Carefully restored tourist attractions and coffee-table books are all that remains of the Middle East’s first regional railway
2014 has been a year of commemoration of 100 years of World War I. Perspectives about conflicts will always differ depending on which side is writing it. While memories of the ‘Great War’ has always evoked mixed emotions in the Middle East, one of its little known tragedies is that the war put paid to the region’s fledgling rail ambitions. In recent years, though, these ambitions have staged a come back, mainly in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) area.
Railways have always played a major role in the economic development of the advanced economies, especially Western Europe and North America. The Hejaz Railway, which ran between Damascus and Medina, was expected to do something similar for the region while also promoting closer social and cultural integration of the Arab world.
Commissioned by the last Sultan of the Ottoman Empire Abdulhamid II in 1900, the 1,302km-long railway started operations in 1908. Built by public subscription and German advice, the Hejaz Railway, which operated for a mere eight years, was celebrated worldwide as an “extraordinary feat of engineering and endurance” when it opened.
The railway achieved its primary objective of cutting down the travel time from Istanbul to Islam’s holy site of Medina to five days from 40 odd days. However, the Ottomans also viewed the project as a means to tighten control over their Arab provinces and protect the Hejaz region from the imperial adventures of their European rivals.
But the loss of custom caused by the migration of pilgrim traffic to the railways meant that local Bedouin tribes were always resentful of this ‘Iron Camel,’ which had usurped their livelihoods. And when the Ottomans decided to back what turned out to be the losing side in the world war, the railway’s fate was sealed.
Labelled as a military threat to allied efforts, the line became the target of a sustained campaign of guerrilla attacks and sabotage by local tribesmen led by the celebrated Captain TE Lawrence of the British Army.
In his book ‘The Hejaz Railway’ James Nicholson notes that “it is also the case that without the Hejaz Railway there may never have been a Lawrence of Arabia” as it is “hard to imagine how his story could have developed in quite the same way had he been ambushing tanks or digging trenches in the sand.”
After the fall of the Ottoman Empire in 1920, this magnificent piece of infrastructure was never re-opened. The Hejaz Railway now exists as a historical heritage of restored or abandoned rolling stocks, stations, intermittent tracks and museums in Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Syria; only Jordan has restored its part of the railway.