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A unique aspect of the Hejaz Railway was the way in which it was financed. In 1900, Sultan Abdulhamid II called upon the Islamic community to fund the construction project with donations. The Sultan's appeal quickly became a vast international campaign, stretching far beyond the dominions of the Ottoman Empire. By contributing to the fund, believers from all over the world were able to feel that they were playing a personal part in the construction of a railway that would assist pilgrims to make the long and arduous journey from Damascus to Mecca.

In addition, by donating to the fund, citizens of various nations, many of them outside the Ottoman Empire, were tacitly acknowledging the Sultan's position as Caliph, the leader of the Muslims, something that played well with Abdulhamid's wider aim of creating a pan-Islamic movement to strengthen his hold on his Arab lands and gain prestige with the European powers.

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Beirut at the end of the 19th century. The Vali contributed 100 Turkish lira to the railway fund

Throughout the empire, committees were set up to publicise the campaign and encourage private companies and individuals to contribute. Those holding contracts with the government often felt an obligation to make a sizeable donation. However, while some were motivated by the hope of gaining official approval, others were genuinely inspired by the religious nature of the enterprise.

Outside the empire’s territories the fund had to rely on voluntary donations, with the most fertile area for contributions being India. Under British rule, its territories at the time included the regions covered by the modern states of Pakistan and Bangladesh. Abd al Haq, an imam in Bombay, made an impassioned appeal to the faithful, exhorting them to give freely, for 'to present gifts for the realisation of the Hejaz Railway is to demonstrate the love of God and his Prophet.' Indians donated five million rupees to the fund, with the Muslims of the Princely State of Hyderabad agreeing to pay an income tax of 6.25%.

Telegraph monument at Marjeh Martyr's Square in Damascus

A monument was erected in Marjeh Square in Damascus to celebrate the building of the telegraph line to Medina

Medals and certificates were issued both to provide contributors with official recognition of their donations and to encourage others to participate. Three classes of medal were produced by the Imperial Ottoman Mint, in gold, silver and cupro-nickel, with the different categories being awarded according to the size of the payment.

The medals were distributed in three separate issues to celebrate the accomplishment of different stages of the construction project. The first was brought out in 1900 at the outset of the works, when the drive for donations was at its peak. In 1904, a second set of medals was issued to coincide with the completion of the line as far as Ma’an. The final issue was produced in 1908 when the railway reached the holy city of Medina.

Ottoman Sultan Abdulhamid II

Sultan Abdulhamid II called on the Muslims of the world to donate to the Hejaz Railway fund

The Sultan himself set the ball rolling, with a pledge worth 45,000 pounds sterling from his own personal fortune. Ottoman ministers and public servants followed his lead, donating sums befitting their rank in the ruling hierarchy. The appeal was also heard far beyond Constantinople, with public officials in Ottoman provinces and towns all across the empire's territories responding with contributions consistent with their status. The Vali of Beirut as the government’s highest representative in the Vilayet of Lebanon donated 100 Turkish lira, while the deputy governor and the treasurer gave 25 lira each.

Medal  for the Ottoman Hejaz Railway

Medals were awarded to contributors to the Hejaz Railway construction fund

Egypt was also a highly productive area for donations. The campaign received the support of the Khedive Abbas II, and was well-publicised in the local media, with Egyptians being encouraged to contribute to a project as significant as the Suez Canal. Nationalist newspapers set up their own extremely successful collection campaigns and for many Egyptians, giving was a symbol of resistance against the British occupation. While not oficially forbidden by the British authorities in Egypt, the donations campaign was discouraged. In particular, government employees were prohibited from being members of the committees set up to organise and collect the contributions.

Donations were also received from a large number of other countries outside the Ottoman Empire, including Singapore, Ceylon, Burma, Persia, Bukhara, Russia, China, Holland, South Africa, America and North Africa. The ruler of Kuwait, Sheikh Mubarak al Sabah, contributed 500 Turkish lira. Six large volumes in the Prime Minister’s Archive in Istanbul bear witness to the resounding success of the campaign, with more than 20,000 names recorded as having subscribed to the great railway project.

Gold medal awarded  for donations to the Hejaz Railway

The Hejaz Railway gold medal was awarded to the largest donors to the fund

The medals displayed a locomotive within a laurel wreath. Above the locomotive was the tughra (monogram) of Sultan Abdulhamid II. On the reverse side, a Turkish inscription in Arabic script described the award as ‘The Hamidiah Hijaz Railway for Enthusiastic Service’. The medals were generally presented with a red or green ribbon and accompanied by an official firman. Firmans without medals could also be awarded for smaller contributions, which gave even the poorest of donors formal recognition of their piety.

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The British ambassador in Turkey reporting that medals were to be awarded to Indian contributors

While effective in forging the religious character of the railway, the donations themselves could not meet the huge expenditure of the construction. Although a third of the costs were met by contributions, the Ottoman government still had to make up the shortfall by generating alternative sources of revenue. Many new duties were imposed on the population. A poll tax of 5 piastres had to be paid by all households. Half of the proceeds from duties on the sale of wood and charcoal were assigned to the railway fund. A number of other administrative charges were also introduced, with stamps of different values being required for a whole range of official documents and petitions.

The widespread perception of the railway as a great philanthropic work, aimed at assisting the faithful to perform the holy pilgrimage to Mecca, went a long way to boosting the appeal of the donations campaign.

This religious aspect of the venture was reflected in an almost complete absence of corruption in its financial affairs. At a time when the abuse of official position was commonplace throughout the Ottoman Empire, it was a greatly unifying feature of the fund that there were almost no reports of misappropriation in its administration. The British military attaché in Constantinople, Lt. Col. Maunsell, was particularly struck by this feature of the work. 'A curious point in connection with this railway construction is the absence of any peculation among the higher officials of the Commission; all the money collected or subscribed appears to be devoted to its proper purpose, and the members apparently look on the construction as an important religious duty.'

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Extract of a letter from the British consul in Damascus listing sources of revenue collected for the Hejaz Railway

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