After more than 90 years, an important part of the historic Hejaz Railway has opened as a museum. Visitors can come during two shifts — morning and afternoon — to learn about the rail system that was immortalized in the Hollywood classic “Lawrence of Arabia”.
The museum, located near the holy mosque in Madinah, will initially be open for four months with a SR5 admission fee. Families will be happy to see the children’s playground adjoining the museum.
Mohammed Al-Shareef, a member of the Madinah Chamber of Commerce and Industry and a member of the Haj and Umrah Committee at the Chamber, said that tourism officials have decided to use the remnants of the rail line as one of its regional focal points for tourism development. He said that millions of riyals had been spent in developing and restoring the site.
The railway was considered one of the greatest achievements of the Ottoman ruler Abdul Hammed II. The line connected Damascus to Madinah, and it reduced travel time between the two cities from 45 perilous days ridden with bandits to only five. Construction began in 1900 with the assistance of German engineers. The first train arrived in Madinah on Aug. 23, 1908.
The railway originally to continue on to Makkah, with the aim of not only helping pilgrims make their routes to the holy sites safer and faster, but also to help solidify the Ottoman grip on the region by strengthening trade ties between Damascus and the Hejaz Region. The train would occasionally face robberies and attacks from Arab tribes, but it nonetheless made the route considerably safer for pilgrims and traders.
A line that was originally intended for peaceful transit of pilgrims and trade fell victim to one of the world’s worst conflicts. Trains ran on the line for nine relatively peaceful years before the Ottomans sided with the Germans in WWI. This spurred the Arab Revolt against Turkish occupation of the western region of what is today Saudi Arabia. The British united with Arab guerrillas to disable the rail line because was being used to provide material support to the Central Powers.
But before war brought an end to the ambitious project, Muslims around the world were enthusiastic about building what came to be known as the Hejaz Railway. Muslims donated more than one third of the railway’s total cost and people wept with joy when the first train arrived in Madinah. They prayed for the ruler who built the rail system. While critics said that Hameed had built the line to solidify Ottoman occupation of the Hejaz region, pilgrims considered the line a Godsend.
In those days, it was no easy task to perform Haj. From Iraq, the pilgrim’s road was 1,300 kilometers long and it took a month to make the journey. From Egypt and also from Syria, the distance was some 1,500 kilometers and normally took about 40 days. Muslims outside the Middle East took anywhere from a month to six months to make the journey. (Some Muslims in those days would be gone for years from their hometowns performing Haj.) Because of problems related to safety, water and the dangers of the journey quite apart from the time needed, many Muslims were reluctant to perform Haj.
Abdul Hameed in fact had two aims when he built the Hejaz Railway. He wanted to have a means of traveling safely and quickly to Islam’s Holy Places and secondly, to unite the Muslim world against European ambitions and threats in the Islamic world. (Unfortunately, the Ottomans ended up taking sides in one of Europe’s worst tragedies.) The project, which cost millions, was not easy to pay for since the Ottoman Empire itself was in dire financial straits. Abdul Hameed, however, called for donations from Muslims all over the world and he led the way by donating from his own purse.
There was no scarcity of problems and difficulties with the route and the building of the line. The first was water. That was solved by digging wells and by bringing water in tanks on the finished sections of the railway. The Ottoman Army provided labor for the railway. Another, perhaps unforeseen, difficulty was flooding. To counter the threat, engineers built drainage systems along the railway line. Another problem was the moving sands that threatened the stability of the line. The solution was to cover the sand with clay and to build small barriers of rocks along some portions of the line.
Today, two portions of the line still operate, both in Syria, and there have been talks of rebuilding the Saudi portion of the line.
In September, The Supreme Commissions of Tourism sternly condemned Madinah city officials for demolishing part of the rail line, and has stepped up efforts to restores the remnants of the line as part of a greater effort to develop tourism. A rail line that was once hailed as an achievement of Muslim can-do unity, that later fell victim to the ravages of war and was neglected for decades, may once again rise up as a symbol of historic pride.