BBC Heritage Podcasts
The Hejaz Railway
Heritage: The Hejaz Railway
BBC World Service 2006
The Hejaz Railway once carried hundreds of thousands of pilgrims from all over the Middle East to Medina. It was completed almost a century ago, replacing the centuries-old method of pilgrimage: travelling across the desert by camel caravan. The railway was destroyed in parts by Lawrence of Arabia during the First World War, but the sections that survive are still in use. Even now, ancient steam locomotives billowing dark, acrid smoke still run on sections of the original line between Damascus in Syria and Amman in Jordan. In this four-part series, BBC presenter Malcolm Billings traces the route and history of this 'phantom steam trail'.
An idea conceived by Abdulhamid II, the railway eventually opened in 1908.
The Hejaz Railway was the last great religious foundation of the Ottomans, which set to revolutionise travel for Muslim pilgrims. Bedouins, who had previously taken travellers all the way across the desert, objected to losing so much business, so the rail track was built to stretch from Damascus to Medina, just falling short of Mecca itself. The pilgrimage would end, in ancient tradition, with a camel ride into the holy city. The idea for the railway was conceived by Sultan Abdulhamid II and the building of it brought together finance from India, steel from Belgium, engineers from Germany and conscripts from Turkey. It was eventually completed in 1908.
An exploration of the practicalities of taking part in the Hajj.
Visiting places of religious interest along the way was just as much a part of pilgrimage to Mecca as the final destination itself. One such site is the Great Mosque of Damascus, a site which has been variously occupied by Muslims, Christians and even worshippers of the Roman god, Jupiter. The head of John the Baptist is said to be buried there and nearby the tomb of the great Islamic leader Saladin can be seen. The programme also explores the practicalities of organising and taking part in the Hajj. Before continuing their journey, pilgrims would trade items at one of Damascus' many markets to finance the next stage of their trip. When ready, caravans of camels assembled on the southern edge of Damascus before setting off to endure the hardship of the Arabian Desert.
Malcolm Billings finds out the impact the railway has had on the region.
Before the Hejaz Railway, Amman was little more than a village. Within four years of the tracks being laid, over a million people had come through the city. This secured its place first as a bustling pilgrim town and then as Jordan's capital city. But not all the effects were positive on Jordan. The ruined palace of Qasr al Mushatta was further despoiled when its intricate carvings were removed and given by Sultan Abdulhamid II to the German Kaiser Wilhelm II. Even today treasure hunters continue to search for Ottoman Empire gold, which legend has it, is buried under the tracks.
What does the future hold for the railway? Rebuilding or staged re-enactments?
When sections of the track were blown up in the First World War, the railway was no longer used and, sleepers and rails were taken away by the Bedouin to make huts and houses. After decades of neglect, rail travel is attracting attention from many quarters. New railways are being planned for Syria, Jordan and Saudi Arabia. In Jordan some people are talking about modernising the Hejaz railway itself, restoring the full length of the railway and using original locomotives to run along its tracks. Meanwhile, international attention is being brought to this once forgotten railway. Tourists drink mint tea on elderly steam locomotives which travel through the desert, interrupted only by the staged Bedouin raids that liven up an otherwise tranquil journey.
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