumptuous silk brocade is manufactured in Syria by the world-renowned Manzanar family; the bath is adorned with hand-painted tiles and chrome fixtures.
The most impressive room of the eight suites that comprise the hotel is the Suleiman Suite. Ever sleep in a room with its own water fountain?
The Syrian Desert that besieges Damascus to the west is ever present. On a windy day, super-fine granules of sand hang in the air, giving the city a pale cast of brownish gray. Within the air-conditioned Suleiman Suite, it is easy to grasp that in a desert nothing is more luxurious than water. Your private water fountain will make you feel like an oil sheik on holiday.
On walls vaulted to 25 feet, resplendent Christian-themed frescoes give the illusion you have fallen asleep in the Vatican Museum in Rome. Rose petals float on the fountain's cool crystal water; a soothing trickle whispers all your dreams may come true.
GEMS OF FAITHS
May Mamarbachi, as an academic, is aware that in Damascus, history isn't found in books, but in the streets. Each suite comes with an admission ticket to the Umayyad Mosque, within walking distance across the old city. Built 1,300 years ago by Caliph Al-Walid ben Abdul Malek, this mosque is considered the most beautiful and perfect within the Islamic world.
To get there, you might stroll down the "Street Called Straight" which is referred to in the Bible in Acts 9: 10-19. Although this reference is biblical, that does not necessarily make it accurate, as Mark Twain observed: "The Street Called Straight is straighter than a corkscrew but not as straight as a rainbow."
Or if you are truly a student of ancient history, you might wind through the remnants of the great entryway of the Roman Temple to Jupiter, which dates to before Christ was born. And the joy of it all is that these emblems of the Islamic, Christian and pagan beliefs coexist within a stone's throw of one another.
In a recent Hollywood extravaganza, "The Kingdom of Heaven," Orlando Bloom, representing the Christian Crusaders who had wrested Jerusalem from the Arabs late in the 13th century, confronts the overwhelming army of Sahaladin. In the climactic battle sequence, the Crusaders relinquish the Holy City and the Islamic believers reclaim Jerusalem. In a tomb adjacent to the Umayyad Mosque, Sahaladin and his wife lie in majestic silence.
As you may surmise, Beit al Mamlouka is more than a quiet place to escape the din of Al Sham. It is a jumping-off point to wander some of the oldest streets on Earth and eat shwarma, drink mint tea and negotiate an acceptable price for a silver bracelet.
These are streets that have taken on new life over the ages, remaining vibrant and alive. From your luxurious home, it is easy to join the chaos that occupies the sidewalks just beyond your door.
A wonderful Indian scholar, S.K. Subramanian, once told me over a cup of coffee, "You must extend your hand into the wind in order to feel it."
In Damascus, Beit al Mamlouka extends the experience of the Arab world from the comfort of a home away from home.
Guy Sibilla is a freelance writer and photographer. When he is not traveling, he lives in Honolulu.