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Mountains by the Hejaz Railway north of Hegra and AlUla in Saudi Arabia


Heinrich August Meissner Pasha

b. 3 January 1862     Leipzig, Germany

d. 14 January 1940   Istanbul, Turkey

From his appointment as Chief of Engineering in 1901 to the completion of the line in 1908, Heinrich Meissner was the steady hand at the helm of the vast project to build the Hejaz Railway.

At the outset of the venture in 1900, the post of Chief Engineer had been given to an Italian, Signor Labella. However, at the end of his first year's work, the project was in such disarray that his contract was terminated in favour of Meissner. The experienced German engineer quickly became the driving force behind the construction, putting in place an efficient administrative network, rationalising working procedures and improving the morale of the huge workforce.

Heinrich Meissner Pasha German Chief Engineer of Ottoman construction project to build the Hejaz Railway

Heinrich August Meissner Pasha

Heinrich August Meissner was born in Leipzig, Germany in 1862, the son of a lawyer. From 1881 to 1885, he studied civil engineering at the Technical College of Dresden, with a particular interest in railway construction, hydraulic technology, earthworks, tunnels and telegraphy, all subject areas that would stand him in excellent stead for his future work on the Hejaz Railway and other lines across the Ottoman Empire. One of Heinrich Meissner's uncles, Victor Tridon (the son of the painter Caroline Franziska Sattler), worked

in Constantinople, and intrigued by the extensive programme of public rail works being planned in the Ottoman Empire, the young Heinrich started to learn Turkish. Following his graduation with distinction, Meissner visited his uncle in 1885 and was engaged for a short time on a railway project for the state-run Ottoman Railways. On his return, he was employed as an assistant for the Faculty of Railway Construction at the Polytechnic of Prague. However, his heart was set on a career in the Near East and in 1887 he moved to Turkey, where he quickly obtained a post with the Anatolian Railway Company on their new Izmir to Ankara line.

Dresden - Heinrich Meissner studied at Technical College

Meissner studied railway construction in Dresden at the Technical College. He graduated with distinction in 1885

Vodena (Edessa) Station on the  Salonica (Thessaloniki) to Monastir (Bitola) Railway in 1899 with German engineer Heinrich Meissner

Vodena (Edessa) Station on the Salonica-Monastir Railway in 1899. Deutsche Bank had the concession for its construction

Meissner gained valuable experience on a number of projects throughout the Ottoman Empire, which at the time was following the example of the European powers by developing extensive rail networks. Between 1892 and 1894, he was engaged as Chief Engineer on a section of the Salonica (Thessaloniki, Greece) to Monastir (Bitola, North Macedonia) line. From 1894 - 1896, he was Chief Engineer of a section on the Salonica to Dedeagach (Alexandroupolis, Greece) line. In 1896, he was appointed as scientific adviser for a railway construction project based in the Ottoman capital Constantinople. 

The experience Meissner gained during the building of these lines, together with the reputation he earned for efficiency and his growing mastery of the Turkish language, led to him being engaged as an engineer on the Hejaz Railway construction project. At the end of the disastrous first year's work under Signor Labella, only 15 kilometres of track had been laid. Sultan Abdulhamid II was infuriated by the slow rate of progress and demanded immediate and wholesale redress. The Ottoman Chief of Construction, Mehmed Ali Pasha was courtmartialled and replaced by Field Marshall Kazim Pasha, while Signor Labella was replaced by Meissner as Chief Engineer. These appointments set the scene for the long and successful working relationship between Kazim Pasha and Meissner, which would result in the completion of the Hejaz Railway as far as the Holy City of Medina in September 1908.

Field Marshall Kazim Pasha, Ottoman Chief of Construction for the Hejaz Railway

Kazim Pasha, in overall charge of the construction, developed a good working relationship with Meissner

Meissner's success was largely founded on his innate sense of tact and diplomacy. Together with his competence in the Turkish language, this enabled him to avoid the antagonisms prevalent between foreign contractors and the Ottoman authorities. The British military attaché in Constantinople, Lt. Col. F. Maunsell wrote: 'He has studied with the greatest care the Turkish character and always displays excellent tact in managing his superiors.' Nevertheless, he was in no way an easy touch, expecting those under his command to apply themselves as diligently to the work as he himself did. W. Richards, the British consul in Damascus reported: 'In addition to natural abilities of a high order and professional attainments which are evidently much above the average, he is an energetic and keen workman and while he does not spare himself, he is not at all disposed to allow anything like malingering in those who are under his orders.'

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 Meissner put in place a system of incentives, whereby the conscript labourers received a bonus of 1 piastre for digging out a cubic metre of earth and 3 piastres for the same quantity of rock

One of Meissner's most important achievements was to persuade the Central Commission in Constantinople to take on greater numbers of foreign workers and contractors, particularly for the most difficult areas of work. This enabled him to build up a skilled engineering team that was almost fifty percent European. The majority were Germans, but there were also several French and Belgians. At the same time Meissner was able to improve the morale of the labouring workforce by setting up a system of financial incentives for the military conscripts, which recognised both the arduous nature of the work and the harshness of the climate and conditions.

Earthworks during the construction project on the Hejaz Railway

Meissner Pasha expected those under his orders to apply themselves wholeheartedly to the work

Meissner's engineering expertise, together with his excellent relations with the Ottoman authorities, enabled him to obtain a large degree of autonomy in the area of construction. Although formally under Kazim Pasha, the Ottoman Director of Construction, he had almost complete control over matters of a technical or engineering nature. For his pivotal role in the construction effort, Meissner was awarded the rank of Mirmiran (literally 'Chief of Chiefs', a class of Pasha) by Sultan Abdulhamid II in 1904.

AlUla Old Town.jpg

Meissner Pasha, as a non-Muslim, was not allowed to travel or work south of AlUla. Without his direction, some of the basic building procedures were neglected

Al Kuye Bridge on the Deraa to Haifa branch of the Hejaz Railway in the Yarmuk Valley

On being shown a photo of Al Kuye Bridge on the Deraa - Haifa branch line, Sultan Abdulhamid II was so moved that he awarded Meissner with a gold medal.

In the final year of the construction project, the absence of Meissner, who as a European Christian was unable to work south of AlUla, resulted in basic procedures such as the fixing of rails and the laying of ballast sometimes being carried out in a rushed and careless way. The British explorer A.J. Wavell, who travelled to Medina shortly after the completion of the track, 'passed several wrecked engines that had run off the track owing to it not having been properly laid.'

In addition to the main line between Damascus and Medina, Meissner was instrumental in the building of the major branch line between Deraa and Haifa, which gave the Hejaz Railway an outlet on the Mediterranean Sea. Meissner surveyed the proposed route in late 1902. Work commenced from Haifa in April of the following year under Turkish control, but when the track reached the demanding terrain of the Yarmuk Valley, Meissner was put in charge, with an additional monthly wage of 1,000 francs. This difficult stretch entailed some highly skilled engineering work and the building of 15 major bridges. Many of these incorporated large metal segments, considered to be stronger and more economical than traditional masonry structures. The inauguration ceremony for the line was held in September 1905, with services operating from May of the following year.

After the decision on political grounds to shelve the extension of the track from Medina to Mecca, Meissner was engaged as an engineer on the Baghdad Railway. From the outset, this line had strong links to Germany, with much of the funding for the construction being provided by Deutsche Bank, and the Baghdad Railway Company relying heavily on the firm of Philipp Holzmann for supplies of equipment and building materials. Meissner's first post was in charge of the Aleppo section in northern Syria. In April 1911, he was transferred to the Baghdad sector. The line was only completed in 1940, several month after his death.

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Earthworks and bridge building on the Baghdad Railway, two areas of railway construction that Meissner had specialised in during his studies at the Technical College of Dresden 30 years earlier

At the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, Meissner returned to the region to help develop the Ottoman's strategic rail network in Palestine. Prior to the hostilities, a branch had been built southwards from Afule on the Hejaz Railway's Haifa-Deraa line to Jenin and Sabastiya. Between 1914 and 1915, Meissner worked on a southern extension of this line, reaching Lydda (Lod) and then Beersheba (Be'er Sheva), close to the British controlled Egyptian border, in 1915.

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Meissner Pasha on the Baghdad Railway

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Meissner Pasha (fourth from the left, at the front) was brought in during the First World War to extend the Turkish supply lines southwards into Palestine. This was the first train to reach Beersheba

Meissner Pasha, German Chief Engineer on the Hejaz Railway construction project

Meissner in later life

After the war, Meissner returned to Germany. He was invited back to the newly formed Republic of Turkey six years later, in 1924, by President Mustafa Kamal Atatürk. He was engaged as a Construction and Railway Maintenance Consultant and worked on the renovation and maintenance of lines that had been damaged during the War of Independence. From 1927 to 1933 Meissner was a member of the technical advisory board for the Anatolian Railway Company. He held a chair in Railway Construction at the Technical University of Istanbul until his death on 14 January 1940. He is buried in the Protestant cemetery at Feriköy in Istanbul.

Turkish President Mustafa Kemal Attaturk in 1922

Kamal Atatürk inspecting troops during the Turkish War of Independence. The new president invited Meissner back to Turkey in 1924 to work on the restoration of lines damaged in the conflict

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