Beit Wakil: Aleppo’s Gem of Comfort, History and Fine Food
By: Habeeb Salloum/Arab America Contributing Writer
“Oh our guests, if you should visit us,
You will find that we are the guests,
And you are the master of our home.”
The old Arab verse found hanging on the walls of many Arab homes reaches its epitome in Beit Wakil – one of Aleppo’s finest hidden retreats.
Hani, its enthusiastic manager, exuded these attributes when he informed us that he needed no advertisement for his hotel. His customers, who are treated as if they were in their own home, feel relaxed amid the ancient hospitality of Aleppo practised in this hotel/restaurant. They become Beit Wakil’s best promoters.
“The way we treat our patrons in the exotic atmosphere of this 450 year old Aleppo home, once the abode of a wealthy family, never fails to entice them to return again and again to enjoy our hospitality and fine foods.” He went on to explain: “We take pride in our food, which is the traditional Aleppo food. Our chefs take care in preparing their dishes – a good number the speciality of the house like Kabab al-Karaz (meat balls with cherries) and Karabaj (Aleppo type cookies). Word of mouth then takes over to bring in the customers.”
Beit Wakil is located in the Jdaideh area, a particularly picturesque quarter full of old Arab residences. In the last few decades, a good many of these have been converted into hotels and restaurants that serve the famous and delicious cuisine of Aleppo – the best in the Middle East.
An alley at the entrance to the Old City’s labyrinth of cobblestone streets and shops leads to Beit Wakil, – one of the finest examples of 16th century Aleppo architecture. It is a charming and venerable house situated just outside the old city walls, and ranks among the most majestic and beautiful structures in the city. The exterior is plain – void of any decoration.
However, when visitors step through the portal into the courtyard, a magical oriental fairytale world awaits them. A marble fountain overshadowed by jasmine and lemon trees, a majestic arch, breathtaking relief and tracery work, coloured marble flooring, elegant ornamented woodwork, and arabesque glass windows give one an impression of history, richness and splendour.
The home which had been the home of the Wakil family and later a Syrian Orthodox orphanage and old age home has been renovated into a charming gourmet restaurant and a 14 room hotel, centered around a courtyard. A few years ago, its owner, Habib Bassous, decided that he wanted to preserve a part of Aleppo’s heritage and renovated the home into a 4-star 21st century historic inn.
During restoration nothing was changed from the original. Only the decorations were renewed and electricity, sewage, central air conditioning and satellite services were added. In the words of Hani, “The basic original home has not been altered. Tourists come here to learn about the rich history of Syria.”
While working on the reconstruction a piece of wood with the family’s name was found and sold to a German museum. Strangely, according to Hani, this relic became [a] good PR for Bei Wakil, enticing visitors to the museum to come and stay in this historic yet modern Aleppo landmark.
However, the best PR for Beit Wakil has been its customers. The owner, manager and staff make sure that they get to know each of their guests and in the process exude a welcoming aura and impart a feeling of kindness. They reflect the spirit of Arab hospitality at its epitome – the utmost of PR for Beit Wakil.
Eighty percent of the people who, once they taste Beit Wakil’s food or stay in one of its rooms, usually return. The hotel/restaurant has been open for eight years and during this period the major publicity has been by the way of its clients.
Because of this voluntary PR even by some tourists, Cham Tours, one of Syria’s top tour companies, has recommended Beit Wakil as a place to eat. In the words of our guide, Osama. “In the future, I expect Beit Wakil will be on the tour map like the citadel of Aleppo.”
Once Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his wife Asma dropped into Beit Wakil unannounced to eat, the event recorded with his picture hanging on the wall . Other important personalities have dined or spent the night in its historic yet very comfortable rooms. As well, Syrian TV drama series, the best in the Arab world, have been shot in the intriguing atmosphere of this renovated Arab house.
Above all, Beit Wakil is noted for its Aleppo specialties offered along with oriental entertainment of classical Arabic music and dancing. Hani related that one day the owner, a heavy set man, welcomed a group of American tourists to his establishment. He pointed out to them that the rooms were modest but extremely clean. Just as important, he continued, the food served in the restaurant was traditional, delicious and tempting. He pointed to his stomach with pride and said: “Here is the evidence.”
As for ourselves, as we dined the traditional Aleppo dishes in an aura of hospitality and generosity encompassed in an atmosphere of history, it was if we transported back to the dreamland of the Thousand and One Nights.