Damascus, 1900... Rumours of a new railway to be built southwards through the desert to the Holy Cities of the Hejaz are running wild...
Map - The Hejaz Railway
Lawrence of Arabia - a name synonymous with the Hejaz Railway. Discover the sites of his attacks on the railway in Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Syria. Lawrence's classic account of his campaign in Arabia Seven Pillars of Wisdom has some of its finest passages bringing to life the railway, its stations and the old steam engines.
The railway embankment winds through breathtaking scenery in the Saudi region of AlUla. A world-class tourist destination, rich in archaeological treasures, the area's most iconic attraction is the Hejaz Railway, with its major stations of Hegra (Medain Saleh) & AlUla framed within a unique & spectacular desert landscape.
By following the ancient pilgrimage road, the railway was able to take advantage of the water supplies of the great medieval caravanserai forts. Today, these qala'a still stand proudly in the desert, testimony to the devotion of the pilgrims who for centuries made the long trek to Mecca by camel, donkey or on foot.
In a four-part series, broadcast on the World Service in 2006, BBC presenter Malcolm Billings traces the route and history of the Hejaz Railway, bringing the story of the old pilgrimage line wonderfully to life. To listen to the four parts - History; Pilgrimage; Impact; Future - click here and follow the links for each episode.
The Branch Lines
The principal branch was built from Deraa in Syria to the port of Haifa, giving the railway a vital outlet to the Mediterranean Sea. For 58 km the track followed the steep, twisting Yarmuk Valley (left), a section that required 15 bridges and 7 tunnels. Other branches included the 40-km Deraa to Bosra al Sham line.
Royal Flying Corps
The RFC (the precursor to the Royal Air Force) played an important role in the wartime campaign in Arabia. Its main contribution was in boosting morale among Arab fighters, who had never seen aircraft before. As well as attacks on stations and railway installations, the RFC carried out vital reconnaissance missions.
In Saudi Arabia, major projects have been carried out to restore Medina, Hegra (Medain Saleh) and Tabuk Stations to their former glory. There are now plans to renovate AlUla Station to house a visitor centre dedicated to the rich history of the railway. There are museums in Jordan (Amman) and Syria (Damascus).
While the French contribution to the wartime campaign in Arabia is not as well known as the British one, their role in the raids on the railway was of enormous importance. In particular, the artillery battery of Capt. R. Pisani provided vital support for the Bedouin in their attacks on the station garrisons.
Bridges needed to be built with sufficient height and strength to withstand flash floods. In the desert, valleys that had been dry for years could suddenly become raging torrents when rain finally fell. To the left is Hedia Bridge in Saudi Arabia, still standing strong over a hundred years after its construction.
Defensive posts were built at various vantage points along the railway to protect vital assets. Looking up from stations and major bridges, stone fortifications can often be seen, perched on strategic positions in the hills. Wagga Fort (left) was extended during the war to protect a deep rail cutting from Allied attacks.
"A herd of sheep and goats issued from the station and moved towards us in charge of a little ragged boy. Before he reached the foot of the hills there came a loud whistling down the valley and a tiny train ground slowly into view across the hollow-sounding bridge and halted in the station, panting out white puffs of steam."
T.E. Lawrence Seven Pillars of Wisdom - The raid on Abu Na'am Station March 1917
Without plentiful supplies of water, the Hejaz Railway could never have been constructed. Explore how the rare desert commodity was provided, and the essential role it played in the building of the line, the day-to-day running of services and the living requirements of the railway employees and the Ottoman military garrisons.
Heinrich Meissner was the steady hand at the helm of the vast project to build the Hejaz Railway. When the German took over as Chief Engineer, the work was in complete disarray. He quickly created a stable and efficient administrative platform for the building work to advance, putting in place procedures to boost the rate of progress.
A unique aspect of the railway was the way in which it was financed. In 1900, the Ottoman Sultan called upon the Islamic community to fund the line with donations. In this way, believers from all over the world were able to feel that they were taking part in a great philanthropic venture. Special medals were issued to the contributors.