In Photos: How an Abandoned Syrian Military Base Became a Posh Israeli Hotel

Once a home to Syrian officers, the rebuilt Upper Customs House in the Golan Heights is set to open its doors in January – offering stunning views and an even more stunning history

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The rebuilt Upper Customs House in the Golan Heights.
The rebuilt Upper Customs House in the Golan Heights. Credit: Gil Eliahu
Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz

Between 1928 and 1946, when Syria was under French rule, the main building in this complex served as a customs house for merchants crossing in and out of British Mandatory Palestine. Between 1948 and 1967, when the Golan Heights was under Syrian rule, it was transformed into a military command center and launching ground for occasional attacks on northern Israel.

Now, after lying in ruins for more than half a century, the Bauhaus-style buildings on the site are almost fully restored to their former glory and the Upper Customs House – as this complex is popularly known – is set to reopen as a 27-room boutique hotel in January.

Captured by Israel during the Six-Day War in June 1967, the Golan is dotted with ruins of old buildings and facilities used primarily by the Syrian army. The new luxury hotel, situated at the entryway to this strategic plateau, represents a first-of-its-kind effort to restore and repurpose them.

Leo Gleser, the driving spirit behind the venture, has already invested 42 million shekels ($12 million) in the land and restoration work, and says he has no illusions about seeing any returns on this investment during his lifetime. But that was never the point.

“Growing up as a young boy in Argentina, even before I could speak Hebrew I knew that my purpose was ‘to build and be rebuilt’ in the Land of Israel,” says Gleser, 71, invoking the famous Zionist slogan. “These words had a very strong impact on me and here I am, putting them into action.”

The Upper Customs House in 1969, two years after Israel defeated the Syrians in the Six-Day War, left, and the Golan Heights building before its dramatic renovation.Credit: Igal Ashuach, Golan Archive / PMATAS

He could have saved himself a considerable sum of money, he says, had he knocked down the abandoned buildings – as many advised him – and built a new hotel from scratch. “But I was determined not to destroy anything,” he says, speaking in the soon-to-be-opened hotel lobby and bar, located in a building that once served as a horse stable.

With no horses coming through these days, there wouldn’t seem to be much need for the watering trough outside. But Gleser isn’t getting rid of that either. This receptacle, he explains, is destined to become a decorative fountain.

Tamara Gleser Shafran, the investor’s 38-year-old daughter and trusted adviser, joins him and his visitors for a tour of the premises. An interior designer, she describes her professional approach as “taking whatever we have here on the ground and adding a little twist to it.”

Leo Gleser. His 15-year project at the Upper Customs House is set to open in January 2021. Credit: Gil Eliahu

Out in the courtyard, some freshly painted bed frames drying in the sun provide a perfect example. These are not just any old bed frames, as Gleser Shafran is quick to point out. They were found in old Syrian bunkers located on the grounds, and the plan is to use them as furniture in the lobby and other common areas.

“We’ll throw some comfy, Oriental-style cushions on these frames and they’ll serve a new purpose in life,” she says.

She and her father lead their visitors up the hill to a Syrian bunker, bombed by the Israel Air Force during the Six-Day War. Recently transformed into a gorgeous swimming pool, Gleser Shafran plans to have guests rent it out for private parties. “I imagine this as a place where a bunch of girls can get together for a bachelorette party,” she says.

JUST ADD WATER: A swimming pool at the Upper Customs House. Credit: Gil Eliahu

Her dad loves the idea. “It’s just like what the prophet Isaiah said: beating swords into plowshares,” he says, excited. “That’s what this place is all about.”

Built near the intersection of two main roads, the hotel complex includes three dazzling, Bauhaus-esque white buildings, constructed by the French more than 90 years ago, and two new wings that will house a restaurant and conference center.

Bauhaus architecture, which originated in Germany, is known for minimalism and functionality. It’s rare to find buildings designed in this style outside of urban centers, which is what makes this hotel so unique, Gleser Shafran notes. It’s also unusual, she says, to find such buildings built out of basalt – the black rock typical of this region.

The rear of the hotel. An old water trough for horses is being turned into a fountain.Credit: Gil Eliahu

15 years in the making

It took some outside-the-box thinking to devise a plan for turning these abandoned old buildings into a luxury hotel. But it took nothing less than guts to launch a travel-based business in the midst of a pandemic.

Gleser doesn’t seem overly concerned by the global tourism crisis, though. True, he had hoped to attract guests from abroad: the type of savvy international travelers on the lookout for undiscovered destinations. But he believes what he’s offering here – a combination of old-world charm and spectacular vistas – will appeal to many Israelis, especially those seeking something different from the standard bungalows offered by many of the kibbutzim in the area.

It took 15 years for his crazy plan to reach fruition. Back in 2005, Gleser recounts, he was first approached by some friends in high places in government trying to persuade him to set up a technology incubator that would help promote economic development in the region. Relatively uninhabited and far from Israel’s major population centers, the Golan was officially annexed by Israel in 1981. U.S. President Donald Trump recognized Israeli sovereignty over the territory in March 2019, but most of the international community still doesn’t.

At the time, Gleser was presented with two tracts of land slated for development. The one he preferred was the Upper Customs site. He told his friends, however, that he had no interest in setting up a technology incubator.

Tamara Gleser Shafran with father Leo Gleser. The interior designer says she's adding "a little twist" to everything they find at the site. Credit: Gil Eliahu

“I’m a man who loves nature and the outdoors,” he says, still speaking with a heavy Argentine accent after more than half a century in Israel. “So I said I was prepared to take on a project to develop this region – but it had to be something involving tourism.”

He adds: “Most people who visit the Golan only spend one night here. What I envisioned was a place where they could stay for longer, and that could serve as a base for exploring this region.”

Only in 2012 did he finalize the purchase from the Israel Lands Administration. The grounds adjacent to the designated hotel buildings had yet to be cleared of mines planted by the Syrians, Gleser says, which explains why it’s taken so long to complete the project.

Bullet among the thorns

On a clear day, it’s possible to see Syria, southern Lebanon, northern Jordan and the Sea of Galilee from the hotel grounds. Gleser points out some old Syrian bunkers and mortar-launching stations located not more than a few dozen meters from the charming guest rooms.

Leo Gleser holding a collection of munitions found at the site. The plan is to open a museum space at the hotel to showcase all of the findings.Credit: Gil Eliahu

Dressed in stained old pants and a ratty T-shirt, he hardly looks the part of the wealthy international businessman, but he definitely seems in his element. “Look, look,” he says, excited as a little kid when he discovers a rusty contraption on the floor of one of the bunkers. “It’s an old flashlight.”

On the ground nearby, he picks up a half-empty tube of toothpaste, left behind by a Syrian soldier more than half a century ago. Then his eye catches sight of a bullet lying among the thorns. He holds it up to the light and tries to guess its make.

All these relics, Gleser promises, will eventually find a home. “My plan is to build a little museum on the grounds of the hotel where they’ll all be displayed,” he says.

An old Syrian bunker on the grounds of the Upper Customs House.Credit: Gil Eliahu

As fate would have it, Gleser was among the first Israelis to visit the Upper Customs House after the Six-Day War. It was the summer of 1967, when he was 18. A member of the Hashomer Hatzair youth movement, he’d immigrated to Israel earlier that year, following in the footsteps of his older siblings. A few weeks after the war ended, he was sent to Sinai to help collect weapons and equipment left behind by enemy forces, and from there to the Golan to do likewise.

“These buildings were the collection center,” he says. “And now, here I am again.”

In the early 1980s, Gleser founded International Security & Defence Systems, one of the first Israeli companies to break into the international security consulting market. Among other big projects, his firm was hired to coordinate security at the Rio Summer Olympics in 2016.

The renovated Upper Customs House, which dates back to 1928 and served as a Syrian command center between 1948 and 1967.Credit: Gil Eliahu

The COVID-19 pandemic may have slowed down business abroad, but that’s been a blessing in a way because it’s freed up more of his time for his pet project.

“My dad usually travels a lot,” Gleser Shafran says. “But because of the coronavirus, he’s been able to spend almost every day on the site, making sure everything’s on schedule.”

Gleser wants to call the hotel The Upper Customs House, but his daughter isn’t set on the name. It wouldn’t be the first argument they’ve had since they began working together in recent years.

“I’m a tough client,” dad concedes.

ROOMS WITH A VIEW: On a clear day, the hotel offers spectacular views of Syria, northern Jordan, southern Lebanon and the Sea of Galilee.Credit: Gil Eliahu

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