Forgotten History: The Hamidiye Hijaz Railway – A Trans-Ottoman Railway

We always learn lessons from history; it acts as a guiding light whereby we make decisions based on our past mistakes and success. Therefore, it is important to learn history — especially one’s own. The collective amnesia of Islamic history has lead us to a stage where we are looking for answers on social media, lured in by orientalists and academics and believing in false information spread through our instant messaging apps that misrepresent the past (e.g. Ottomans allowed people to be openly gay, etc.). I believe that learning our history from original sources or from trusted academics will help us gain confidence and counter contemporary narratives and issues with ease.

One of the many important forgotten topics is the Hijaz railway, a huge achievement for Ottomans, especially given the troubled circumstances at the time. It is rarely discussed, and if ever, only in reference to the British Lieutenant, T.E Lawrence, whose job it was to sabotage an otherwise strategic railway line that connected distant Ottoman provinces.

Imagine getting on a train in Istanbul and getting off in Sana’a, in Yemen, passing through Damascus, Jerusalem, and Medina. Imagine having a separate cart made of glass for prayers, and designated female-only compartments. Imagine having a mosque present at every major station and with train times in harmony, synchronized with prayer times. Imagine going from Damascus to Medina to perform Hajj in a reduced time of 2 days instead of 40, with comfort and ease, away from the danger of robbery. Imagine having hospitals and quarantine centers in strategic locations along the way, poised to prevent the outbreak of any disease and help care for the people who fall ill during the journey. Imagine having the ability to travel for free if you could not bear the expense (there was a set quota of people who were allowed to travel for free).

While it may sound like a dream, this pragmatic vision was actually implemented, in turbulent times nonetheless, by the visionary and charismatic Sultan Abdul Hamid II. However, the project was not undertaken for financial gains. In fact, it brought very little financial profit. Instead, its main purpose was to prevent the disease of nationalism from running rampant amongst the populace by using Islam as a binding force (with the added benefit of providing military support to Arab provinces when needed). Although the original name of the railway was Hamidiye Hijaz Railway, secular Turks, also known as Young Turks, renamed it to Hijaz railway upon taking control in 1909.

While some would argue against “pan-islamism,” it is widely accepted that Islam is a way of life, encompassing political Islam, ritual Islam and everything else. It describes in great detail everything from the governing model, education system, and every other aspect of life. Many countries would jump at the opportunity to spend billions on the ability to wield such a binding force amongst its people that Islam has innately given. Sultan Hamid II was wise enough to employ this connection to hold together otherwise rather loose pieces of the Caliphate for one-third of a century. In his own words:

What is important for us is to be able to construct the railway between Damascus and Mecca promptly; thus making rapid soldier deployment possible in times of turmoil. A second important goal is to strengthen the bond amongst the Muslims to such an extent that would pound the British malice and deceit like a hard rock. [1]

Background

Let us turn to the creation of the railway, one that required a great deal of cooperation from across the Ottoman Empire. Although talks about the railway began in 1891, actual development started in 1900. It was met with large amounts of criticism and negativity from around the world because the Ottomans were financially and politically compromised. Among other issues, the government was still repaying loans from the reigns of previous Sultans, and a lot of territory had been lost to Russia.

Initially, the Sultan planned to exclusively utilize the material, people, and expertise of the Ottoman land, but he was unable to do so. Instead, they relied on Germany to provide help with raw materials for tracks and manufacturing locomotives. In fact, the government ended up sending students every year to Germany, where they learned the trade and skills needed for the engineering and manufacturing process. You can still see to this day that the (damaged) locomotives on display in museums in the desert of Hijaz are German. 

In many ways the Hijaz railway was a collective, global Muslim effort. A third of the total funds were collected from lands external to the Ottoman empire. Muslims around the world realized the importance of this railway line and donated generously. There was a campaign run in Lahore and Mumbai for the collection of donations, led by Inshaullah, the editor of Al Watan (a newspaper based in Lahore). He used his paper to spread the call, leading to more than 150 donation committees operating in India with their headquarters based in Hyderabad. Those who donated above a certain amount were also awarded medals and recognition.

The railway line was inaugurated in 1908. Developments continued until around 1915, and the railways proved to be pivotal in preserving Medina during World War 1. The construction of a 1,464 km long railway line even managed to transform previously some smaller and unknown towns to bigger and lively markets. However, the Hijaz railway is the first and perhaps only railway which was not created to benefit from an ordinary citizen, but to give them relief. The travel of 40 days on camels was reduced to 27-54 hours after the railway was launched. The railway faced a lot of hindrance from the British, French, and the Muslims in Hijaz (Arabs). Apart from that, there were other problems of finding the expertise and material to build the railway. Some of the major problems apart from not having enough expertise and raw material to construct a railway are summarized below.

1 – Muslims in Arabia

Another major problem arose in the form of Arab Muslims, who considered the railway as a threat to themselves. Many Muslims in Arabia derived their income by providing protection to trade caravans against looters. Since the railway provided a secure mode of transportation, which would have ended the need for such protection, revolts broke out in the region and protestors stopped the “suriye,” or yearly tribute from the Sultan, from entering Medina. They also attacked many parts of the railway during its construction and the Ottomans were forced to bolster the security provided to workers in such areas. Because of these troubles, the Medina to Makkah railway line was never completed. Thus, Hamidiye Hejaz Railway could not realize its full potential. This also affected the feelings of Muslims in India who had generously donated during the construction of the railways.

2 – British Intervention in Aqaba – The Tabah Crisis

Because the British were controlling the Suez Canal, Egypt, and India during the construction of the railway, a proposal of Aqaba to Red Sea Branch was presented and agreed upon to support the quick movement of goods and troops to Medina. For this reason, the number of Ottoman soldiers was increased in that area. This made the British feel threatened in that region as they feared their hold would be compromised not only in Egypt but India as well. As a result, Both armies came head to head with a distance of almost 12 km between them. Sultan Abdul Hamid II wanted to avoid any confrontation with the British and ended up recalling the troops, eager for the development of the Railway line to continue without further issue.

3 – French Resistance in Damascus

The French were already operating their railways in the Syrian region before the development of Hejaz railways. The Hejaz railway was to be built in parallel to the French line which ran from Damascus to Muzeirib. This led to protests from the French who argued that they presumed an agreement with the Ottoman government not to let any other entity operate and build a railway in that region. The protest at diplomatic level continued until 1905 when the Ottoman government agreed to pay a huge compensation.

Conclusion

The complexity and impact of Hijaz railway easily makes it one of the many great achievements of the Muslim world. In the outskirts of Medina, you can see railway tracks going deep into the desert of Hijaz, taking you back a century with them. The railway station has now become Medinah Museum and some of the carts are converted into restaurants. In Jordan and Syria, the railways are still in use as of today. On the weekends in Amman, the train is used as entertainment. Crowds throng as people exit their homes to come and wave at the passengers; the Hijaz railway is still a source of joy for people, even after a hundred years.

Works Cited:

[1] Özyüksel, M. (2014). The Hejaz Railway and the Ottoman Empire: Modernity, Industrialisation and Ottoman Decline. London: I.B.Tauris.

Photo Credit: Header/Embedded Image


About the Author: Ahmed works as a web developer. His interests include history of civilization, contemporary islamic issues, politics, adventure and poetry. You can contact him here.

4 thoughts on “Forgotten History: The Hamidiye Hijaz Railway – A Trans-Ottoman Railway

  1. While I say it’s important not to romanticize the times of the Ottomans or most other historical Muslim states for that matter, it’s equally important not to blindly demonize them. There was a lot of both good and bad and there’s the added complexity of looking at different eras, lands, political factions, etc., in each empire. Nuance and reflection is better than bitter cynicism. This railway is definitely an example of something impressive.

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    1. But they are so heavily demonized by academia ,media and internet. Nobody says a word of truth about Muslims .

      Why are you talking about a balanced stance in the comments section here , pretending to be cool and open minded ?
      Do you also write the same thing about posts from someone like Bernard lewis?

      After secular turks gained control , whole Ottoman history became a mess and truth has never been able to come out yet. Yildiz palace has thousands of documents untouched . all we see, for the last hundred odd years is total dictatorship , from 1922 till 1998.
      I bet you would rather not have a balanced stance about this time period .. Yes ?

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  2. IA one day we will have Bullet trains from Morroco to East Turkmenistan and from Bosnia to Yemen with both rail roads cross paths in Jeursalem

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