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Last updated on April 18, 2014 at 9:32 EDT

‘Lawrence of Arabia’ train faces quiet demise

July 26, 2005

By Ibon Villelabeitia

ABOARD THE HEJAZ RAILWAY (Reuters) – Early last century,
the biggest threat to the Hejaz Railway was Britain’s T.E.
Lawrence and his camel-mounted Arab rebels, who sabotaged the
desert track to attack trains packed with Turkish soldiers.

Today, a lack of passengers and improved highways may kill
off the Hejaz once and for all, a quiet demise for a train that
entered popular imagination thanks to Lawrence’s war exploits,
later turned into the classic film “Lawrence of Arabia.”

On one recent morning, only four passengers climbed aboard
for the Amman-Damascus trip through Jordan’s ochre deserts and
Syria’s fertile plains, the railway’s only surviving service.

The 175-km (109 miles) journey takes 2-1/2 half hours by
car, but on the Hejaz it can last anywhere from seven to 10,
depending on seemingly endless delays at local stations and
emergency stops to remove goats and vagrants from the tracks.

Built by the Ottoman Sultan during the golden era of
railways in the 1900s, the Hejaz ran for 1,300 km (812 miles)
from Damascus to Medina, ferrying pilgrims to Islam’s holy
sites and troops to rebellious Arab provinces under Ottoman
rule.

The fabled railway has few thrills these days. Fine grit
blows steadily in through cracked carriage windows, the
upholstery is shredded and swarms of flies attack lunches. The
toilet is a hole in a narrow carriage.

But the ride also offers colorful scenes of desert life as
the train clatters along at 40 km (25 miles) an hour.

Bedouins herd goats and sheep grazing in arid hills.
Children run out of tents pitched along tracks and wave at
passengers.

In Syria’s Hauran region, the desert gives way to
gold-colored fields of wheat. Melon plantations thrive next to
villages, where minarets and bell-towers of Orthodox churches
rise over rooftops.

PILGRIMS CROWDED TRAIN

During its heyday, the Hejaz ferried thousands of pilgrims
every year. Today, it draws mostly locals and some foreign
train buffs and curiosity seekers.

Along the route, lie relics of the Hejaz. Rusty German- and
Belgian-made steam locomotives sit abandoned on yards. Water
towers stand in Ottoman-style stations, where station-masters
ring bells to announce the train’s departure.

“People used to travel on the train, but after cars and
highways came passengers disappeared,” said Abu Zabdi, a 79-
year-old mechanic who has worked on the Hejaz for 40 years.

At every stop, Abu Zabdi, who said he knows every coach
like each of his eight children, jumps off the train to inspect
wheels, axles and hooks.

“Some of these carriages are 100 years old but they run
like the first day,” he said proudly.

In Zarqa, a gritty industrial city north of Amman, the
train made an emergency stop for a vagrant sleeping on the
tracks. The man, apparently drunk, was handcuffed and brought
on board by police officers.

Near the Syrian border, a group of schoolchildren
accompanied by women in black veils crowded one coach. The hot
air filled with the smell of round bread from their lunch
boxes.

Two conductors offered small, clinking porcelain cups
filled with bitter dark coffee.

“I’m going to Damascus to see family. Cars are faster but
here I enjoy the views,” said a middle-aged passenger standing
on the outer rail as the diesel engine lumbered into the city
of Deraa, in Syria.

In his “Seven Pillars of Wisdom,” Lawrence describes Arab
troops entering liberated Damascus, where “the silent gardens
stood blurred green with river mist, in whose setting shimmered
the city, beautiful as ever, like a pearl in the morning sun.”

The traveler who arrives on the outskirts of modern-day
Syria’s capital aboard the Hejaz sees a squalid and noisy
Palestinian refugee camp and a garbage dump that runs for
miles.

END OF CAMEL CARAVAN

The construction of the Hejaz was a major engineering
project. Some 6,000 Turkish soldiers, mostly conscripts,
laboured on the railway, braving hostile tribes, cholera
outbreaks and sandy terrain prone to violent winter floods.

The line opened in 1908, spelling the end of the old camel
caravan, in which pilgrims rode for two months from Damascus to
Medina, compared to three days on the train, which had luxury
cars for the Sultan and his entourage.

The military use of the Hejaz by Turkey, allied with
Germany during World War One, brought the demise of the
railway.

Arab rebels fighting for independence led by Lawrence, an
enigmatic British intelligence officer, launched demolition
raids against the Hejaz.

Jordan, struggling to boost tourist revenues, has tried to
revive the Hejaz with Lawrence-themed tourist packages, but the
long hours make the trip unpalatable even to backpackers. The
region’s turbulence also scares away visitors, officials say.

The Amman-Damascus service has been cut to twice a week
from four times a week due to poor demand.

Abu Zabdi said he doesn’t know how much longer the Hejaz
will run but that he will work until his last day.

“The train has been my bread for years. The Hejaz is my
home.”