With ISIS terror reigning in Palmyra, where treasured Roman ruins are at risk, reflections on a fascinating if less ancient part of its history: the Zenobia Cham Palace Hotel.
In his satirical Dictionary of Received Ideas, French author Gustave Flaubert gave his definition of Palmyra. "An Egyptian queen? Famous ruins? Nobody knows," he wrote, back in the 1870s. The ancient Syrian city is all of that at the same time. But since the novelist's passing, another symbol has come to highlight the city's glorious history — as well as its tragic present.
This is the Zenobia Cham Palace Hotel, named after the queen who ruled the city for a short time from the year 267, following her husband's assassination. Legend has it that Zenobia, the "Warrior Queen," defied Rome by striking her own coins.
The single-story hotel, built in 1924, is located along the original site of ancient Palmyra and the building bears the same grey, yellow and ochre colors as the famous ruins. A small colonial-style parapet is the only thing separating the terrace, where a few palm trees provide shade, from the vast fields of legendary ruin. A magical perspective on the iconic Temple of Bel, the agora, the old gates, the Great Colonnade.
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A 2005 photo of the ruins of Palmyra, seen from the Zenobia — Photo: Wilhelms/GFDL
This is perhaps what seduced the French adventurer Marga d'Andurain when she bought the hotel in 1927. As the one and only place to stay for those travelling between Damascus and Baghdad, the inn must have looked like a juicy business opportunity. Still, caravan trade was in its final hour, and a road further south soon supplanted the old dust and sand track, with travellers eager to avoid the oasis and its infamous surroundings, where Bedouin tribes would rob incautious convoys.
Naked in the dunes
For a few years, Marga d'Andurain persisted, welcoming other adventurers and archaeologists, and becaming friends with the tribes' leaders. She relegated her husband to the back of the garden, in a modest annex that looks onto the street and later became a souvenir shop.
The few witnesses of that time contributed to the legend's making. It is said that Marga used to ride her horse naked through the oasis and the dunes, and that late in the evenings she would go see her lovers, Bedouins and French soldiers. Swiss writer and journalist Annemarie Schwarzenbach was one of her guests in 1933, and was so amazed by the eccentric Marga d'Andurain that she wrote a short story about their meeting.
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Herbert Schmalz's Queen Zenobia's Last Look Upon Palmyra — Source: Wikimedia
After all these years, it seems impossible to separate the legend from the facts. Marga D'Andurain did her utmost to build a character while keeping her life a mystery. She saw herself as a reincarnation of Queen Zenobia.
We do know that she eventually married a Bedouin leader, converted to Islam, and tried to become the first Westerner on the holy sites of Mecca. But her project failed when she proved unable to convince the authorities that her conversion was authentic.
The rest was a deadly rout. Her Bedouin husband died after being poisoned. She was accused of the murder and imprisoned in Jeddah in April 1933. After two months in prison, she was acquitted thanks to the French consul's intervention, and was authorized to return to Palmyra. There, the tribes wanted revenge for the death of one of their leaders: Her first husband, Pierre, was killed, stabbed on the hotel's terrace. The Zenobia also died, little by little, as tourists stopped coming.
Forced to flee Syria, Marga d'Andurain sold off the furniture to an antique dealer in Aleppo. The jolts of history and tribal rivalries froze the oasis for 50 years. A godsend for the Zenobia, which reopened in the 1980s, taking advantage of then-President Hafez al-Assad's bid to boost tourism.
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Early 20th-century rotogravure of the Zenobia — Photo: Fonds Raoul Brandon
The group that owned the hotel banked on its exceptional setting to attract visitors. Everything was left untouched, as it had been for all these years, offering just a basic level of comfort. Only Marga's bedroom and office were turned into a suite with a view, while the terrace became a haven of the rest for the foreigners visiting Palmyra.
Syrians, however, shiver at the mention of the oasis. The modern city of Palmyra, Tadmur in Arabic, is also known across the country as the home of one the worst prisons of the Syrian regime. Hafez, followed by his son Bashar al-Assad, held Syria with a tight grip, jailing opponents by the thousands.
Life in Palmyra went by to the slow rhythm of the oasis, but the palm grove rustled with a thousand seditions. And the tribes, with their conservative interpretation of Islam, embraced the revolution from the start, driving away the tourists. The hotel was soon abandoned, plundered and partly burnt. ISIS jihadists, with their thirst for death and destruction, turned it into a military base after taking control of the city in May 2015.
The memories of Queen Zenobia, captured by the Roman Emperor Aurelian and taken to Rome, and of Marga d'Andurain, killed aboard her yacht off the Moroccan city of Tangier, have left Palmyra forever.