Gambling Lebanese Hotel That Once Housed Umm Kalthoum Opens Again

Published September 18th, 2018 - 11:05 GMT
Grand Sofar Hotel Reopens (Twitter)
Grand Sofar Hotel Reopens (Twitter)

The Grand Hotel Casino Ain Sofar was once an opulent jewel where celebrities like Umm Kalthoum and Abdel Halim Hafez spent their summers.

Designed and built in 1892 by Alfred and Michel Sursock, and largely forgotten since the Civil War, the hotel today is a crumbling effigy of its former glory. Saturday, however, saw the hotel open its gates to the public once more for artist Tom Young’s 40-painting exhibition, “The Grand Sofar Hotel.”

Hung on the peeling walls of the ground floor, the artwork pays tribute to the hotel’s rich history. Wandering these halls, it’s easy to imagine the now-faded poker tables and broken piano as they once looked.


Many of Young’s paintings take the viewer back in time with scenes of the hotel’s heyday, busy with life.

“It was one of the bigger hotels in Lebanon and was the first hotel to get a gambling license in Lebanon,” Roderick Sursock Cochran, grandson of Alfred Sursock, told The Daily Star.

“During the Ottoman era and French Mandate it was the hub of intrigue and gossip. Everything happened here because it was only spot where everybody who was anybody could meet and stay.

“People used to spend long summers in the mountains because transport wasn’t as easy but we had the trains and people would come and stay here for three to four months,” he added. “When I was younger, I would stay at the family home here. I would come to [the terrace], which was added in the ’40s and [later] converted into the cinema theater.

“They used to show all the films shown in Beirut and I even remember watching the horror movie ‘the Incredible Shrinking Man,’ which scared me at the time.”

In 1975 the Civil War forced the hotel’s proprietors to abandon it, leaving it to looters and vandals. For many years it was the Syrian army headquarters. Recently Cochran has been trying to salvage the building.

“It was left completely derelict and open to the elements and looters until 2014, when I took over responsibility [for] the place and started working on it step by step,” Cochran said. “We put in gates to secure it, a waterproof roof as there are no tiles anymore and put in electricity.

“We paved areas like the terrace with new and original tiles, plus some old pattered tiles we bought from old houses,” he added. “In order to use the ground floor safely, we had put in wire mesh on the ceiling beams.”

Once these few repairs were complete in 2017, Cochran invited Young to the hotel to set up a studio and paint, having seen his work before. Young is fond of exploring and painting disused historic structures and has staged exhibitions of his work in such locations –in the hopes of reviving them. “You really get to know the life of a building that way and at the same time I was researching the history,” Young said.

“I was able to start [the research] because of a book by Lebanese archivist Eddy Choueiry called ‘Sofar Vestiges,’ with lots of letters, recollections and postcards etc. I also met locals who remember the place in its heyday. The old man who runs the vegetable shop ... told me all about the famous people who used to visit.”

The paintings are all inspired by the stories of the hotel, as well as postcards, letters and objects found while riffling through the rooms.

The old roulette table has been set up alongside the paintings and the postcards or photos on display.

“There’s Sami Khoury, who was the receptionist here whom I interviewed,” Young said.

“He told me about when Sabah came here with her husband Anwar Mansy, the Egyptian violinist, and with another man who became her next husband. She spoke to both of them simultaneously – one in Egyptian, the other Lebanese – and Sami joked about that story.”

Young’s rendition of this recollection shows Sabah walking down a corridor with both men, Mansy’s violin resting on the staircase.

Young also drew on the memoirs of General Edward Spears, a British-French liaison offer, who frequented the hotel in the 1940s. While the hotel had many prolific guests, Young has also painted the cooks, workers and guests – like Samira Sayegh, who married there in ’65 – alongside portraits of Omar Sharif and Asmahan.

Now the hotel is open again, in the next few years Cochran hopes to turn it into an events venue.

“Already we’ve had two wedding receptions,” he said. “We will keep it exactly the same as it is, which is part of its charm but we will make it functional – add facilities, [enlarge] bathrooms and landscape the gardens.

“The upper floors are in the terrible state and would have to be redone totally but the walls and foundations are sound,” he added.

“This place can never be a hotel anymore ... it should become a destination, a hub of some kind or a university. I just want to preserve the hotel and its environment.”


This article has been adapted from its original source.

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