Syria’s historic railways are a deeply valued part of its cultural heritage and warrant protection and preservation.
Dumar, Syria — With Daish (ISIS) advancing toward the gates of Syria’s ancient city of Palmyra (Tadmur)—an irreplaceable treasure for the Syrian people and for the world, where this observer has been honored to spend many inspiring awe-filled hours these past few years observing and contemplating its unique blend of Greco-Roman and Persian influences—another global archeological tragedy may be unfolding. Fears are raised today in Syria that this UNESCO World Heritage Site could face destruction of the kind the jihadis have already wreaked in Iraq and other areas of this country.
The Director-General of Antiquates and Museums (DGAM), Syrian patriot Dr. Maamoun Abdel-Karim, who has devoted life to preserving our global heritage in Syria, and whose office this observer had just left when the news broke, declared that “If ISIS enters Palmyra, it will be destroyed and it will be an international catastrophe.”
Against this horrific backdrop, discussing other aspects of Syria’s cultural heritage could appear to dear reader as relatively less significant at this moment. Yet, Syria’s historic Al Hijaz railway system, as is the case with much of this country’s cultural heritage, has also been damaged, looted and in some cases maliciously destroyed. Trains being considered by some jihadist Salafis and deranged miscreants as somehow religiously subversive. One barely teenage Da’ish (ISIS) tryout, deselected when he lied to recruiters about his real age which was 13, explained to this observer recently that in the for-sure-to-be-established Caliphate, camels, donkeys and horses, and other 7th century modes of transportation should be required via fatwa in order to render us all more religious and nearer to what he imagines Allah would really want us to be.
Virtually all Syrians scoff at this and related notions and countless numbers today are volunteering at archeological sites, wherever and whenever security conditions allow, preserving and protecting their and our, cultural heritage. This work includes many heritage projects around the Damascus area, including Syria’s historic train system which formerly was also a major national and international tourist attraction.
Admittedly, Syria’s rail system, old in terms of much of western history including North America is very recent in the context of this country’s ten millennia cultural history. Yet Syria’s trains have been an important cultural aspect in the history of the Levantine region from the eastern coast of the Mediterranean, to the sea north of the Arabian Peninsula and to the south of Turkey, and on down to Jordan and including still occupied Palestine.
Government workers and volunteers here are protecting and restoring the train system with the support and appreciation of this war-battered public.
An earlier railway for this area had been suggested in 1864 by the Ottomans in order “to relieve the suffering of the hajis on their 40-day journey to Mecca” through the wilderness of Midian, the Nafud, and the Hejaz Mountains. But not until 1900 was the railway started by order of the Ottoman Sultan Abdul Hamid II and was built largely by the Ottomans, with German advice and support, again, ostensibly to facilitate religious pilgrimages to Muslim holy places, including Mecca. But as is often the case, particularly these days, religion was used as a mask to facilitate political objectives and in fact the main reason for the train system, according to some scholars, was to strengthen Ottoman control over the most distant provinces of its empire. Before the construction, German military adviser in Istanbul Auler Pasha advised the Sultan that the transportation of soldiers from Istanbul to Mecca would be reduced to only 120 hours. Another advantage to be gained was that the line would protect Hejaz and other Arab provinces from British invasion.
German engineers oversaw construction and German trains were imported for the 820 miles of track that traversed 820 miles (1,320 km) of difficult terrain and was completed in only eight years. It ran from Damascus southward to Darʿā (Deraa) and thence over Transjordan via Az-Zarqāʾ, Al-Qaṭrānah, and Maʿān into northwestern Arabia, and inland via Dhāt al-Ḥajj and Al-ʿUlā to Medina. The major branch line, 100 miles (160 km) long, from Darʿā to Haifa on the Mediterranean coast of Palestine was added.
World War I devastated much of Syria’s railroad system, but even before the war started, trains were sometimes attacked by Bedouins from adjacent desert areas because they threatened the tribes control and profits over pilgrim routes to holy places. When the Arabs of the Hejaz revolted against Turkish rule in 1916, the track that ran to Medina was put out of operation by Arab raids, largely planned by the British archeologist and military strategist, Thomas Edward Lawrence. Lawrence was dispatched from London to Arabia to assure the Arabs that England had their best interests at heart and would deliver on their pledges which Lawrence communicated. After the war Messrs.’ Sykes and Picot arrived and the operative sections of track were taken over by the Syrian, Palestinian, and Transjordanian governments.
The very popular Rabweh to Dumar line of Syria’s railway system, which begins in central Damascus, is protected by the government and after nearly four years closure due to rebel threats has this month re-opened. The public is demonstrably elated. Most of whom, like this observer, seem to be steam engine train lovers as they explain that they are also filled with memories of childhood family train trips as well as inhaling breadths of joy and optimism over even a partial return to pre-conflict life these warm spring days. Today, nostalgia is widespread in Syria for days past.
Not long after this country convulsed in conflict, Syria’s railway system stopped functioning and rebels destroyed $250 million worth of new train cars, not yet even put into service that had recently arrived from China. Also destroyed were many vehicles and parts of buildings when rebels occupied the largest railway museum in the world, at Qadam, a Damascus suburb. Serious damage was done to the “museum of the rolling stock of Al-Hidjaz Railway” with fires destroying antique steam engines, wrecked and burned out train cars, buses, heavy equipment and assorted vehicles. Damage also resulted from shelling of the outer walls and ceiling of a large maintenance and storage facility at Qadam. The jihadists also looted computers and large LCD TV’s but in some cases passed on many irreplaceable objects—such as old Morse code machines, historic documents and other heritage items apparently not appreciating their historic significance or cultural value which they were bent on destroying.
In February 2014, the central Damascus Hejaz railway station was bombed by a rebel mortar killing 12 people while shrapnel damaged the exterior of the station but missed its large historic red, yellow, blue and green stain glass window and Ottoman period ceilings. The elegant building, which was designed by the Spanish architect Fernando de Aranda, currently houses a museum and is a popular meeting place for the public. Other damage to Syria’s heritage railway includes the derailment, in 2012, of a passenger train to Aleppo, which Mr. Younes Al-Nassar reported insurgents perpetrated with a kitchen pot stuffed with explosives, killing the engineer and his assistant. The 500 passengers miraculously escaping serious injury.
Mr. Al-Nassar, a Transportation Department employee who works as the Director of National and International Affairs for the governments Al Hijaz Railway spent an afternoon last week giving this observer a detailed history and current affairs overview. He insisted that “The Syrian Hejaz railway is part of the Arab memory and its heritage and it should stay alive.” Explaining that railways are the most sociable form of travel, he recalled his own train trips to Turkey on to Romania, Bulgaria and Iran. It has long been said that the people of Syria are deeply connected historically and culturally to their train system which until the crisis began in March of 2011, scores of thousands of Syrians and international tourists enjoyed. Countless families would use train travel en route to family picnics often starting from Damascus beneath the Quasioun Mountains toward Lebanon along the Barada River which flows easterly from Ein Al-Feijeh.
Mr. Al Nasser described how his grandfather used to ride to work in Palestine on trains that linked Damascus to Haifa and other villages now cut off by the Zionist regime. An official with the Al Hijaz railway system, the gentleman kindly made arrangements for this observer to travel from Rabweh near central Damascus to Dumar on the historic line. One purpose of the trip was that the engineer, Atef and his crew were inspecting the rails and stations en route in preparation for crews to make repairs for hopefully soon arriving tourists coming this way, but more immediately, for students and their families traveling to rest areas and parks in a couple of weeks after exams are finished and summer holidays begin.
The train’s Engineer, Atef, could not have been a more gracious host. He invited this observer to ride with him in the nearly hundred year old German coal fueled engine-now running on diesel—as we chugged and train whistled our way west. Brushing the side of our three passenger-car train, manufactured in Bremen, were maple, olive, sycamore, pine and large mulberry trees, the latter with branches bent over heavily loaded with still green mulberries. And to my pleasant surprise, within few yards of our passing train along some of the route, were many Akedenia trees with their delicious sweet yellow fruit, maybe my favorite spring fruit in the region.
As we started to pull out of the central Damascus station, with the blasts of whistles and warning horns, engineer Atef shouted at me, “Do you know how to operate a train’? I replied “Not really, but for many years I operated my Lionel American Flyer model train in the USA.” Well, with all the noise and challenged English-Arabic language interpretation, Atef obviously misunderstood my weak joke and shouted back, “Kweiss! (Good!) Then the engineer pointed to the large control lever on the left of the engine compartment and gestured at three variously sized whistle buttons with different functions. Atef lite a cigarette and sat down on a chair next to me and sipped a cup of tea while encouraging me to reach over to the right and operate the whistles whenever I saw someone walking along the tracks or as we approached stations. Actually if was terrific fun operating the whistles and pretty easy to operate the power/speed lever, but I was never quite sure which horn or whistle was to be sounded for what purpose. But they sounded great. Only after we arrived in Dumar did my son Alistair come to me from one of the passenger cars and informed me that one lady complained that the engineer must have gone crazy because he was blowing the horn and whistles much more than normal or necessary!
The memory this observer will retain of Syria’s train system is the excitement and the friendly waves and smiles of citizens all along the railway line and the sheer joy expressed by citizens that their train system is back, even if to date limited to secured areas. And that her historic railways are deeply valued as part of Syria’s cultural heritage and warrants protection and preservation.