The Hejaz Railway was built to link Damacus, which was the terminus of the main railway across Turkey from Istanbul, to Mecca. The idea was to have a direct rail link from the capital of the Ottoman Empire, Istanbul, to the holy city. Since Istanbul was linked to the heart of Europe by the Orient Express the new project was considered to be a direct link from Europe to the heart of the Middle East - Paris to Mecca!

The railway never got to Mecca. Construction reached Medina where the First World War and the fall of the Ottoman Empire brought it to a halt. The halt was mainly caused by the insurrection of the Arab states against Ottoman rule led by T.E. Lawrence, or “Lawrence of Arabia.” His main tactic for the insurrection was to destroy the railway.

Although the railway never made the complete link from Istanbul to Mecca, it does survive in parts, and there is a Hejaz Railway Commission that seeks to eventually build the complete route.

I ddn´t ride the actual Hejaz Railway since when I was there it was mostly in ruins. However, I did ride the railway that started in Damascus. My companion and I boarded the train in Aleppo, the city in what is now Northern Syria, that is built around an old Crusaders´ Fort. Fascinating town that is often overlooked by visitors to Syria.

We had stayed at a venerable old hotel whose name I have forgotten. It served as Lawrence´s headquarters for a while. Legend has it that when he arrived he rode his horse right into the lobby of the hotel. However, by the time I stayed there the place had definitely deteriorated. I don´t believe the sheets on my bed had been changed since when Lawrence left.

We got on board the train and into our compartment which was a marvelous wood paneled room with plush seats. We shared the room with some men from Jordan. We watched the semi-desert countryside go by until we reached a desolate border post marking the frontier with Turkey. As we waited at the outpost, I asked one of our Jordanian companions what the saying inscribed over the door to the outpost said. He responded, “It is written in Turkish which I don´t really speak but I believe it is a saying from Ataturk which means, `It is hard to be a Turkey.” I laughed.

We then went in to dine. The dining car was fabulous, right out of all the movies I had seen of train travel in the 19th and early 20th Centuries. The table was covered in linen and the place settings were real china and crystal. The intial impression soon suffered when we found the plates to be covered with a fine layer of soot. The waiter cleaned the plates and we enjoyed a fine meal.

The soot came back to haunt us. We soon found that, since the train had no air conditioning, the windows were left open to let in the night air. All went well until we started to go through a lengthy series of tunnels through the mountains of Central Turkey. The locomotive was an old steam one burning coal in its firebox. As we went through the tunnels the smoke from the coal fires had no where to go but through the open windows into the train cars. I spent the night opening the windows as we went out into the open and closing them as we entered the tunnels.

We arrived in Ankara, the capital of modern Turkey, the next day covered in soot. My powder blue shirt had become dark gray. We decided to do the Ankara to Istanbul sector by bus.

I have subsequently lived in Ankara on two occassions and have done some travel on the trains. They are now electrified in most parts and the rest run with diesel engines. I can recommend the trip from Istanbul to Ankara but would leave the rest of the lines to the most avid train travellers.

In the meantime, we can wait for the Hejaz Railway to be one day completed.

Leo Cecchini
July 2009