A Streetcar Named Desire: The old Jaffa-Jerusalem Railway Station

The story of the old Jaffa railway station just reminded me of Tennessee Williams´ play, so that I could not resist using its title for this post. In the play there is the notion of the downturn of the once glorious but disintegrating and fading South and the ascendancy of the Northern industrialist states in the US, driven by European immigrants. And there is this detail of a station called desire as the very last of a city’s tramway line, indicating and end, what might lie beyond, what will never be reached, or all of this.

a streetcar named desire

© borderlandlevant

jaffa station

© borderlandlevant

A stroll in the south of Tel Aviv, or the border zone between Tel Aviv and Jaffa, took me to the area of the old railway station, once serving the line from Jaffa to Jerusalem. I have heard about the station and noticed it is highly recommended, especially by the city-marketing for tourists. Because of this, I was not so keen on seeing it right away. It is also rather hard to find, because it is fenced off from two sides, behind a massive bunch of roads, and therefore somewhat hidden in an urban no-man’s-land. But there is an interesting story attached to this place.

position old railway station

Source: google earth; assembled: borderlandlevant

old railway station

Source: google earth; assembled: borderlandlevant

The railway line and station feature an interesting, even though short, history. Whereas there were considerations to build this railway connection as early as in the 1850s, the line started its operation only in 1890 and was officially opened in 1892, as a New York Times article describes. Connecting the port city and the ‘holy city’ in the hinterland, the line ran from the northern fringes of Jaffa through Lod/Ramla and Beit Shemesh to Jerusalem. The plan was to mainly transport goods to and from Jerusalem and also to offer transportation to visitors of the holy sites in and around Jerusalem.

The line faced severe problems in the construction phase as well as financial difficulties and technical problems during its first years. The estimated travel time of three hours was never reached. Trains from Jaffa took three and a half to six hours and longer, with derailments and long waiting times the rule rather than the exeption. Passenger numbers were often too low to pay for the running costs.

Until the beginning of World War I, the line grew considerably though, and more locomotives were bought to serve the demand. Being strategically important, the line was used for military activities during the war. After the war and under the control of Great Britain, the Jaffa-Jerusalem railroad was part of the wider Palestine network, connected with Haifa to the north and Egypt to the south. As a colleague from MIT who was born and raised in Jerusalem once told me, before 1948 it was possible and normal for him to go to Cairo to university by train on a weekly basis. Likewise, he and his family would go to Beirut over the weekend for example. With the war in 1948 service broke down, and rail traffic was redirected to Tel Aviv, leaving the Jaffa station abandoned.

old railway - main building

© borderlandlevant

old railway - only arab structure

© borderlandlevant – One of the rare remnants of Menshiyeh and “Arab” structures

wedding at old railway station

© borderlandlevant – One of a dozen of newlywed couples posing at the station

For many years, the station that lies right next to the IDF (Israeli Defense Forces) Museum, which exhibits heavy weaponry, was neglected. Being also located in the zone between Tel Aviv and Jaffa, and part of the destroyed Arab quarter of Menshiyeh, there were for a long time no intentions of re-embedding it into the urban fabric. In 2004, however, the municipality started to restore the area. The political attitude towards the station resembles the treatment of Jaffa as a tourist attraction, whose Arab history is supplanted and replaced by other apparently important historic facts such as Napoleons conquest or ancient Egyptian traces. Also inviting the usual suspects, the restoration led to an extensive commercialisation of the area, called HaTachana, `The Station´. Consisting of over 20 buildings, the site is now a high price shopping-, restaurant- and bar-spot and obviously a popular stage for wedding pictures (see above). For actual information about the history of the railway line and the station, there is only one small, sparsely and sloppily decorated and furnished room. At the end of the remnants of the tracks there is a garage and far behind it, across a desert of dust and heavy traffic lies the old city of Jaffa. The once bustling trade city is now taken over by tourism and hipsters. Once a thriving hub of goods, people and cultures for the Levant, it´s legacy is cut off, even form the last stop called desire.

old railway - view to jaffa

© borderlandlevant – The silhouette of Old Jaffa in the background

All rights reserved: Sigi Atteneder, 2013


One response to “A Streetcar Named Desire: The old Jaffa-Jerusalem Railway Station

  1. Pingback: Connecting Spaces – The Hedjaz Railway and its decay | borderlandlevant·

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