Hejaz railway

Hejaz railway

The Hejaz Railway (also Hedjaz, etc.) was a narrow gauge railway (105 cm) that ran from Damascus to Medina, through the Hejaz region of Arabia, with a branch line to Haifa, on the Mediterranean Sea. It was a part of the Ottoman railway network and was built in order to extend the previously existing line between Istanbul and Damascus (which began from the Haydarpaşa Terminal) all the way to the holy city of Mecca (eventually being able to reach only Medina due to the interruption of the construction works caused by the outbreak of World War I).

The main purpose of the Hejaz Railway was to establish a connection between Istanbul, the capital of the Ottoman Empire and the seat of the Islamic Caliphate, and Hejaz in Arabia, the site of the holiest shrines of Islam and the holy city of Mecca, which is the yearly pilgrimage destination of the Hajj. Another important reason was to improve the economic and political integration of the distant Arabian provinces into the Ottoman state, and to facilitate the transportation of military troops in case of need.

The railway is remarkable both for having had no debt when completed and for having many miles of track below sea-level. The initial declared goal of laying the tracks all the way to Mecca was never achieved. In fact it never reached further south than Medina, 400 km (250 miles) short of Mecca.


A railway had been suggested in 1864 to relieve the suffering of the hajis on their forty day journey through the wilderness of Midian, the Nafud, and the Hejaz Mountains. The railway was started in 1900 at the behest of the Ottoman Sultan Abdul Hamid II and was built largely by the Turks, with German advice and support. A public subscription was opened throughout the Islamic world to fund the construction. The railway was to be a waqf, an inalienable religious endowment or charitable trust. [King Hussein And The Kingdom of Hejaz, Randall Baker, Oleander Press 1979, ISBN 0900891483, page 18] Before the construction, a German military adviser in Istanbul Auler Pasha estimated that the transportation of soldiers from Istanbul to Mecca would be reduced to 120 hours. [Cite book |title=Hicaz demiryolu |first=Murat |last=Özyüksel |publisher=Tarih Vakfı Yurt Yayınları |year=2000 |ISBN=975-333-137-1] Berlin to Baghdad Railway was built in the same time. Both railways were interrelated and aimed to strengthen the authority of the Empire over Arab provinces. Another intention was to protect Hejaz and other Arab provinces from a British invasion.

The railway reached Medina on September 1, 1908, the anniversary of the Sultan's accession. Certain compromises had had to be made in order to finish by this date, with some sections of track being laid on temporary embankments across "wadis". In 1913 a new station, the Hejaz Station, was opened in central Damascus as the starting point of the line (Damascus to Medina is 1300 km (820 miles)).

The Emir Hussein ibn Ali viewed the railway as a threat to Arab suzerainty, since it provided the Ottomans easy access to their garrisons in Hejaz, Asir, and Yemen. From its outset, the railway was the target of attacks by local Arab tribes. These were never particularly successful, but neither were the Turks able to control areas more than a mile or so either side of the tracks. Due to the locals' habit of pulling up wooden sleepers to fuel their camp-fires, some sections of the track were laid on iron sleepers.

The line was repeatedly damaged in fighting during the First World War, particularly at the hands of the guerrilla force led by T. E. Lawrence during the Arab Revolt. Following the break-up of the Ottoman Empire, the railway never re-opened south of the Jordanian-Saudi Arabian border.

An attempt was made to re-open the line in the mid 1960s, but this was abandoned due to the Six Day War in 1967.

Current status

Two connected but non-contiguously operated sections of the Hejaz Railway are in service:
* from Amman in Jordan to Damascus in Syria, as the "Hedjaz Jordan Railway".
* from phosphate mines near Ma'an to the Gulf of Aqaba, as the "Aqaba Railway".

Workers on the railway have restored many of the original locomotives. There are currently nine steam locomotives in Syria and seven in Jordan in working order. Since the accession of King Abdullah II, relations between Jordan and Syria have improved, causing a revival of interest in the railway. The train, however, no longer runs from the Hejaz Station but from Qadam station in the outskirts of the Syrian capital. In 2004 the Hejaz Station in Damascus was closed, pending a major commercial development project.

Small non-operating sections of the railway track, buildings and rolling-stock are still preserved as tourist-attractions in Saudi Arabia, including the Medina Terminus, restored in 2005 with railway tracks and locomotive shed. Trains destroyed by Lawrence can still be seen where they fell.

There are also plans by Israel Railways to rebuild the long-defunct Haifa extension of the railway (the Jezreel Valley railway) in Israel using standard gauge, with the possibility of later extending it to Irbid in Jordan.

In 2008 the "museum of the rolling stock of Al-Hidjaz Railway" opened in Damascus Khadam station after major renovations for an exhibition of the locomotives. The trains run from Khadam station on the basis of customer demand (usually German, British or Swiss groups). The northern part of the Zabadani track is no longer accessible.


Further reading

*Cite book |title=The Hejaz Railway |first=James |last=Nicolson |isbn=190098881X |publisher=Stacey International Publishers

ee also

* Transport in Jordan

External links

* [http://nabataea.net/hijazstations.html Maps of the railway]
* [http://alsahra.org/?page_id=290example.com pictures and report of travelogue in the Saudi Section of Hejaz railway]
* [http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/programmes/from_our_own_correspondent/4609450.stm BBC: "A piece of railway history"]
* [http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/middle_east/770243.stm BBC: "Pilgrim railway back on track"]
* [http://nabataea.net/hejazmenu.html Extensive Hejaz Railway site at Nabataea.net]
* http://www.hejaz-railroad.info/Galerie.html
* [http://www.zubeyr-kureemun.com/SaudiArabia/OttomanRuinsInMedina.htm Pictures of Hejaz railway in Madina]
* [http://www.arabnews.com/?page=1&section=0&article=69304&d=31&m=8&y=2005 The demolition of hejaz railway bridge in Medina]
* [http://www.mobiltom.de/syria lots of pictures from the Hidjaz Railway stations from an 2008 trip across Syria]

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