The Hejaz Railway: Syria to Jordan, 2001

“You’d be silly to take the Hejaz Railway” the locals assured us. It would be primitive, shabby and slow. We could travel from Damascus to Amman in comfort by car, or even bus, in less than half the time. They were right of course, but for less than the cost of a movie at home, a friend and I opted for an excellent little adventure and a memory to last a lifetime.

In 1900 the Ottoman Sultan, Abdulhamid II, launched construction of a railway to link Constantinople (now Istanbul) to Syria, the Hejaz district of western Arabia, and Yemen on the shores of the Indian Ocean. It was an ambitious scheme: technically challenging, expensive and motivated primarily by military considerations. The Sultan was strapped for cash, but had a shrewd solution. Devout Muslims are expected to make the pilgrimage to Mecca (Hajj) at least once if they can, and that could be a difficult and sometimes dangerous journey. Because the new railway would pass through the Hejaz, which includes Mecca as well as Medina where the Prophet Muhammad is buried, the Sultan announced an ostensibly religious motive for the project, appealing to the entire Muslim world to facilitate the Hajj by donating funds to what became known as the Hejaz Railway.

Unfortunately for Abdulhamid, Arab tribes in the Hejaz opposed the project. Frequent raids finally prompted him to terminate construction at Medina, some 500 kilometres short of Mecca. The abbreviated route began operation in 1908, but in 1914 the empire went to war with Britain which, as part of its Middle East strategy, assigned a number of military and political liaison officers to encourage and support an Arab uprising. Among them were the formidable Gertrude Bell and an eccentric young archaeologist turned intelligence officer called T.E. Lawrence, whose exploits, especially attacks on the Hejaz Railway, captured the imagination of publicists and propagandists. Even today, the enigmatic legacy of of “Lawrence of Arabia” continues to eclipse the contributions of equally significant Europeans like Bell – not to mention the entire Arab Army.

After the Ottoman Empire fragmented, the Hejaz Railway was in such sad state that by 1920, except for a few sections, it was effectively abandoned. By 2001 there was just a twice-weekly freight and passenger service linking the capitals of Syria and Jordan. A friend and I – both fans of railway travel as well as history – decided that after concluding business in Aqaba we would travel by road to Damascus, explore the city, and then take the 220 kilometre train journey to Amman to catch our flight home. At the imposing station in Damascus we bought our tickets for the equivalent of less than five Canadian dollars, and then lingered over Turkish-style coffee while waiting to board.

Coffee in Damascus
The “Hejaz Bar” – the old pasha’s carriage at Damascus

Our carriage could have been a set for an old British murder mystery movie, with a row of compartments down one side and a corridor along the other, looking ancient enough to be Ottoman vintage. Shortly after departure a policeman collected everyone’s passports, to be returned when we transferred to a Jordanian train at the border. My blue-covered document raised no concerns but my friend’s was green which the policeman somehow interpreted as signifying an unauthorized journalist. Fortunately, with the help of some English-speaking passengers, we satisfied him that it was simply the version issued to government employees. Which is just as well because, as one ancient mariner to another, I’d whispered to my friend that if we were threatened with torture in a Syrian prison I’d swear that I’d never seen him before in my life!

Some three hours later we changed trains at Deraa; perhaps best known outside the region as where Lawrence may or may not have been captured and perhaps raped in 1917. More recently it was the crucible of Syria’s bloody civil war during the 2011 “Arab Spring”. But in 2001 it was just a sleepy railway junction where, after a long wait, we boarded a spartan Jordanian carriage. Wooden benches ran down each side and the toilet consisted of a hole in the floor. Still, it made the remainder of the journey a thoroughly enjoyable social experience as we exchanged conversation and snacks with hospitable fellow-passengers.

At Deraa
Changing trains at Deraa

As the train crawled past a Palestinian refugee camp on the outskirts of Amman (Zarqa I think) a rock crashed through one of the windows. Stepping out on the rear platform I saw boys thoroughly enjoying the sport of train-stoning. Ahead, one was getting ready to target the windows but I pointed at him, caught his eye, wagged my finger in a “don’t you dare” gesture and then gave him a big grin and a cheery wave. He grinned back and dropped the stone. Just a bored refugee kid with nothing to do.

Apparently the service was discontinued in 2006 but there is now talk of a railway renaissance across the region. Saudi Arabia has built a high-speed link between Medina and Mecca, developed remains of the old Hejaz Railway as tourist destinations, and applied for UNESCO World Heritage status. In Jordan there is even talk of an innovative dual purpose urban corridor park through Amman. I’m optimistic. There’s nothing quite like the shared experience of train travel to generate friendly connections among strangers.

Jim at Deraa
The late James (Jim) Kelly at Deraa: a true gentleman, friend and excellent travelling companion