Connecting spaces – The Hedjaz Railway and its decay

A recent trip to Wadi Rum reminded me of the famous Hedjaz Railway. Opened in the early years of the 20th century, it was meant to better connect the centre of the ruling Ottoman Empire to the holy cities of Medina and Mecca on the Arab peninsula. While one official goal was to ease the hajj, the obligatory pilgrimage of Muslims, there was also the political interest to secure the Ottoman´s influence in the region by such a connection. On a wider geopolitical level and within World War I, the Ottoman Empire sided with Germany, forming an alliance to oppose increasing British and, to a lesser degree, French influence in the region. Whereas the area´s importance in terms of oil production was only dawning, the British interest was also in securing and controlling a safe passage to their colony India. Watch a short summary of this time here.

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Hedjaz Railway sign in Amman; Source: Author

The history of the Hedjaz Railway is tightly interconnected with the story of T. E. Lawrence, or “Lawrence of Arabia”. The identically named film, starring brilliant Peter O´Toole, made Lawrence a famous figure throughout the world. Lawrence, an archaeologist and British Officer in real life, was a key figure in the Arab uprising against the Ottomans. Due to his knowledge of the region and the language, he played a central role and led Arab guerrillas in their fight for independence from the Ottoman Empire. Lawrence persuaded the Arabs to unite forces and convinced them to fight the Ottomans by attacking small outposts and the Hedjaz Railway instead of their stronghold in Medina. During this time, Lawrence and his fellow Arab fighters found shelter in Wadi Rum. Finally, Lawrence´s strategy proved to be a success. Late in 1918 Damascus fell and the fate of the Ottoman Empire and the central powers in Europe had been sealed. The promise Lawrence made to the Arabs – and believed in himself – was to have a united, independent Arab state after the war. This was corrupted by contrary, secret negotiations that lead to the Sykes-Picot agreement between France and Britain. Likewise contradictory was the letter British Foreign Secretary Arthur James Balfour wrote to Lord Rothschild, then leader of the British Jewish community; the famous Balfour declaration. In this declaration the British government granted the “Jewish people” a “national home” in Palestine. The Arabs have been played by European powers and Lawrence played a role it it, he was not aware of, and later regretted bitterly.

As for the present, parts of south-Jordanian sections of the Hedjaz Railway have been revitalised and are now used as means of transportation for the Jordan´s Phosphate industry. The section between Amman and Damascus used to be run mainly for a touristic purpose. With the outbreak of the crisis in Syria, traffic there came to a standstill. However, there are still functional sections to be spotted both within Amman and in the south of Jordan. The station in the capital bears witness of Ottoman architecture. Due to its fascinating history but also as a fan of trains as means of transportation, looking at the buildings, facilities and the rails have been exciting moments. See also my previous post on the Jerusalem-Jaffa railway.

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Four pictures: Hedjaz rails crossing main traffic artery in Hay Umm Al-Hiran, south Amman – Source: Author

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Fife pictures: Hedjaz Railway Station Amman – Source: Author

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Seven pictures: Wadi Rum Station and waggons – Source: Author

Looking at the rails and the buildings not only evoke emotions about the past but also inspire thoughts about a diverse but inclusive Levantine region in the future. Trying to think about the region´s potential as a thriving, interconnected space, functioning railway connections would be a vital component. To illustrate the feasibility and dimensions of such a project, I superimposed a map of France in the same scale on the Levant. As can be seen, a train connection similar to the TGV that runs across France would connect Turkey with Egypt in about 4 1/2 hours! While major cities like Aleppo, Damascus, Amman and the Aqaba/Eilat northern tip of the Red Sea would be on the route, branches to Beirut, Haifa, Jerusalem/Tel Aviv-Jaffa, or Gaza would form a strong Levantine spine and an economic backbone. Further links to Turkey and consequently to Europe, to Saudi Arabia and the Gulf (along the tracks of the old Hedjaz Railway), to Iraq (old Baghdad Railway), and via Egypt to the Maghreb would connect the Levant to rest of the world, potentially reviving its role as an economically successful region and as an important hub. Connecting the major Levantine cities and therefore the political, economic and cultural centres would enable unprecedented development in this dense region.

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France superimposed on Levant in same scale. TGV fast train connection from Lille to Marseille (4:30 hrs). © Sigi Atteneder

I would like to thank Ahmad Humeid for a fascinating tour around Amman!

© Sigi Atteneder, 2014

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One response to “Connecting spaces – The Hedjaz Railway and its decay

  1. The superimposed image is a brilliant idea, and food for thought, considering the current folly of High Speed 2 in England (which is said to cost anything between £30bn and £75bn for a total length of track of 540km).
    I can imagine the benefits of such a project in the E.M. (and I don’t mean the East Midlands here!) would be enormous — for business and industry, for the population, and not least for greater stability and sustained peace in the region.
    If the declaration of a globalised — and de-centralised — world were taken less one-sidedly, we could arrive at something more substantial than the leading powers all the time *taking* from the developing world for western gain (and then using these gains to finance crackpot schemes such as HS2). Instead, they would pour investment into, and *giving* something back to, an entire multi-faceted, multi-cultural and ‘global borderless’ region that’s been frail with conflict, a lot of which caused by western and imperialist elites in the first place.
    Railways are places of encounter, of exchange and inter-connectedness. They are of benefit to everybody (not least the environment), more than yet another airport in the middle of the desert can ever hope to be. We need more of them where they really have the ability to change lives — everbody’s lives — for the better.

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