20 Mayıs 2019 Pazartesi


Travelling towards the Jordan’s Moon Valley/Wadi Rum on the coral red, yellowish sands, large raindrops fall on the windshield of our car. While absolute silence reigns, a railway line running along the highway strikes me. Obviously, it's not a functioning line. It conveys solemn stillness of historic artifacts and a dusty nature of the desert at first sight. Nevertheless, classic, "vintage" beauty of the locomotive and the wagons are evident. Unexpected appearance of the train, as the face of civilization prevails the feeling of nothingness and timelessness of the desert... This is how I met the Hejaz Railway* at Wadi Rum Station.

Meeting Jordan section of the Ottoman Empire’s last big Project, an impressive success story about constructing a 1464 km railway connecting Damascus to Medina that was realised with unprecedented sacrifices in the early 1900s, before the First World War and afterwards diving into its history/story, I couldn’t help myself herald what I have seen.

Let me start with a restrospective brief for easing the journey back to 110 years, Hejaz Railway was built to make the pilgrimage journey safer, easier and less costly for Muslims.  Sultan II. Abdülhamit publishes a Will in 2 May 1900 for the construction and financing of a railway to be realized entirely with the facilities of the Ottoman state and the donations of Muslim population around the world. While various campaigns accompanied the call, people from Morocco to India welcomed the move in excitement and donated for support. Despite all the suspicions of the Western states who thought the project could not be completed, the railway reached Medina on 1 September 1908.

Achieving such a great job by donation type crowdfunding method in today’s Finance words is simply striking. Since it is not only challenging by geograpy and climate but also communication facilities of the period was way poorer. With the new railway, the journey for Hadj, traditionally starting from Damascus could be done in 3 days compared to 40 days with a camel caravan and the cost falls by 90 percent. The road was completed in 8 years of huge efforts and sacrifices however it  only operated fully for 10 years due to the World War I. A glorious but also a bitter section of history.

Hejaz Railway, Wadi Rum Station, Jordan

Coming back to my journey in Jordan, knowing that we will be meeting the Hejaz Railway along the road and passing by is not an option, we stopped the car. Our transfer from highway to railway in other words from 21st century to 20th century was smooth. Approaching the station, I tried to recall what I already know about the place. Perhaps, the ambiance triggered my memory and the railway's finance issue in Ottoman times has raised from high school history lessons. Interestingly, the reason of my visit to Amman is also about financing real estate projects.

Wadi Rum Station is a small, modern building. It was closed. As far as I could see inwards, there were photographs of the 1916 Arab uprising and the posters of the movie "Lawrence of Arabia", since it was filmed in Wadi Rum.

Journey through 1916 
2019, 1916 in the same shoot 

The only sign that the train is the relic of the Ottoman Empire is the Turkish flag

We are among five-six tourists visiting the railroad, hopping on and off the wagons. A gray-haired, plump man with eye glasses low on his nose draws my attention. He looks content and throws keen looks around. I imagine him as a German or Swiss academician, historian. They also have a reason to wonder about the place at least because it is their fathers, grandfathers who manufactured the trains. There is barely no informative explanation about the history and construction of the Hejaz Railway. Deep down, complex emotions, kind of sadness, nostalgia wander. During the photo shoots, we chat with a French couple accompanied by a local guide. The guide after having learned we are from Turkey, pauses a while and says -you have done this place... Reviewing relevant documentary, books and articles on the matter, remembering how this railway line was constructed back then meant a lot to me. 

Once I saw a saying on the wall of the Highway Administration in Ankara which goes by 
"The land you have not gone is not the country." 

A Chinese proverb says 
"Build a road first if you wanna be rich."

The concept of Road seems to hold vast significance for the mankind and the state. In all ages, road construction has implications for economy, development and political influence. Having mentioned the China, President Xi Jinping annouced the launch of a development campaign "One Belt One Road" referred to as the "modern Silk Road" in 2013. It is estimated to trigger trade and economic growth for the Asian continent and beyond, affecting a population of 4.4 billion. It includes various investment plans such as ports, pipelines to Pakistan, bridges to Bangladesh and railways to Russia. All these investments are expected to build a new era of globalization, global economy and even politics. It is possible to envision that railway revolution in the 19th century in Europe has aroused a similar excitement we see today by the "One Belt, One Road" initiative. Thus, the Ottoman sultans and state officials have started railway projects in Anatolia, first in İzmir-Aydın and then in the Middle East. In terms of the future of the empire, railway construction was considered a kind of necessity. Western states, England, France and Germany have started to build railways by concessions in the 1830s in Anatolia and in the Middle East.

Hejaz Railway was initiated for easing the pilgrimage for Muslims but at the same time it was also considered as a policy tool for the Ottomon Empire's economic, political and military problems of the period. Basically, the launch of the road was assumed to enhance influence on Muslims and consolidate power against the British Empire which was also influential in the region. Indeed, during the First World War, the line was also used for the transport of military units and ammunition. In attempt to prevent the transfers, T.E. Lawrence from the British army together with the rebellious Arab troops, Bedouins dynamited the southern parts of the line.

Sultan II. Abdülhamit

Hejaz Railway being constructed in Sultan II. Abdülhamit period and was called Hamidiye Hejaz Railways then.

The construction of the Mu'azzam station by the Ottoman soldiers
1908, Halladiyan / Royal Geographic Society

CrowdFunding Approach 

The most important obstacle to the construction of the Hejaz Railway was the necessary resources for construction. In that period, following Ottoman-Russian Wars, growing external debts and difficulties with paying civil cervants salaries, it was not possible for the Ottoman Treasury to afford four million gold liras cost calculated until Mecca. Since the cost was too high for the State to rely solely on state facilities, it was decided to eliminate the financing problem with “donations” in other words crowdfunding. 

Donation method was perceived with doubt and cynism by the Westerners. In the beginning of the construction, funding was supplied by the credits from the Ziraat Bank. European diplomats serving in the country did not think that the Ottoman Empire could find the necessary funding for such a big project. However, contrary to expectations, the Ottoman administration was able to solve the financial problem to a great extent.

Donation campaigns were organized to deal with the financing shortage. Especially with the participation of the Sultan himself, donations by state officials from all ranks, teachers, students together with all Ottoman citizens, people from Morocco to India, the world's Muslims and non-Muslim citizens of the Ottoman Empire, the issue was solved largely. A meticulous administration was established for documentation of donors and donations. The records serve well for historians, writers and personally I found them very touching, they have been one of my motives to write this article.

An intensive propaganda activity was carried out to collect donations. Islamic publications, clergy and merchants were employed in order to explain the railway project to the general public.

The idea that the Hejaz Railway will not be the Ottomans’ property but the common work of all Muslims was communicated to receive support.

Soldiers as railway workers, Turk, German Engineers…

In the middle of the desert, struggling with various diseases under the burning sun, the efforts, patience of the soldiers who worked for the construction of the railway was admirable. In addition to the soldiers, the works of German engineer Heinrich August Meissner and İzzet Pasha should also be remembered. Together with Heinrich August Meissner, there were forty-three engineers working in the construction, among which seventeen were Ottomans. As the work progressed, the number of Ottoman engineers increased compared to European engineers. The know-how gained in construction has a share in this increase. Hejaz Railway has been an important experience for the Ottomans owing to this period, many railway engineers, technicians and operational officers have been trained.

German Heinrich August Meissner who worked as the chief engineer in Hejaz Railways was given the title of Pasha which was not common in the Ottoman bureacracy. Meissner Pasha died in Istanbul on January 14, 1940.

Heinrich August Meissner

Meissner Pasha (1904)

 1862 Leipzig - 1940, İstanbul

İzzet Pasha who developed the idea of ​​the railway after the Yemen uprising, Osman Nuri Paşa and Mehmed Şakir Paşa who convinced Sultan Abdülhamit have managed the Project from the beginning to the end. In holy land, construction was carried out entirely by Muslim engineers. Labor was largely done by military units.

The construction of the Hejaz Railway was cheaper than the lines made by European railway companies carrying out railway constructions in the Ottoman lands. That was highly due to construction realised by the state itself and labor was provided by the soldiers. Not only the railway line but also around 200 overpasses and bridges most of which are still in good condition were built in the barren valleys on the route.

Hejaz Railway, Today

Today, the Jordanian pillar of the railroad seems to be relatively lively. Touristic trips are made on Amman, Jizah, Qatraneh route conserve the cultural heritage. Maan station operates the transport of phosphates from the country’s southern mines to the port of Aqaba. In addition, Jordan and Turkey state authorities cooperate for the reactivisation of the line.

I came across a BBC video** broadcasting a touristic setting for participating a train journey attacked by Bedouins, during the 1916 Arab Revolt. It is clear that over a hundred years time lends a perspective where history can be consumed as a commodity.  Seeing through Turkey’s window, a great service to the Muslim world, the attempt of the Ottomans to consolidate their sovereignty in the region was seen as a means of struggle for independence at their window.

Furthermore, there are documentary films. “Tracks of nostalgia… when roads of lovers meet” filmed by the Jordan Radio and Television Corporation tells the story of the Hejaz Railway that connected Jordan, Syria, Saudi Arabia and Palestine won first place in a competition organised by the Arab States Broadcasting Union. Turkey has also produced a documentary titled “Hejaz Railway (Journey lasts 100 Years)” with the contributions of the Turkey Prime Ministry Promotion Fund and published in TRT in 2003.

I Have a Dream !

Documentaries are valuable to keep the memory alive, but if only a film could be produced about the accompanying stories that will address the hearts of the people

Beyond realpolitik, I believe the Project is heavily built on human emotions. It starts with Sultan Abdulhamid's courage, dedication of thousands of soldiers and engineers, the belief and trust of donors. While I was searching the topic, the more I read about records, people, events came alive as a film strip. Donations coming from the Iranian Shah, the Balkan countries, Pakistan, students donations as pocket money, civil servants salary cuts, regular qurban skin donations, all those make up a historical phenomenon...

Everything starts with perspective and attaching value. Even the greatest works of mankind need the language of art and science that will add soul to them. The fact that the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, built in 1160, could be renovated from its neglected, demolished version of the 1800s by the influence of Victor Hugo's great novel "Hunchback of Notre Dame" (1831). The novel made the Cathedral known all over the world.  Since people attach great value, recent devastating fire prompted over 50 crowndfunding campaigns for reconstruction.

With today's perspective and inspirations, a film based upon the railway’s construction process, historical records but also with its stories and humanistic narration can let people see each other in a more understanding manner and can reach a much larger audience.

An international co-production filmmaking of the Hejaz Railway may carry the 1900s journey started in a political and military conjuncture, aiming a service to the Islamic world to a peace project in the 2000s.

...Human quality depends on culture. Culture means a society with people mastering the times and the places.  Economic crises cannot harm this capacity, they are temporary states, no nation falls or ascends with  crisis, only the educated people enriches, escalates the society.

İlber Ortaylı

"Bir Ömür Nasıl Yaşanır"
Söyleşi, Yenal Bilgici

* Hejaz is the name of the western region of today's Saudi Arabia in the Arab Peninsula. Since Hejaz Railway is built during Sultan Abdülhamit's term, its first name was "Hamidiye Hejaz Railway". Official correspondence and documents bear this title.  The name of the Railway is used as "Hejaz Railway" in İttihat Terakki period.

ÇETİN, Emrah (2010). “Türk Basınına Göre Hicaz Demiryolu (1900-1918)”, History Studies Ortadoğu Özel Sayısı, 2010, s. 99-115.

ENGİN, Vahdettin (2002). “Osmanlı Devleti’nin Demiryolu Siyaseti”, Türkler, C. 14, s. 462- 469.

GÜLSOY, Ufuk (1994). Hicaz Demiryolu, İstanbul: Eren Yayıncılık.

GÜLSOY, Ufuk, Kutsal Proje Ortadoğu'da Osmanlı Demiryolları,Timaş Yayınları,2010,304 sayfa.

HÜLAGÜ, Metin (2008). Bir Umudun İnşası Hicaz Demiryolu, İzmir: Yitik Hazine Yayınları. ONUR, Ahmet (1953). Türkiye Demiryolları Tarihi, İstanbul: K. K. K. Yayınları.

ORTAYLI, İlber (1988), Osmanlı İmparatorluğu’nda Alman Nüfuzu, İstanbul: İletişim Yayınları.

ÖZYÜKSEL, Murat (2000). Hicaz Demiryolu, İstanbul: Tarih Vakfı Yurt Yayınları.

ÖZYÜKSEL, Murat (2002). “Hicaz Demiryolu”, Türkler, C. 14, s. 470-480

M. J. LANDAU, The Hejaz Railway and the Muslim Pilgrimage: A Case of Ottoman Political Propaganda

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