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Traveling Through History on the Forgotten Hejaz Railway

Imagine boarding a train in Istanbul, and arriving in a city in the Gulf region after passing through stations in Damascus, Amman, Jerusalem, and Medina after just a few days. To a knowledgeable traveler, the trip would feel like passing through thousands of years of history within hours. Such an itinerary nowadays sounds unrealistic, given the current circumstances in the Middle East. However, more than a century ago, the ruling Ottoman Empire made a serious attempt to achieve this goal—and even succeeded for a short period, creating a single line that connected these historical cities to one another.

The Sacred Railway

In September 1900, upon the orders of Ottoman Sultan Abdulhamid II, construction began on a railway project that was initially intended to link Mecca to Damascus, and eventually to Istanbul. This endeavor, known at the time as the Hejaz Railway, was the dream of Abdulhamid II, who aimed to establish a convenient and efficient way for Muslims to make the pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca in the Hejaz, a region in the west of today’s Saudi Arabia. The train line would reduce the long and arduous journey of the pilgrims from Damascus to Mecca to only a few days. Aside from its religious importance, the railway served to build the Ottomans’ political legitimacy among the peoples they governed and helped them to keep the distant and sometimes restive provinces of the Hejaz under control. At one time, the railway was even referred to as the “Iron Silk Road” due to its economic, social, and political importance.

The construction of the initial stage of the project from Damascus to Medina took eight years, from 1900 until 1908. The plan was to extend the line north to Istanbul and south to Mecca itself. Unfortunately, the railway never made it to Mecca; its construction was halted due to the outbreak of the First World War, which not only led to the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, but also brought the end of the Hejaz Railway following the independence of several nations along the route. During the war, the railway itself came under severe attack from anti-Ottoman Arab forces led by the British officer T.E. Lawrence, better known as Lawrence of Arabia. Several of these attacks are notably portrayed in David Lean’s eponymous 1962 film.

Once an ambitious project, the Hejaz railway is rarely discussed today despite the huge achievement it embodied. The project was regarded as unrealistic by European powers, who believed that the declining Ottoman Empire—the so-called “Sick Man of Europe”—lacked the political and financial resources to complete it. Throughout the railway’s construction, Istanbul ran significant budget deficits. The total cost of the project was estimated at 4 million Ottoman liras, or roughly 570 kilograms of gold—altogether nearly 20 percent of the entire Ottoman budget. Thus, one of the interesting aspects of the railway was the way how the costs of the project was covered. In addition to Ottoman state revenues and taxes, tremendous backing came from Muslims around the world. Track and station construction costs were almost entirely funded by generous contributions from throughout the Muslim world. Although the construction of the railway line was carried out by German and Turkish engineers and local workers recruited from the areas along the route, foreign capital was specifically refused to keep the project “sacred,” or entirely Muslim-funded. Even today, the project is considered as wakif, making it an asset belonging to all Muslims.

The antique Hejaz Railway station located in al Anbariya, Medina, is an excellent place to visit, as it tells the story of this historic railway during the Ottoman Empire and how the people of this region worked collectively with a common identity for a shared aim. In the words of Ben Hubbard, the railway was “a relic of the bygone dream of regional unity before wars, borders and more advanced modes of transportation rendered its services obsolete.”

Revival on the Horizon?

After 1918, there were several attempts to reopen the railway. Damage to the tracks sustained during the war was repaired, and the train arrived in Medina twice, once in 1919 and again in 1925. However, due to technical reasons, the station in Medina stopped operating, even while the other sections in Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, and along the Mediterranean coast temporarily remained in service. The Mina Station in Lebanon that was opened in 1911 continued to operate until the 1975 Lebanese Civil War. Although the war ended in 1989, no efforts have yet been made to revive the railway’s operations within Lebanon. In 1904, four years after the construction of the Damascus line, 460 kilometers of the railway was built, connecting the line to Jordan. The railroad was then connected to the Mediterranean via Haifa, now a city in Israel. Today, in Jordan, only a few sections of the railway are still operational. One is a weekly train that operates year-round from Amman to Al-Jizah station, while the other runs through the desert in Wadi Rum—the very same line that Lawrence of Arabia once attacked. The line that ran from Damascus to Medina also had a branch line leading to the Mediterranean port of Haifa, within modern-day Israel. This line was operational until 1948, when Israel’s declaration of independence led to a war with its Arab neighbors. Israel opened a rebuilt section of the railroad from Haifa to Beit She’an in 2016. Like Jordan and Lebanon, Israel has also engaged in efforts to revive the railway line, approaching both Jordan and Saudi Arabia for this purpose.

In recent years, Turkey has launched diplomatic overtures to regional states to revive the Hejaz Railway, and in 2018, following the signing of a protocol in Beirut, it took on the task of renovating a train station in Lebanon’s Tripoli, located along the railway. Two years earlier, Turkey had signed a protocol with the government of Jordan to restore a station on the same railway. The restoration, which is funded by the Turkish Development Agency (TIKA), included the building of a new museum at the station to commemorate the railway’s history.

Other states have signaled their interest in recognizing, and eventually rehabilitating, the Hejaz Railway. In 2015, Saudi Arabia applied to add the railway to the UNESCO World Heritage list, and it has been on the UNESCO World Heritage “Tentative List” since April 2015. Although Saudi Arabia has not chosen to continue service along the line like Jordan has, it nonetheless considers the railway part of its heritage. In 2009, Turkey and Saudi Arabia agreed to restore and rebuild the Hejaz railway line. At the time, Turkey’s then-Transportation Minister Binali Yildirim said, “When these four countries [Turkey, Jordan, Syria and Saudi Arabia] come together, the entire project will be completed.”

However, Middle Eastern geopolitics have once again prevented the railway’s full rehabilitation. The last train to Syria departed from Amman’s train station in 2011, and regular service was suspended after the civil war in Syria broke out. Recent reports have suggested that the Syrian regime has handed the historical building of the Hejaz Railway Station in Damascus to an unnamed private company for 45 years, turning it into a tourist hotel and commercial center. Syria’s actions appear to violate the principle that every station along the original line belongs to the collective Muslim community that funded its establishment, rather than the state. In Jordan, for instance, the railway station is owned by the Ministry of Islamic Affairs and cannot be sold to the private sector because of the railway’s association with the pilgrimage to Mecca.

As a tragic twist of history, Damascus was the first station on the historic railway line. It is hard to believe that the train could travel once again from Damascus to Medina anytime soon—and even harder to imagine that the regional countries, namely Turkey, Syria, Jordan, Israel and Saudi Arabia, could ever collectively work together to revive the century-old railway line. However, it is significant to keep the heritage of the Hejaz Railway alive, recognizing its historical significance and ability to connect disparate cities and peoples.  It is, indeed, more than just a railway.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.

Issue: Geopolitics
Country: GCC

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Sinem Cengiz is a researcher at Qatar University’s Gulf Studies Center and a non-resident fellow at the Washington-based Gulf International Forum. She is a regular columnist for Arab News newspaper and a member of the Women in Foreign Policy (DPK) Initiative. She is the author of the book Turkish-Saudi relations: Cooperation and Competition in the Middle East and co-editor of the book The Making of Contemporary Kuwait: Identity, Politics, and Its Survival Strategy. In her research, she focuses on the international relations of the Gulf and Turkey’s relations with the GCC states. Cengiz was born and raised in Kuwait and is currently based in Doha. She tweets at @SinemCngz


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