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The BBC's Barbara Plett:
"There has been a growing interest in reviving the Hejaz"
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Monday, 5 June, 2000, 13:01 GMT 14:01 UK
Pilgrim railway back on track
Destination Damascus: Steam train on the Hejaz railway
Destination Damascus: Steam train on the Hejaz railway
By Barbara Plett on the Hejaz Railway

Most people think of Lawrence of Arabia when someone mentions the Hejaz Railway.

After all, he is famous for blowing it up during World War I.

The Ottoman era train line is still carrying passengers between Amman and Damascus, and the two countries are working together to revive it.

We are travelling along the tracks laid down by the Turkish Sultan, Abdul Hamid, 100 years ago.

Pilgrimage route

He built the railway to carry his Muslim pilgrims from Damascus to the holy places of Arabia.

I'd like to go and come more often now because taking the train is easy

Um Jamal, train passenger

These days the railway carries ordinary people, happy that there are more trains between Jordan and Syria now.

Um Jamal has been visiting her family in Amman. This is her first time riding the rails back to Damascus.

"I'd like to go and come more often now because taking the train is easy," she enthuses.

"It's kind of fun. When I take the bus I get very tired and my legs start to hurt, but the train is more comfortable. I can stand and walk around."

The 1,300km railway was the last grand vision of the dying Ottoman Empire, rudely interrupted by World War I.

Tourists rather than pilgrims travel on the historic railway
Tourists rather than pilgrims travel on the historic railway
The Turks began to use it to send troops into the Arabian peninsula, prompting sabotage attacks led by the legendary British officer TE Lawrence.

Parts of the line were never rebuilt after Lawrence blew them up.

This route stayed open though, despite strained relations between Amman and Damascus.

King Abdullah's role

King Abdullah: Encouraged railway revival
King Abdullah: Encouraged railway revival
When ties began to improve last year under Jordan's new King Abdullah, so did the service.

I arrive in Damascus after a seven-hour trip. It would take two or three hours by car.

However, for Muslim pilgrims at the turn of the century, the Hejaz Railway provided a quick and easy ride to the holy places of Arabia. It was in Damascus that the pilgrims gathered.

Hafez: Warmer relations with Jordan
Hafez Assad: Warmer relations with Jordan
They came from as far away as Russia, Iran and Bosnia.

A big feast and parade through the city streets celebrated the beginning of the pilgrimage before they left on their long journey to Mecca.

Those were the few brief years of glory before the railway began to decline.

The Hejaz collection of old steam engines is now kept mostly for short tourist trips. Abu Fouad is behind the wheel of one of them.

He has been driving for the Hejaz since 1945, and is one of Syria's experts on steam locomotives.

After 55 years, the railway is in his blood.

Abu Fouad: The railway is in his blood
Abu Fouad: The railway is in his blood
"I love it, dealing with metal and steam all the time, it becomes part of you," he says.

"I'm very proud of this railway. Our fathers and grandfathers worked on it."

"I couldn't leave, even when I started getting a pension."

Abu Fouad was brought out of retirement recently to pass his skills on to a new generation.

Grassroots support

In the past few years, there has been a growing interest in reviving the Hejaz, spearheaded by the station masters on both sides of the border.

Workers are now repairing more and more of the trains, stripping off the old paint with a sandblaster, and hunting for spare parts to fix the steam engines.

Nine of the locomotives are back on the tracks in Syria, seven in Jordan.

The station master in Amman, Abdul Razzaq Abul Feilat, says co-operation with Damascus is making things easier.

Hejaz railway
All aboard
"We can send them some people to make training there and they make the same," he said.

Maintenance can only accomplish so much: Saudi Arabia is not interested in rebuilding its section of the line.

Amman and Damascus would like to construct a new more modern railway, but there is no money for it yet.

Political ties have not progressed significantly since the initial burst of optimism last year.

Jordanian analyst Labib Qumhawi says that they are based on the personal relationship between leaders, which makes it difficult to plan for the long term.

"You cannot really build relations between two countries, and common interests, joint projects, whether economic or educational and cultural, and then having them abruptly cut off because the two heads of state feuded or crossed lines," he explains.

Despite obstacles, though, the spirit of the Hejaz clearly does live on, as both countries lovingly preserve memories of an important era in railway history.

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