Sykes-Picot slept here: History and luxury mingle at Golan battlefield-turned-hotel

There’s a wealth of history wrapped up in the meticulously restored buildings at Pereh, a boutique hotel created from a pair of former French customhouses, where the British diplomat Sir Mark Sykes and his French counterpart Francois Georges Picot negotiated and signed the 1916 treaty that partitioned the Ottoman Empire.

It was that sense of history that drew Pereh owner Leo Glaser in 2012 to the formerly dilapidated buildings sitting abandoned on Route 91, in a minefield dotted with eucalyptus trees.

“I said, Why go anywhere else,” recalled Glaser, a defense and security consultant who was looking for an investment in the Golan Heights. “This is a place I love, and the buildings really pulled me — something about their style.”

Some 15 years later — it took that long to receive zoning permissions, clear the landmines and restore and build the 27 rooms in the understated but luxurious complex — Pereh is celebrating its first year of business.

“We were a refuge during the coronavirus, a place to escape to, even with masks,” said Neri Eldar, Pereh’s general manager. “We were 100% percent booked, all the time. Israelis love being able to pop into the car for an hour and a half and come to a place where they can detach from everything else.”

Pereh, a biblical term that means wild, sprawls tidily on this two-acre corner of the southern Golan Heights, with restored suites and lofts in its pair of customhouses, a lobby situated in what was once the stable and a newly constructed building overlooking the infinity pool.

Basalt, the local black rock found throughout the Golan Heights, is used throughout the Pereh Hotel, here as a front desk in the lobby (Courtesy Aya Ben Ezri)

Designers Dannah Leitersdorf and Tamara Glaser-Shafran, Glaser’s daughter, remained loyal to the original lines and materials of the region wherever possible.

Ceilings and walls were stripped and often left bare, tables and benches were made from local wood, and local black basalt stone, forged in volcanic eruptions, is used throughout, with hunks carved into sinks, soap dishes and towel hooks to match the flooring.

Boulders from nearby fields were split and used in construction, and some of the garden furniture is made from the metal beds left in the Syrian bunkers on the property.

“All of that is part of the history,” said Glaser-Shafran, “and it’s so important for the story that’s here. It’s always a game of when to renew and when to leave as is, because it also has to be comfortable as a hotel.”

So far, it’s pretty cushy.

Pereh, where this writer slept and ate for one night in June, offers all the creature comforts of any luxury boutique hotel in Israel. The rooms, particularly in the new building, are comfortably spacious, with balconies overlooking either the outdoor infinity pool or the Pereh gardens and the orchards and mountains of the Golan Heights.

One of two original French customhouses turned into boutique hotel rooms at Pereh, in the Golan Heights (Courtesy Aya Ben Ezri)

Touches of the hotel’s raw chic sensibility are evident in the handwoven Bedouin rugs and off-white color scheme, while the pique robes are soft, the towels oversized and thick, and the bed dreamily comfortable.

The staff attitude is also warm and friendly rather than snooty, and that’s by design, said Neri Eldar, who spent 22 years running Ritz Carlton hotels in the United States.

“Extreme white glove service doesn’t stick here,” she said. “Israelis are friendly givers, that’s the kind of service we like here.”

The vibe at Pereh is relaxed. The outdoor pool, hot tub and outdoor bar are surrounded by deep, cushioned chaise lounges, double sunbeds and easy chairs, within easy access of the hotel spa, where guests can book individual and couples massages.

Meals are served in the intimate Rouge restaurant and outdoor courtyard, with an emphasis placed by chef Roee Dori on farm-to-table dining. He works closely with small, local farms and producers, focusing on seasonal produce in his dishes, which can include charcoaled pumpkin with a honey reduction and almond foam, taboon-roasted mini leeks sprinkled with crunchy olive crumbs and focaccia smeared with spicy schug paste butter.

There’s local barramundi filet, beef entrecote and orange brined chicken as well. Pereh is not kosher, but no shellfish are served and meat and milk are not mixed.

The restaurant bar at Pereh in the Golan Heights, where many of the senior staff, including the chef, sommelier and general manager, moved north from locations in the center of the country (Courtesy Aya Ben Ezri)

Breakfast is ample but more streamlined than the average Israeli hotel, with eggs made to order, fresh breads, and plenty of local cheeses, savory spreads and fish.

There’s also a wine cellar for guests who want to explore the wines of the Golan but don’t want to leave the premises.

“Most people come and have plans to hike and sightsee, and then they get here and let out a sigh and think, ‘Why would you leave?’” said Eldar.

Given Pereh’s prices, it pays to utilize every moment available. During the summer high season, one night in the pool view building starts at NIS 2,600 ($742) including breakfast. Stays in the restored Bauhaus suites of the customhouses start at NIS 3,100 ($885) per night.

If guests do want to explore, this is a location that focuses on its history, with several monuments and historical sites just a short walk from the hotel.

There are more than a dozen former Syrian bunkers on the hotel’s land, with one right next to the pool that has been turned into a museum.

Syrian equipment and bunk beds are piled along the walls and dirt floor, while photos of the original customhouses on the walls include explanations and a look back at the 100-year-plus history of the Sykes-Picot Agreement that divided the Ottoman Empire and handed pre-state Israel over to British Mandate rule.

The interior of a former Syrian bunker at the Pereh hotel, turned into a museum recalling the history of the site (Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)

This mountaintop is also home to more recent history. According to legend, Israeli spy Eli Cohen advised Syrian officers to plant the eucalyptus trees surrounding the property to create shade for their outposts. The glades of trees made it easier for Israeli soldiers to spot the Syrian outposts during the 1967 Six Day War, when Israel wrested control of the Golan Heights from Syria.

Cohen was caught in 1965 and hanged in Damascus. His story lives on in different ways at Pereh, said Glaser, who was brought up on Cohen lore during his Zionist youth group days growing up in South America.

Glaser made one of the eucalyptus trees into a monument to Cohen, where Cohen’s widow, Nadia, and Cohen’s brother, Avraham Cohen, now come and speak to groups.

The hotel faced initial pushback from families whose sons, brothers and fathers were Golani fighters killed during Israel’s battles on the Golan Heights, Glaser and Eldar noted. At the same time, it had been impossible to enter the former battlefields because of the landmines, which have now been cleared.

“Now it’s a heritage site,” said Glaser.

The buildings and surrounding wild countryside of Pereh, one of Israel’s newest boutique hotels that opened in June 2021, in the southern Golan Heights (Courtesy Aya Ben Ezri)

A hotel situated on the controversial Golan Heights can be complicated for some people because of politics, said Eldar, and because of the war-drenched history. She counters that the hotel created an easier way to access the historical sites.

“There are monuments on this property,” she said. “Memorials for the Golani soldiers, the tree for Eli Cohen and other memorials, but they didn’t need to be left in ruins and deserted. You can create something happier next to the monuments, while recognizing that it’s complicated.”

Right outside the hotel’s black metal electronic gates is a public parking lot used by those visiting the monuments, bunkers and eucalyptus tree outposts.

There are additional Pereh plans for some of the other bunkers, including turning some into more remote suites or glamping sites. Eldar also dreams of having a Pereh outpost in the nearby British customhouse, which still stands empty and dilapidated.

Glaser, who insists he’s not a hotelier, is clear about how much the Pereh project changed his life.

One of the rooms at the Pereh hotel in the Golan Heights, in the restored French customhouse (Courtesy Aya Ben Ezri)

A former defense and security consultant who immigrated to Israel in 1967 and spent most of his career handling security details for international events such as the Olympics, he’s still aghast at how long it took to build Pereh.

“I was just in Dubai,” he said. “You can build 60 floors in four years there. ”

It took Glaser nine years to receive permission to start building Pereh.

“That’s the State of Israel,” he said. “Every time there was something else that held it all up.”

He met the challenges, said his daughter, Glaser-Shafran. When she wanted original wood floors for some of the rooms, he bought salvaged wood floors from a 19th century Brazilian army barracks being torn down, while he was in Rio de Janeiro to provide security for the 2016 Olympics.

Even once the hotel was under construction, Glaser needed additional funding, and worked with his son-in-law, Ron Shafran, to bring in a management team that now comprises five others, including the owners of Jerusalem’s Allegra hotel in Ein Kerem.

“He got 28 dunams [seven acres] filled with mines, snakes, boulders, rough vegetation, and the eucalyptus trees,” said Eldar. “He cleared the boulders and pulled mines out of the land. And now we have Pereh.”

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