Hejaz Railway, the Mystique Endures
By Dr Syed Amir
The Hejaz Railway has not operated for nearly a century. Long stretches of its tracks no longer exist, and its wooden sleepers and other paraphernalia were carted away and sold by Bedouins a long time ago. It lasted for a mere twelve years. Yet, it lives on in the imagination of many in the Arab and Muslim world, reprising the mystique and nostalgia of a bygone era.
Long forgotten amidst interminable civil wars and ethnic conflicts, the Hejaz Railway reemerged recently in the news, courtesy of a perceptive Washington Post reporter, Anne Barnard. Weary of documenting war atrocities in Syria, she chose to focus her report on a historic city landmark, the Damascus station of the fabled Hejaz railway. A century ago it used to be a crowded place, bustling with hundreds of pilgrims on their way to Hajj. Today, it stands forlorn, converted into a museum, and of relevance only to the few with interest in its past grandeur. The museum showcases a few antiques, such as wooden telegraphic equipment dated to the late nineteenth century. An exquisite chandelier still hangs from the ceiling, decorating the main hall, perhaps a reminder of the happier times.
The Hejaz Railway, a narrow-gauge system, was built jointly by Turkish and German engineers at the turn of the 20th century and used to run on an 820-mile route, with a top speed of 25 miles an hour. Representing a singular success story in the twilight years of the Ottoman Empire, it was a marvel of civil engineering. The primary motivation for its construction was to alleviate the sufferings of pilgrims embarking on Hajj at Damascus, bound for Medina and eventually Mecca. It was an arduous, perilous journey, taking forty to fifty days by camel caravans. Many pilgrims never made it to Mecca, perishing on the way by disease, lack of water or even at the hands of marauding bandits. Weather was another problem since Hajj season rotated round the year, from periods of extreme heat to unbearable cold.
The severe hardships suffered by pilgrims have been noted by a number of past travelers, among them Ibn Batuta. The celebrated medieval Muslim traveler left his hometown of Tangier in Morocco in 1325, at the age of 21, with the intent of performing Hajj. As was customary, he joined a caravan in Damascus a year later heading to Medina. Some of the details of this long, grueling journey as well as stories of other pilgrims who suffered hardships are recounted in his travel memoirs, Rihla.
The idea of the railway connecting various provinces of the far flung Ottoman Empire had been around for some time, but nothing had been done to implement it. It was in 1900 that Sultan Abdul Hamid II on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of his accession announced his decision of connecting the major cities, Istanbul, Damascus and Medina, with a railway system to facilitate travel to holy sites. Eschewing flotation of bonds to elicit loans, he appealed to the Muslims worldwide to contribute to a special fund. In India, Muslims enthusiastically responded to his call and much money was raised. At the end, enough funds had been collected to cover the entire cost of the construction and operation, even leaving $1.75 million in surplus funds to be invested in a Trust.
In his well-researched essay published in 1965 in Saudi Aramco World, Daniel da Cruz has provided some fascinating details about the construction and operation of the Hejaz Railway. Sultan Abdul Hamid had appointed Izzat Pasha Al-Abed, his second secretary and a highly capable Syrian Arab, as president of the Railroad Commission and made him in-charge of the project. The construction started in 1900. The story of how the route from Damascus to Hejaz was determined prior to laying the railway track sounds implausible today. The Turkish surveyors decided to simply follow a camel train, traversing some forbidding landscape, valleys and mountains, established over centuries. They figured that if there was a better route, it would have been discovered a long time ago. Most crucial in their calculus was that water wells were available all along the arid route. The construction work was performed by a team of international engineers, supervised by a German engineer, on whom the honorific Turkish title of Pasha was conferred, a quaint Ottoman practice.
Covering a distance of 808 miles, the Hejaz railway was completed up to Medina on September 1, 1908, marking the 33 rd anniversary of Sultan Abdul Hamid’s accession to the throne. The grand Damascus station was officially opened with rejoicing in 1913. It is estimated that at its peak in 1914, the railways was transporting 300,000 peoples annually, carrying pilgrims as well Turkish functionaries, troops and supplies.
The Indian Sufi, writer and journalist, Khawaja Hassan Nizami of Delhi set out on Hajj on August 7, 1911, from Damascus and recorded his impressions in his book, Safarnama Miser o Sham o Hijaz. He states that he paid three British guineas as fare to Medina and that arrangements for light and cleanliness were not good. The compartments were lit at night by olive oil lamps that went out at midnight. Travelers had to bring their own food and drinks on board, as none were available at any of the stations. And, it was unsafe to venture too far from the stations for fear of Bedouins who robbed and killed freely.
The success of the new railways soon raised much resentment among some quarters that had lost business. Among them were the desert tribes who used to make a living by serving as guides to the caravans, and frequently acted as highway robbers. The hereditary Hashmi rulers of Hejaz, who owed nominal allegiance to the Ottoman Sultan, were worried about the loss of their autonomy and increased accountability from Constantinople.
The Hejaz railway was not destined to enjoy a long tenure. All plans to extend the service to Mecca were shelved, forced by events. Ironically, the year (1909) it was inaugurated, its chief patron, Sultan Abdul Hamid II was deposed by the Young Turks leading the reform movement in Turkey. Then, the First World War broke out in July, 1914 and Turkey made the disastrous decision of joining it on the side of Germany. The British sensing danger to their access to Suez Canal and Indian Empire, encouraged Hussein bin Ali, the Sharif and Emir of Mecca, to rise against the Ottoman rule. Lawrence of Arabia organized and led Arab guerilla bands in a series of bloody hit-and-run operations against the Hejaz railway, killing and maiming many Turkish troops attempting to protect it. With the Allied victory, the Hejaz railway finally closed down and its giant locomotives came to rest for the last time sometime in 1920.
Since the Second World War, hopes for the revival of the Hejaz railways have been raised several times. Though severely damaged, its infrastructure is not beyond repairs. However, it is unlikely that in this era of super fast travel we will see its revival any time soon. Instead, the name is more likely to remain part of Arab-Muslim folklore.