The Hejaz railway that ran from Damascus to Medina, through the Hejaz region of Saudi Arabia, was one of the principal railroads of the Ottoman Turkish Empire and a vital route across the desert. The railway was built in 1900 at the behest of the Ottoman Sultan Abdul Hamid II and was supposed to extend all the way to Mecca in order to facilitate pilgrimage to the Holy city. But its primary motive was to strengthen the empire’s control over the most distant provinces of the empire.
The railway reached only as far as Medina, some 400 kilometers short of its destination, when the First World War broke out and all construction works came to a grinding halt. When the Arabs, led by the strategic British officer T.E. Lawrence, better known as the Lawrence of Arabia, rose up in revolt against Turkish domination, the railway became the principal target. Today, large sections of the railway lie abandoned in the desert with tracks swallowed up by the sand, and carriages and engines toppled over and overgrown with shrubs.
Photo credit: devillp/Flickr
Even before World War, the Bedouins of the adjacent desert areas frequently attacked the railway because it challenged their control over the pilgrims’ route to the holy places. For centuries, the old Arab tribes had guided and guarded the pilgrims across the harsh desert. Travelling on caravans and on camels’ back, the journey took from forty days to up to two months to complete. When the railway opened in 1908, the arduous two-month journey was reduced to a comfortable and cheaper four-day trip. As word spread, thousands of pilgrims from Russia, Central Asia, Iran and Iraq converged on Damascus to take the train. By the year 1912 the railway was transporting 30,000 pilgrims a year, which swelled to 300,000 passengers by 1914.
Meanwhile, attacks on the railway became more and more frequent, and it wasn’t long before the train journey became more perilous than the two-month trek across the hot and scorching desert.
The railway’s final undoing came during the Arab Revolt of 1916-18, when the Turkish army began to use the railway as its chief mode of transport for troops and supplies. This gave the Arabs an opportunity to turn their vengeance on the railway. Guerrilla forces commanded by British officers successfully blew up large sections of the tracks including a moving locomotive for the first time in history. Later T.E. Lawrence joined in on the attack and destroyed countless bridges.
After the First World War, the railway was abandoned although several attempts were made to revive. In fact, some parts of the Hejaz Railway are still functioning, such as the line from Amman, in Jordan, to Damascus, in Syria. Another set of tracks operate from phosphate mines near Ma'an to the Gulf of Aqaba. Fascinatingly, the railway uses many of the original carriages and locomotives running on steam and coal. The oldest locomotive still in service was built in Germany in 1898!
The disused section of the Hejaz Railway lies south of Amman in Saudi Arabia, where railway enthusiasts will find a number of abandoned stations, round houses and rusting locomotives and cars.
Photo credit: Richard Desomme/Panoramio
Photo credit: Thomas Ritter/Panoramio
Photo credit: project.scta.gov.sa/Panoramio
Abandoned railway station. Photo credit: Hamadraza/Panoramio
Photo credit: Angus Hamilton Haywood/Flickr
Photo credit: unknown/Wikimedia
Photo credit: Alex Brey/Flickr
Construction of the Hejaz Railroad. Ballasting the Rail Tracks. 1906. Photo credit: Library of Congress
Ottoman military conscripts building the roof of Mu‘azzam station, taken in 1908. Photo credit: The British Museum
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