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Volume 16, Number 5September/October 1965

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Pilgrim's Road

Over mountains, through valleys, across the rock-strewn plains run the tracks of one of the world’s most famous railways…

Written by Daniel Da Cruz
Photographed by Burnett H. Moody

It was near ten o'clock when we heard the signal gun fired, and then, without any disorder, litters were suddenly heaved and braced upon the bearing beasts, and the thousands of riders mounted in silence. The length of the slow-footed multitude was near two miles, and the width some hundred yards in the open plains. We marched in an empty waste, a plain of gravel, where nothing appeared and never a road before us."

So wrote the 19th-century explorer of Arabia, Charles M. Doughty, as he set out from Damascus with a caravan of 6,000 pilgrims and 10,000 camels and pack animals. Destination: the Holy Cities of Medina and Mecca. Expected time of arrival: some 40 to 50 days thence—more if desert wells were dry or the caravan attacked by Bedouin marauders. Making the hajj, or pilgrimage, in those days demanded more than religious zeal; it required courage, endurance and money, and the bleaching bones of those who lacked these prerequisites marked the way south with disturbing frequency.

Small wonder, therefore, that the news of a great railway project, to link Damascus with Medina and Mecca, was received with joy and thanksgiving by the Muslim world when proclaimed in 1900 by Abdul Hamid, Caliph of Islam and Sultan of the Ottoman Empire, on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of his accession to the sultanate. The Sultan, as it happened, hoped that his announcement might bring belated luster to a reign characterized by a stern despotism, and yet neither the idea of a railroad, nor its execution depended in the least upon Abdul Hamid. The idea was spawned in the mind of a German-American, Dr. O. Zimple, as early as 1864, when the fever of railroad building in the United States was at its height, and no project anywhere seemed impossible; and it was pushed to completion by a Syrian Arab named Izzet Pasha al-'Abed.

Izzet Pasha al-'Abed was a remarkable man. Second secretary to Abdul Hamid, he was named president of the Hijaz Railroad Commission and charged with not only building the railroad but paying for it. In an empire whose chronic deficits had won it the name, "The Sick Man of Europe," this was not to be easy. But Izzet Pasha al-'Abed was equal to the task. Unlike projected railroads in even the healthiest of nations, the Hijaz Railway financed the entire operation without a single foreign loan or the floating of a single bond issue.

Izzet Pasha engineered this remarkable feat with a combination of applied psychology and arm-twisting that compels admiration even today, when fund raising is almost a science. His initial move was to pursuade Sultan Abdul Hamid to donate first $250,000. For the sake of their amour propre, the Khedive of Egypt and the Shah of Iran felt impelled to do the same. With the example of their rulers before them, the peoples of all Muslim nations, rich and poor alike, soon fell into line, contributing what they could. This, of course, was not nearly enough. So, with the zest for extracting revenues for which they were celebrated, the Turks collected an impost of five gold piasters on every new house built in the Ottoman Empire, required every member of the Turkish civil service and armed forces to "contribute" 10 per cent of one month's salary (yielding one million dollars), instituted a head tax of five gold piasters on every male citizen in the Empire, and issued special Hijaz Railway stamps. The sale of titles swelled the ranks of the "beys" and "pashas," and brought in capital quite out of proportion to the rather tattered glory of belonging to the Turkish nobility.

By the time the railway was completed and in operation, the Turkish Government had collected not only enough to pay the construction costs but to provide a surplus equal to $1.75 million. Thus the Hijaz Railway became probably the first in history to be paid for before selling its first ticket, the first to start life with a cash surplus, and undoubtedly the first to be operated by a waqf—a self-perpetuating, nonprofit religious endowment for the administration of property according to Muslim law..

Work on the Hijaz Railway began in May, 1900, with a route survey by the Turkish engineer Hadschtar Muchtar Bey, in what today would seem an incredibly offhand manner: he simply tagged along behind a Medina-bound pilgrim caravan, taking his sightings and jotting down his observations as he jogged along on camelback. Considering the route that the railroad was to cross, this approach seems today almost unbelievable. It began in Damascus, headed due south over the bare rolling plains of Hauran, passed Der'a and what is now Amman, climbed the mountains east and south of the Dead Sea, and dropped down to the fastness of Hijaz bordering the Red Sea. It included the eerie landscape south of Ma'an that one observer likened to that of the moon. The valleys, that observer said, are "chasms and gorges... full of twists and turns, 1,000 to 4,000 feet deep, barren of cover and flanked on each side by pitiless granite, basalt and porphyry... piled up in jagged heaps of fragments..." At other places the country is "blue-black and volcanic," the observer wrote, adding that eventually it changed into a "valley of soft-black sand, with more crags of weathered sandstone rising from the blackness."

Despite that, the imperturable engineer explored no alternative routes, believing—with good reason as it turned out—that over the centuries the caravans were sure to have found the easiest and best routes. Furthermore, a sure water supply, so necessary to camel caravans and railway operations alike, was assured from ancient wells which marked the route at intervals.

The following year the German engineer Messner was given the honorary title of "pasha" and put in charge of an international team of engineers: 17 Turks, 12 Germans, 5 Italians, 5 Frenchmen, 2 Austrians, 1 Belgian and 1 Greek. Since labor along the line was nonexistent—there were Bedouins, of course, but those sons of the desert scorned manual labor as not befitting free men—the Turkish Army supplied the deficiency with a draft of 5,630 enlisted troops, mostly from Syrian and Iraqi regiments.

Lacking lateral access to the projected line, for there were then, as now, few roads in the area able to bear heavy loads, the construction crews were obliged to carry all food, fuel and building materials with them as they went, instead of stockpiling them along the route where needed. Despite these cumbersome logistics, the line snaked steadily southward. It crossed the plain of Hauran, lurched down the precipitous gorge of the Yarmouk River into the Jordan depression, ricocheted through the valleys until once more gaining the highlands near Ma'an. From an altitude of 3,540 feet at Ma'an, the line dipped down and up again to 3,780 feet at al-Mutalla' in present-day Saudi Arabia, tobogganed to 1,290 feet at Hadiyyah, and, finally leveled out at Medina at an altitude of 2,050 feet.

Although only at rare intervals did the railway cross running water, it intersected innumerable dry river beds which at unpredictable intervals of one, two, or sometimes even five years, became raging torrents from sudden cloudbursts somewhere along their course. It was therefore imperative to build bridges across their dusty beds, or risk washouts of long sections of track when the rains came. In all, some 2,000 bridges and culverts were constructed, without exception from native stone found nearby instead of concrete, which would have had to be imported at great cost. The tedious labor involved in chipping irregular stone into smooth square or rectangular blocks was performed by poorly paid conscript troops, but so well were the flat-topped or arched culverts and bridges built that today, 60 years later, 1,500 of them survive only marginally impaired.

Like the bridges, the other aspects of the railroad's civil engineering were solid and built to last. Rails of 21.5 kilograms-per-meter (14.33 pounds-per-foot) section were secured to steel ties weighing 88 pounds each, chosen for durability and low-maintenance qualities. Beneath them the roadbed of crushed-rock ballast, 12 inches deep, rested on a rather narrow embankment of local gravels. The 42-inch gauge, unique among the world's railroads, was undoubtedly selected as a military precaution, for the line would be completely useless to an enemy whose rolling stock were of a different gauge. An additional military measure was the construction of many more "station" structures than were actually needed, for many of them were erected in the middle of the desert, hundreds of miles from the nearest human habitation. Forty-eight in all, the interval between stations averaged 11 miles, just about right for armed patrols stationed at each to maintain the security of the line between. Built of stone and suggestive of frontier blockhouses, the stations had rifle-slots instead of windows. Emphasizing the fortress aspect were the water wells that surfaced in an inner courtyard out of reach of possible attackers and an ingenious arrangement by which defenders could pour a murderous fire into the courtyard should the outer defenses be breached.

The terrain through which the Hijaz Railway was built is uncommonly hostile to man, but the weather can be even more taxing. Describing the rigors of the summer season, a European observer related how on one trip in Hijaz "the hot breathlessness changed suddenly to bitter cold and damp, sun blotted out by thick rags of yellow air over our heads. Brown walls of cloud rushed changelessly upon us with a loud grinding sound. It struck, wrapping about us a blanket of dust and stinging grains of sand, twisting and turning in violent eddies, Camels were sometimes blown completely around. Small trees were torn up and flung at us. The storm lasted eighteen minutes, then down burst thick rain in torrents, muddying us to the skin, and we had to run to high ground to avoid flash floods."

Neither the lunar landscape, however, nor the climate stopped the work construction for long. On September 1, 1901, the Damascus-Der'a section was inaugurated. A year later to the day the Der'a-Zarqua section was opened, followed by the extension of the line to Amman in 1903, Ma'an in 1904, Tabuk in 1906, Mada'in Salih in 1907, and Medina in 1908. Between 1900 and 1908, the year the Hijaz Railway went into active operation, the Turks had put down 808 miles of rail, a very respectable engineering feat considering the imposing handicaps and the quality of the completed line, which an American railway engineer recently described as "technically, a first-rate job."

Although the Hijaz Railway had originally been planned to extend all the way to Mecca, Medina was destined to be its southern terminus. Increasing resistance from peninsular tribes, who keenly felt the loss of revenues as railway carriage replaced camel caravan in transporting pilgrims, made it impolitic for the feeble Ottoman government to insist on pushing the line farther. Nor did the Hijaz Railway have its former champion to press its case, for Minister of the Waqf Izzet Pasha al-'Abed had, like his master Sultan Abdul Hamid, been deposed the very year the railway was completed by a revolt of the "Young Turks."

The romance and novelty of the Hijaz Railway largely evaporated with its completion although it retained one noteworthy distinction: reflecting its Muslim mission and ownership, the railroad's management did not allow non-Muslims to approach Medina closer than Ma'an without special permission (just as on the 212½-mile stretch between Mada'in Salih and Medina only Muslim engineers and workers were employed). Otherwise it became just another railroad, prosaically transporting the paying public between Damascus and Medina in an elapsed time averaging three days. The Hijaz Railway settled down to grow old gracefully.

It was not to be. Within less time than it took to build it, winds of war blew hot upon the Hijaz Railway. Turkey entered the Great War on the side of the Central Powers, and its occupation of the Middle East threatened the narrow bottleneck of the Suez Canal, through which passed the vital lifeline between Great Britain and its maritime bases in India, Singapore and Hong Kong. No longer was the Hijaz Railway a beneficent pathway for devout Muslims making the hajj, but a military highway down which Turkey could send its armed might, strengthening its grip on the Arabian Peninsula and, by its mere existence, pose a constant threat to British power in Egypt.

Winston Churchill summed up the British position in typically apocalyptic terms:

"The Turkish armies operating against Egypt depended upon the desert railway. This slender steel track ran through hundreds of miles of blistering desert. If it were permanently cut the Turkish armies must perish: the ruin of Turkey must follow... Here was the Achilles' heel, and it was upon this that this man in his twenties directed his audacious, desperate, romantic assaults..."

"This man" was, of course, T.E. Lawrence who was to become famous in the West as "Lawrence of Arabia."

Colonel Lawrence also saw the military value of the railroad but developed a different theory about how to combat it. "Our ideal," he wrote, "was to keep his (the Turk's) railroad just working, but only just, with the maximum loss and discomfort."

In practice, the strategy the Allies adopted was based on the strengths of the Arab warriors. The Bedouin was unused to formal operations, in which organization and a preponderance of firepower were usually the deciding factors. But his assets of mobility, toughness, self-assurance, knowledge of the country, intelligent courage and love of surprise attack were ideal for hit-and-run operations which would cut the line, harass patrols and keep the Turks making repairs, answering false alarms and chasing phantoms. In a typical operation, the Arabs with one or two British demolition experts would suddenly materialize out of the desert, swoop down on the line and disperse or annihilate the Turkish patrol guarding that section of the railway. In the hour or so before Turkish troops could arrive in force, sappers would first conceal trigger-action mines up and down the right-of-way to take care of reinforcements arriving by train, then go to work on the vital bridges or overpasses. Filling drainage holes in the spandrels with three to five pounds of explosive gelatine each, fired by short fuses, they could bring down a whole line of arches, shatter the supporting piers and strip the side walls, all in six minutes of frantic work.

At the first sign of Turkish troops, the Arabs would mount their camels and melt into the desert, as silently as they had come.

The tribesmen went at their work with extraordinary zest. In the first four months after the Allied capture of Aqaba they destroyed 17 Turkish locomotives and many miles of track. Within a year, traveling on the Hijaz Railway had become an uncertain adventure. At Damascus passengers scrambled for back seats on trains. Engineers struck. Civilian traffic languished, and, as the war approached its close, ceased altogether.

In 1918, as the British and Arab forces swept almost unimpeded toward Damascus in the last great offensive of the war in the Middle East, the roles of the two sides were reversed. The Allies, who by then held the Hijaz Railway from Der'a to Medina, feverishly repaired what they had spent two years in destroying, so that they could use it to bring troops, ammunition and food to the front from the South. The Turks, having bled themselves white trying to keep the line running, now devoted their best efforts to destroying it. They were as frustrated in the second undertaking, however, as they had been in the first. Within weeks the Allies rolled triumphantly into Damascus.

The Allied strategy of disrupting, rather than destroying, the Hijaz Railway had been rigorously applied; the revolt in the desert accounted for the total destruction of perhaps no more than a few miles of roadbed. According to his own account, Lawrence, a man not given to self-effacement, confessed to the demolition of only some 80 bridges, out of a total of 2,000. Why, then, with the major portion of the Damascus-Medina railway still serviceable—from Damascus to Ma'an, in fact, regular service has been almost uninterrupted up to the present day—was not the line repaired and put into full operation immediately after World War I?

The answer must be sought in the political crosscurrents that buffeted the Middle East after that war. Neither Britain nor France, assuming mandatory powers in the new Arab nations carved out at European conference tables, found it in their interest to re-establish fast and easy communications between Damascus and Medina, which would tend to unite what they had just split asunder. Against this obduracy, all attempts by the Muslim world to restore the road of the pilgrims foundered. When in 1938 the late King Ibn Sa'ud of Saudi Arabia announced the gift of 50,000 Turkish gold lira toward the restoration of the Hijaz Railway, the Syrian Government enthusiastically responded by earmarking 270,000 Syrian pounds for the same purpose, whereupon French occupation forces prorogued the Syrian Parliament and the project died.

It wasn't until both Syria and Jordan became fully independent that serious efforts to rebuild the Hijaz Railway bore fruit. An Executive Committee for Recommissioning the Hijaz Railroad Line was established, with four members each from Syria, Jordan and Saudi Arabia. King Ibn Sa'ud put $570,000 at the Committee's disposal in June, 1955, for a study of the damaged portions of the line and an estimate of rehabilitation costs of the Ma'an-Medina section. The committee, in turn, in August, 1956, awarded an American engineering firm a contract to make the survey and the engineers went forth to see what the years had done to Izzet Pasha al-'Abed's great project. They quickly found the answer: not much.

Preserved by the dry desert air, engineers noted, great segments of rail still ran straight and true across the sands, unrusted, the dates of manufacture—907 and 1909—still perfectly legible. Some stations were in almost perfect condition despite evidence inside of nomadic occupation—ashes from cooking fires, the residue of herds of goats quartered within against the wind and inscriptions in Arabic of the local equivalent of "Kilroy was here." At some stations the gaunt steel frames of passenger and freight cars stood silently on sidings, their wooden sides, roofs and seats long since stripped away to fuel Bedouin campfires, but their coiled springs, flanged wheels, couplings and fastenings still intact. In others it seemed as if the workers had one day just suddenly vanished, leaving things exactly as they were in the middle of a normal work day. At Mada'in Salih, for example, a locomotive, seemingly intact, stands to this day on a track in a repair shop with a jack affixed to the front end ready to raise it into the air for repairs. Scattered on the floor are layers of broken roof tile inscribed: "Tuileries Romain Boyer-Marseille." Outside is a flat-car with two square water tanks punctured with bullet holes, and a coal car with enough coal still in it to stoke the locomotive. Along a 'street' that leads by what were once barracks for Turkish troops, Bedouin children today play in the sand while others bend over their books in a station house that the government has converted into a school.

In their formal reports, the engineers gave reasons for cautious optimism about the feasibility of rebuilding the railway. Considering that the line had been laid down half a century previously, had been subjected to systematic sabotage for two years by British and Arab raiders, and had received no maintenance at all south of Ma'an since 1917, the line was in surprisingly good shape. On the abandoned Ma'an-Medina section, some 37 miles, or about 7 per cent, of the track was gone, most of it ripped up by the British between Ma'an and Mudawwara in World War II to build a spur. Sand dunes covered eight miles, or 1.6 per cent of the line, in drifts ranging from six to 16 feet high and up to 1,000 feet long. Blown sand was a greater problem, for it lodged between the rails up to four inches deep for a distance of 160 miles, 30 per cent of the way between Ma'an and Medina. Washed-out embankments accounted, finally, for an additional 31 miles or 6 per cent of the line; this was the direct result of silted-up drainage systems, which impounded, instead of discharging, the occasionally heavy December-to-March rains. The operating portion between Ma'an and Damascus was also in relatively good condition.

Agreement among the governments of Syria, Jordan and Saudi Arabia to reactivate the entire Hijaz Railway line was a foregone conclusion. The project was to be financed by splitting the estimated $30 million construction cost equally among the three governments, with the aid of an eight-year loan for materials by the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development. The successful bidder for the project, a consortium of the British engineering firms Alderton Construction Westminster, Ltd. and Martin Cowley, Ltd., signed the contract for the job on December 6, 1963. This group, the Hijaz Railway Construction Company, Ltd., in turn retained Mr. L.B. Franco as project manager and Mr. William Cruse, president of the American Railway Engineers' Association, as chief engineer. Mr. Franco, an American construction engineer with a distinguished record of achievement on five continents, assembled a crew of 25 Syrian, Jordanian, American, English, Belgian and Malayan engineers, and began work in March, 1964. If the projected construction schedule is met, the last spike will be driven sometime in the fall of 1966.

The state of the art of railway building is probably among the slowest-changing of the engineering sciences, for nearly all railroads are still basically steel rails fixed to wooden ties resting on a solid stone-ballast foundation. But there will be changes, some in the fundamental specifications. The roadbed will be reinforced with a 12-inch layer of ballast; the crown will be widened about two feet and on much of the main line the original rail, which was taken up and stacked along the route last spring, will be replaced by a more durable steel rail weighing 31.1 kilograms per—meter (21.85 pounds per foot). The old steel ties, installed 28.16 inches apart by the Turks, have also been taken up, and it's clear, looking at their corroded tips, why they will be replaced. Good for their day and extremely rugged, they were, unfortunately, susceptible to corrosion from the moisture held by blown sand. In their stead the contractors will lay down ties of worm-resistant and practically indestructible Australian jarrah wood measuring 4 ½" by 8" by 6'6", much cheaper than steel even when spaced more closely at intervals of 24.16 inches. The rails will be fastened to the ties with elastic spikes of the latest design.

When the Turks ran the railroad, the maximum speed was 25 miles per hour, which, with coaling and watering stops, added up to a three-day run between Damascus and Medina. Shooting for a new maximum speed of 44 mph and a one-day run, the engineers will iron out many of the sharper bends in the line (some of which have radii as low as 425 feet), introducing transition curves and replacing the worst curves with gentler turns having radii of more than 1,000 feet. The steepest gradients will be eased to a maximum of 1.99 per cent—still fairly steep by American railroad standards. In all, the reduction of gradients and expansion of curves will require some two million cubic yards of new earthworks.

According to the present timetable, the next order of business, now that the old rails and ties have been removed, is the reconstruction of grade crossings, station houses and wells. Meanwhile, building stone for culverts and bridges will be prepared, mostly by traditional methods used by the original builders. By then, the new steel rails and wooden ties will have arrived, and the laying of track will begin at the rate of more than a mile and a half a day—three miles if track is laid from both ends.

Before the project is completed, 60 per cent of the rail, nearly all the ties and all the switches will have been replaced, involving the importation of 23,000 tons of steel rails from Europe and 750,000 jarrah ties from Australia. Considering the anticipated speed with which this material will be installed and the 5,000-odd men needed to do the job originally, the labor force—a mere 300 men—which will do the work seems a printer's error. The difference, of course, is in the phalanx of dozers, trucks, cranes, scrapers and other mechanical devices available today. A U.S.-made stone crusher, for example, will do the job previously requiring the full-time hard labor of 1,000 men. And a track-laying machine costing less than $20,000 will enable a small crew of technicians to lay 85 miles of track in 54 days.

Machines won't solve all the engineers' problems. Despite a revolution in transportation techniques, all material must still be brought to the site either by road from Aqaba or by rail from Beirut, just as it was by the Turks. The builders must still drill wells along the line for their water (the old wells have long since silted up), going down from 200 to 275 feet in most places, but over 2,750 feet around Ma'an. There is no way to avoid corrosion on that part of the line which crosses the desert's extensive salt flats, and as for positioning, drainage structures across the river beds, this can be the engineer's nightmare, since water comes down different dry watercourses each year. Even the surveying, done from trucks rather than camel-back this time, is a problem. In the winter of 1963-64, ice and snow blocked access roads to the rail line, and from May to September the day temperatures of 115° to 135° F produce mirages that make goulash of transit readings. Some of the dilemmas are strictly economic, such as the proposed elimination of a ldhg switchback halfway from the Jordanian border to Medina. Entirely feasible from the engineering standpoint, it would cut two minutes off the schedule, but the cost—$500,000 in new bridges and other structures—was thought prohibitive for two minutes of anybody's time, and the idea was quietly dropped.

So far, the work is proceeding smoothly and systematically, and there is every reason to believe that it will finish on schedule. When it does, five diesel-powered trains a day (twelve times as many as formerly) will speed in each direction, accommodating 5,000 passengers as well as mail and freight. Because there is only one track this will involve, of course, an extensive use of sidings. During the hajj season, 12 trains daily will be put in service, and 15,000 passengers will make the trip in 24 hours in comfortable contrast to the 6,000 who made the six-week trip by camel in Doughty's day. Settlements will spring up along the line at many of the 33 of the 48 original stations which are to be rebuilt. Fresh fruits and vegetables will flow southward into natural markets in Saudi Arabia, and mineral wealth from the peninsula will seek its outlet on the Mediterranean littoral. Jordanian phosphates from the Dead Sea, one day soon to come into commercial production for the export market, could well justify a spur line to Aqaba; a similar intriguing possibility is a branch line from Medina to Yenbo on the Red Sea.

Attractive as these incidental advantages will certainly prove to the economic and cultural life of the region, the Hijaz Railway will remain in the future primarily what it was in the past: the high road of the devout to the holy cities of Medina and Mecca, the means of fulfillment of the Koranic injunction that every Muslim make the pilgrimage at least once in his lifetime.

Daniel da Cruz, an expert on the Middle East, writes regularly for Aramco World.

This article appeared on pages 24-33 of the September/October 1965 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


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