Every now and then a gold-plated travel gem appears like a ghost from yesteryear to transport modern travellers back in time. The Hejaz Desert Railway, now occasionally operational with delightful old rolling stock in the beautiful setting of southern Jordan, is one of these gems.
Unique in design, remarkable in concept and intertwined with the history of the Middle East as well as that of Britain and its World War I allies, it opened one hundred and ten years ago in 1908. The big screen multi-award-winning film ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ (starring Peter O’Toole, Omar Sharif, Alec Guinness and Anthony Quinn) in 1962 brought the railway magnificently to the wider world’s attention.
Inspired by Ottoman Sultan Abddulhamid II’s (1876-1909) desire to link the holy cities of the Muslim world, the Hejaz Railway was to connect the Ottoman Empire’s capital, Constantinople, to the holiest of Islamic shrines, and holy city of Mecca, Hejaz. Not only would it offer a direct link to the seat of Arabia’s Islamic Caliphate, but also assist pilgrims on the annual Hajj, act as an important military transportation link and boost regional economic, cultural and political relations.
It was one of the Ottoman Empire’s greater projects, designed to extend a line of communication from Damascus. It was ambitious both in concept – the job of building a narrow-gauge track system (1.05m across) through the desert was forward-thinking – and in terms of maintenance.
However, World War I put paid to its completion. It became a network of only 1,300 km, stopping at Medina, some 400km short of Mecca.
Today the dusting down and re-commissioning of some of the original rolling stock has led to Hejaz Railway sitting on the UNESCO Tentative World Heritage Nomination list. It’s an incredibly exciting opportunity to see and experience the original steam engine powered Hejaz Railway at Wadi Rum, Jordan.
You can enjoy the narrow-track railway line snaking across the dramatic red desert, towards the imposing mountains of Wadi Rum, where the original Arab Revolt took place. When I last visited, as part of an AITO trade delegation, I was blown away by the experience of riding through the desert on the original open-air gun platform and wooden passenger carriages. Pulled by a steam engine, the incongruous feeling of puffing through an inhospitable yet beautiful landscape is all consuming.
Add in the re-enactment of a Bedouin Arab ambush, with horizon charging horsemen, explosive gunfire and an old-style Rolls Royce armoured vehicle, and you genuinely feel as if you are in the middle of Allied inspired desert attack on the Ottoman Turkish Empire.
Although the railway is yet to be fully commissioned as one of the region’s most exciting sights, I am sure in time more and more visitors will delight in this truly fabulous historic experience.