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Last Updated: Thursday, 12 January 2006, 14:19 GMT
Heritage: The Hejaz Railway
First broadcast January 2006

Steam train on the railway
The railway originally ran between Damascus and Mecca
The Hejaz railway once carried hundreds of thousands of pilgrims from all over the Middle East to Medina. It was completed almost a century ago, replacing the centries-old method of going on pilgrimage: travelling across the desert by camel caravan.

The railway was destroyed in parts by Lawrence of Arabia during the First World War, but the sections that survive are still in use. Even now, ancient steam locomotives billowing dark, acrid smoke still run on sections of the original line between Damascus in Syria and Amman in Jordan.

In this four-part series, presenter Malcolm Billings traces the route and history of this 'phantom steam trail'.

Part One: History

The Hejaz railway was the last great religious foundation of the Ottomans, which set to revolutionise travel for Muslim pilgrims.

Bedouins, who had previously taken travellers all the way across the desert, objected to losing so much business, so the rail track was built to stretch from Damascus to Medina, just falling short of Mecca itself. The pilgrimage would end, in ancient tradition, with a camel ride into the holy city.

The idea for the railway was conceived by Sultan Abdul Hammid II and the building of it brought together finance from India, steel from Belgium, engineers from Germany and conscripts from Turkey. It was eventually completed in 1908.


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