Baghdad’s historical hotels coming back to life
Baghdad - The entrance to Al- Rasheed Hotel in Baghdad’s Green Zone is via a narrow opening in a blast wall on the west bank of the Tigris. Tangles of barbed wire line the concrete block corridor through which guests have to pass before they descend into a subway-like tunnel.
One emerges beside the towering hotel building, which served as a hub for foreign correspondents covering Iraq’s wars in the 1990s and early 2000s.
Wide green gardens edged by manicured hedges open out on one side, with the hotel’s conspicuous Royal Tulip branding of the chain running it now embellishing the grey and brown monolith.
The hotel was heavily damaged during the US invasion in 2003. Today it has been replaced with an airport-style building.
During Saddam Hussein’s era, the lobby floor was decorated with the mosaic face of former US President George H.W. Bush on which all guests had to step to enter the hotel — a great insult in Arab culture.
In the Shehrayar Cafe and cigar lounge, brown leather sofas sit alongside an upright piano with fake roses adorning the tables. The menu includes kebabs and mezze, although American tastes are clearly a priority. Cheesecake, doughnuts and brownies are all on the menu for 6,000 Iraqi dinars ($5) each.
The hotel was originally conceived in the 1970s as a five-star establishment built on Iraq’s oil money. It was for a long time one of the plushest buildings in the country.
Under Saddam’s rule, though, spy cameras and microphones were installed in guest room televisions and staff constantly monitored guests.
Journalists used the hotel as a base during the first Gulf War. In 1991 CNN secured some of the conflict’s most compelling footage from Al-Rasheed’s ninth floor. With the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, foreign journalists again flocked to the hotel.
Tomas Harenstam, a former Middle East correspondent for the Swedish News Agency (TT), only stayed at the Al-Rasheed once, in January 2003, during the run-up to the US invasion. But he has vivid memories of the place.
“I had heard of the infamous George Bush mosaic, but actually seeing it — and walking on it — was quite surreal. The building itself was huge, dimly lit and quite empty, I remember walking alone through marble hallways lined with souvenir shops that hadn’t been open for a very long time,” Harenstam recalls.
“In the cavernous lobby, there was a lounge area with sofas and armchairs. Men with serious faces would always sit there, alone, reading newspapers. I assumed they were government watchers. I also assumed the room was bugged.”
After just a few nights, Harenstam moved out of al-Rasheed into a smaller hotel downtown, but he kept going back to the Al-Rasheed almost daily, as the hotel’s shisha lounge was the only place where he could access the internet.
The hotel joined the Golden Tulip chain — under its luxury Royal Tulip brand — in 2014. Today, it might be worthy of five stars again. At about $320 per room per night, guests’ high expectations are understandable.
The hotel’s website promises “a personal touch in Iraqi and international hospitality,” a “warm and sophisticated atmosphere” and “all the facilities required by a discerning business and leisure traveller.”
The Al-Rasheed is not alone among Baghdad’s hotels with storied history.
The Cristal Grand Ishtar hotel also has a colourful past. Formerly a Sheraton, it is located aside Firdos Square. A large statue of Saddam used to stand there until it was toppled by US troops and Iraqis in early 2003.
The hotel was badly damaged in a bomb attack in 2005, which also struck the neighbouring Palestine hotel, an equally large, off-brown monolith.
The hotel’s reinvention hasn’t been quite to the same standards as the Al-Rasheed. Like all large hotels in the city, it is surrounded by a blast wall and guests must undergo a body search before entering.
A damp whiff pervades the air; the red carpet is dirty and dusty, and the rooms were not properly serviced before our stay. Mugs were cracked and the sink was lined with scum.
The lift has open glass sides, revealing — through quite a lot of grime — a magnificent panorama of Baghdad and the turquoise dome of the 17 of Ramadan Mosque.
The bar, a mysterious, pseudo- Parisian affair entered through dark curtains, is empty. The faded nature of the grandeur is quite striking.
Baghdad’s heritage hotels reflect the city’s wider stories of turbulence, resilience and persistence. You probably don’t need to take home an Operation Inherent Resolve T-shirt to prove it.