THE BIRTH OF AN IDEA
A 'Wildly Improbable' and 'Fantastic' Scheme
In the long and colourful history of the Holy Pilgrimage to Mecca, the brief period during which the Hejaz Railway operated at the start of the 20th century represents little more than a passing footnote. And yet this single track, narrow-gauge line, which ran for just eight years through some of the world's most inhospitable desert terrain, has somehow managed to capture a special place in the public's imagination.
In 1900, as rumours about the new venture were running wild in the ancient city of Damascus, the idea was received with almost universal scepticism. W. Richards, the British consul in Syria, wrote to his ambassador, Sir Nicolas O'Connor, based in the Ottoman capital of Constantinople (Istanbul), to report on the alleged scheme. While acknowledging that rumours had indeed been circulating in the Syrian capital, he explained that the project 'seemed to me and others so widely improbable, not to say fantastic, that I refrained from reporting on it to your Excellency.'
Even once the project had been declared open by the Sultan himself, surveys carried out, engineering and labouring teams put in place and the construction work on the point of commencing, Richards could find no reason to revise his opinion. Taking into account the harshness of the climate, the mountainous desert terrain, the appalling working conditions, the opposition of the tribes, the great distance to be traversed and the serious political and financial difficulties facing the ailing Ottoman Empire, he had no hesitation in confirming to Sir Nicolas that 'the venture is viewed with scepticism and incredulity by all thinking men here.'
The old quarter of Damascus
Train at Damascus Kanawat Station
1. A Pilgrim Line
In addition to being Sultan of the Ottoman Empire, Abdulhamid II claimed the title of Caliph, the leader of the Muslims, and therefore the protector of the Hajj, the holy pilgrimage to Mecca. Before the railway was constructed, many pilgrims faced an arduous 40-day overland journey from Damascus to Mecca. By providing a quicker, safer and cheaper means of travelling to the Hejaz, Abdulhamid II would be able to manifest his concern for the Holy Places and demonstrate his piety to his subjects.
The Ottoman Sultan Abdulhamid II
Pilgrims en Route to Mecca - 1878 (Richard Beavis)
2. Political Prestige
By rivalling the industrial achievement of the European Powers, a railway project on a massive scale would help to restore some of the ailing Ottoman Empire's former prestige and confirm Abdulhamid II's legitimacy to rule over the Arab territories. Bolstering his claim to be the leader of the Muslim world also fitted in closely with his central policy of Pan Islam. With millions of Muslims under British and French colonial rule in the Indian subcontinent and North Africa, the political currency gained with the population could be turned to good effect as a means of manipulating Western foreign policy.
3. Economic Factors
Prior to the railway, the Ottoman province of the Hejaz had always represented a net financial loss for the Sultan's purse. It was now believed that by stimulating trade, agriculture and urban development, the line would be able to generate a surplus. At the same time, it would enable taxation and conscription to be extended into some of the more autonomous and remote areas of the empire.
Jung 2-8-2 crossing the desert in southern Jordan
4. Military Considerations
While the religious aspect of the railway was always the one given the most publicity, strategic and military considerations were also major factors. Lessons had been learned from Europe, where mass armies could be quickly deployed to the battlefront by the use of extensive railway networks. The potential to bypass the Suez Canal was also considered vital in order to counter the British, who had already occupied Egypt, Sudan and Aden and were busy forging political alliances with Kuwait and the Emirates in the Gulf.
British warship in the Suez Canal
The first suggestion for a railway to connect Damascus to the Red Sea was put forward in 1864 by an American engineer, Dr. Charles Zimpel. Others followed, but perhaps the most influential proponent of the idea was an Arab, Izzat Pasha al Abid, the Sultan’s Second Secretary and close adviser. Following a revolt in Yemen in 1898, Izzat Pasha was instructed to submit a full report on the uprising. One of his central proposals was the building of a railway into the desert region of the Hejaz, a suggestion that would certainly have been supported by the Sultan’s chief military adviser, the German general, von der Goltz. While it is not clear whose role was the most significant in finally convincing Abdulhamid II to sign the official order to start the construction work, what is certain is that for the next eight years, together with the Sultan himself, Izzat Pasha was to be the principal driving force behind the accomplishment of the project.
Izzat Pasha al Abid