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The Hejaz Railway

Jordan – Catch a Train to Syria

Everybody’s heard of Lawrence of Arabia. But no so many people know what he actually did. How he united the Arab tribes, and ousted the Turkish Ottomans from the region by declaring war on their newly built railway, and the supply trains that ran on it. Even fewer people know that this railway still exists, and these very trains still run today. And, if you get the chance to ride on them….you absolutely should.

With the help of German engineers, the Hejaz railway was built by the Ottoman Turks in 1908. Its original purpose was to transport pilgrims from Damascus to Mecca, and it was funded entirely by subscriptions from the Muslim world. However, the rail was only ever laid as far as Medina because Bedouin tribes would not allow access to the remaining region. The line began operating in 1913, taking 500 pilgrims per day to the city of Medina, and soon after the fifty five hour journey became a popular alternative to the two month trip by camel.

When war broke out in 1917, the railway line became of particular interest to Mr Lawrence, because of its importance in transporting supplies to the Turks. It suffered numerous attacks from Lawrence and the Bedouin and became instrumental in the Turkish defeat in world war one. Lawrence, a British MI5 agent, fluent in Arabic and an explosives expert was so proficient at blowing up the engines in fact, that he actually affected seat prices, the seats furthest away from the engine selling for considerably more.

Today there is only one short section of the railway left, from Damascus to Amman. It runs twice a week, and the carriages are made of wood. The seats will leave your bottom numb and the toilets are unthinkably bad. It takes 12 hours to complete the journey (compared to four hours by bus!), and by the time you reach your destination you’ll feel like you’ve eaten half the desert. It’s unreliable, undesirable, and doesn’t adhere to any health and safety standards anywhere in the world. It’s always running late (sometimes by days) and derailing is not uncommon.

But if you like the desert, have a sense of adventure and get a kick out of being shoulder to shoulder with the locals, it’s one of the single most enjoyable travelling experiences you can have in the region.

Tariq El Kashef

Tariq El Kashef is the author and editor of www.alternativeegypt.com – The Online Egypt Travel Guide