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The ’HIjaaz Railway

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Most accounts of the ’Hijaaz railroad history are either obscure or inaccurate on the point referring to the originator of the idea. A commonly repeated reference is made of Dr. Ferdinand Zimpel, an American civil engineer, who is usually credited, even in some scholarly works, with the honour of conceiving of the idea of a railroad that connects Damascus to Makkah.

A closer inspection of the historical evidence points to the fact that Dr. Zimpel’s groundbreaking suggestion was in fact much more humble than what came to be associated with his name. In 1864 he made a proposal to the Ottoman government for a railroad linking Damascus and the Red Sea.

The pioneering idea, now that Dr. Zimpel has forfeited his claim to it, remains rather obscure. There are several accounts that may all turn out to be reasonably accurate. The search reveals a report of a Hejaz railroad suggestion made by an obscure Ottoman army officer in 1874 to secure Ottoman control in the ’Hijaaz.

This officer could have been Ahmet Izzet Efendi who was stationed in Jeddah. In a letter to the Sultan, he said that a railway connecting Istanbul to ’Hijaaz would constitute an important defence asset for the Ottoman Empire, which was facing the danger of attack by foreign enemies and the indigenous population. The letter also emphasised that such a railway would facilitate performance of the sacred Hajj, making the transportation of pilgrims from Anatolia and Syria to Makkah easier.

In 1891, the Ottoman commander in ’Hijaaz, Osman Nuri Pasha, sent a letter to Sultan ‘Abd Al’hameed II saying that the construction of a railway between Jeddah and Makkah would serve the promotion of Ottoman interests in the region.

And to complete the picture, one must not forget the efforts of Mu’hammad Insha Allaah (the editor of the Urdu journal Watan), who campaigned tirelessly in the late 1890s for the creation of a railroad passing through the holy cities of Madinah and Makkah and ending in Yemen.

Finally, the Ottoman Council of Ministers discussed the idea of a railroad to the ’Hijaaz in August 1898.

The above efforts came to fruition on May 2nd, 1900 when the Sultan announced that a railroad between Damascus and
Madinah would be built. Construction of the Hameedy ’Hijaaz Railroad was to begin on September 1st, 1900, the twenty-fifth anniversary of ‘Abdulhamid’s accession to the throne.

There is no doubt that political, as well as military, goals were at the heart of the ’Hijaaz Railroad project. This, however, would in no way diminish its noble character in providing faster, cheaper, safer, and reliable means of transporting pilgrims to Madeenah.

The only method of transport for the pilgrims to Madeenah in those bygone days was camel caravan, a journey that would have been arduous for even the most intrepid traveller. The journey would have taken about two months, and a further two months on the return, travelling through winter's freezing temperatures and torrential rains, or the scorching heat of the summer months. Towns and settlements were sparse and hostile tribes, together with an inhospitable environment, no doubt compounded the difficulties.

The concept of the railway presented a financial as well as an engineering challenge. Sultan ‘Abd Al’hameed II announced that the railway would be financed by domestic sources and foreign funds would not be resorted to for the completion of the project. The cost of project was estimated at four and a half million lira, approximately £8 million pounds at the time. Since the Ottoman government was going through a tough period financially, it was impossible to finance the project through state funds and so donations started.

The largest donations came from the Sultan himself and from the Shah of Persia. Donations from state bureaucrats in Istanbul and people through out the Ottoman territories followed soon. Donations were flowing so incredibly for the project that when the railway was finished it was probably the first railway in the world, which had no debt upon inauguration. Other contributions came from the Turkish Civil Service and armed forces, and from various fund-raising efforts (which included the sale of titles such as Pasha or Bey).

Not all of the donations were voluntary, but those who did volunteer were rewarded with the Hamidiye-’Hijaaz Demiryolu (’Hijaaz Railway Medal). The medal came in both wearable and non-wearable versions ranging in size from 26 mm to 50 mm. The bulk of the medals had the hijry (hegira) date 1318, however special series of medals were issued bearing the dates 1322 (for completion of the rail link to Ma‘an) and 1326 (for the link to Madeenah). The wearable medals were 30 mm in diameter, issued in gold, silver and nickel alloy.

Construction, maintenance and guarding of the line all presented enormous difficulties, which was mainly undertaken by more than 5,000 Turkish soldiers. Apart from the unpredictable - and often hostile -- local tribesmen, variations in the terrain itself made construction difficult. The ground was very soft and sandy in places and solidly rocky in others. Water scarcity was the norm, but occasional torrential rainstorms caused flash floods, washing away bridges and banks and causing the line to collapse.

The camel caravan owners were far from pleased by the construction of the railway line, as it posed a considerable threat to their livelihood. The railway journey was quicker and cheaper, and no one in his right mind would contemplate spending £40 on an arduous, two-month camel journey when he could travel in comfort in only four days for just £3.50. Frequent attacks on the trains by the tribes and furious caravan operators made the journey to Madeenah a perilous undertaking for pilgrims, whether by camel or by rail.

In September 1900 construction started on the Damascus-Dar‘ah line from both ends. This, as well
as the Dar‘ah-Amman stretch, was completed by 1903. In 1904 the railway reached Ma‘an. In 1906 Mudawwarah was reached, and a year later the tracks reached Madaa-n ’Saali’h. Up to Madaa-n ’Saali’h, German engineers, who were the foreign expert help in the design and construction of this railroad, ran the supervision of the construction and the engineering work. Muslim Engineers directed the work in Arabia proper.

In September 1907 a festive gathering of in Alula celebrated the completion of the thousands kilometre of the railway. A year later, in September 1908, eight years after its beginning, the line arrived at Madinah.

On September 1st, 1908 the railway was officially opened, and was transporting 30,000 pilgrims a year by 1912. Business boomed, and by 1914 the annual load had soared to 300,000 passengers. Not only were pilgrims transported to Madeenah, but also the Turkish army began to use the railway as its chief mode of transport for troops and supplies. This was to be the railway's undoing, as it was severely damaged during the First World War (1914-1918).

A final account of the achievement of this railroad shows that it transported a total of 1,311,907 (one million, three hundred eleven thousand, and nine hundred and seven) passengers during its short lifetime, of which the military contingent was less than twenty five percent.

It is important to add that the original intention of Sultan ‘Abd Al’hameed II was for the railroad to reach Makkah, but his deposition in April 1909 and the strong opposition of the local tribes acted in unison to see that his dream did not materialise.

After the First World War, and until as recently as 1971, several attempts were made to revive the railway. In 1954 the governments of Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Syria came to an agreement whereby the whole of the ’Hijaaz Railway was to be rebuilt and reopened to traffic. After lengthy negotiations a contract was drawn up with Japanese, Spanish and Arab companies but this was cancelled in 1962 and in the following year a British consortium took over the project. Reconstruction started in 1964 and evoked considerable worldwide interest but, although great deal of rebuilding was carried out south of Ma‘an, political and financial difficulties became more and more apparent and in 1971 it was decided to suspend all work on the undertaking.

Road transport was established and, by the Seventies, aviation had made rapid progress. In the year 1970, an estimated 400,000 pilgrims entered Saudi Arabia, of which only 23% were by land. Aviation became the primary means of transporting pilgrims and the railway was rapidly superseded and the huge old steam locomotives clanked sadly to their final halt. But the romance of the railway remains alive.

Mohammed Babelli -
Mohammed Babelli [Mu’hammad Baabilly] is an engineer by profession; art lover by choice. He started photography at an early age covering summer camping vacations.Read More >>
Last Updated on Sunday, 23 August 2009 23:30  

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