May, 2013

Train spotting - The Israel Railways Museum in Haifa’s Ottoman–era train station waits for the Valley Railroad to be rebuilt and the crowds to return

by Gil Zohar

JERUSALEM

Israel today is undergoing a public transit revolution. A half dozen new high-speed train lines are under construction or in advanced engineering planning, as is the Tel Aviv light rail and the expansion of Jerusalem’s two-year-old tram network.

By 2020 almost the entire country will be crisscrossed by electrified railroad lines including new routes linking Tel Aviv-Jerusalem via Ben Gurion Airport, Acre-Carmiel, Kfar Saba-Raanana-Herzliya, Beer Sheva-Eilat, and Ashkelon-Beer Sheva via Sderot, Netivot and Ofakim.

One new track – looping southeast from Haifa to Beit Shean through the Jezreel, Harod and Jordan Valleys and then on to Irbid, Jordan – closely follows the route of the legendary Hedjaz (also Hijaz, Hejaz, Hidjaz, Hicaz) Railway spur known as the Valley Railroad.

A century ago that slow, narrow gauge single track was the lifeline for the area’s halutzim (Zionist pioneers). Decades before roads were paved, the train served the settlers of Deganiya and Nahalal, respectively the first kibbutz and moshav, and the hydroelectric workers at the Naharayim power plant built by Pinhas Rothenberg at the confluence of the Jordan and Yarmuk Rivers.

Sabotaged in Israel’s 1948 War of Independence to prevent Arab reinforcements from arriving from Syria, the Valley Railway fell into disrepair hastened by metal thieves and government neglect.

Chen Melling, the director of the Israel Railway Museum located in the Hedjaz Railway’s former Haifa terminus, hopes that the expansion of the railroad network and burgeoning number of daily train commuters will lead to a broader appreciation of Israel’s rich railroad heritage. Currently the museum attracts only 8,000 visitors per year and has no budget for advertising, notes the 34-year-old train enthusiast. Symbolizing that neglect, the last passenger disembarked at the Haifa East station in 1997. Ironically, he emphasizes, the only way to get to the railroad museum is by walking, taking a bus or driving.

“This is not only Israel Railways' museum,” says Melling, who served as a volunteer at the museum for 18 years before taking a full-time position almost four years ago. “It is Israel's national railway museum, revealing both the diverse history of Israel Railways and its predecessors and that of other railways, past and present.”

Wandering inside the restored century-old locomotive shed (known as an engine house in American parlance) and freight depot (or goods shed) are 40 historic locomotives and cars - each with a story about the development of the Jewish state and the role played by various European imperial powers.

One encounters Israel’s only surviving steam engine, manufactured in Germany in 1902; a luxurious “saloon coach,” which carried Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie and Israel’s founding Prime Minister David Ben Gurion; and a Belgian passenger car built in 1893 for service in Egypt, and converted to a mobile military field hospital by the British army during World War I.

Apart from these rolling relics, the museum’s extensive collection includes historic signaling equipment, photographs, tickets, time tables and even a clock from the British mandate era Palestine Railways.

Chen Melling

Unveiling the monument, 1903
Courtesy Imperial War Museum

Adjoining the museum is an impressive Ottoman monument commemorating the start of construction in 1903 of the Haifa-Damascus line, and a cemetery for those who lost their lives building the transportation project. The grand train station, built in 1908 in an eclectic style blending Ottoman and miitteleuropäisch tastes, was the most impressive building in pre-WWI Haifa.

The town was admittedly an Ottoman backwater notable only for the German Colony along Carmel Street, today Ben Gurion Blvd. The terminus was dynamited by Irgun underground fighters on September 20, 2021 to interrupt British communications. The building’s surviving section today houses the offices of Israel Railways, and is closed to the public.

Melling explains the first train trip in Ottoman Palestine (and the Middle East) took place from Jaffa to Jerusalem on September 26, 1892. Jerusalem businessman Yosef Navon (1858-1934) spent three years in Constantinople (today Istanbul) seeking a firman for the French companySociété du Chemin de Fer Ottoman de Jaffa à Jérusalem et Prolongements to build the line.

Eliezer Ben Yehuda, the father of Modern Hebrew, coined the word rakevet to describe the transportation wonder, which he described as “balls of fire and puffs of smoke, noise of the wheels on the iron track, deep sighing sound of the bubbling water, and the shriek of the whistle.” The Jaffa-Jerusalem railway shortened the journey from the coast to the mountains to six hours - eight hours less than by horse-drawn diligance. The new train line sparked ambitious plans to span the Ottoman Empire with new railroads.

On May 1, 2022 Sultan Abdülhamid II proclaimed the construction of the Hedjaz Railway to celebrate his 25 years on the throne of the Sublime Porte. The sultan, who had a passion for clock towers and trains, conceived that a skein of tracks and telegraphs was his best hope for preserving his disparate crumbling empire. As caliph of the faithful, he marketed the railway as facilitating the haj pilgrimage to the Muslim holy places in the Hedjaz. The railway was turned into a waqf (religious endowment), thereby emphasizing its holy status. Donations of 74 million gold francs were collected both from within the empire and the dar al-Islam. Indian Muslims were the main foreign donors – just as Jews in the Diaspora supported the yishuv.

Hedjaz Railway Plaque

Work on the trunk line between Damascus and Dara’a, today in Syria, commenced in September 1900. The project came to a close eight years later with the opening of the Medina station. During this period, a 160–km branch line was built between Dara’a and Haifa, both to facilitate the export of Hauran wheat and to bring equipment for the main line. The first train chugged out of Haifa for Damascus on October 15, 1905. Construction of the final section from Medina to Mecca was abandoned after the 1908 Young Turk Revolution.

Jezreel Valley commemorative stamp

The railway supplanted the ancient caravan route, which had brought goods to and from Damascus and Arabia, a four-month round trip trek. Unhappy about the railroad’s threat to their livelihoods, Bedouin marauders made repeated attempts to disrupt its construction.

Some 5,000 Ottoman soldiers toiled to build, maintain and guard the line. Apart from sabotage by hostile desert tribesmen, the project presented vast technical and engineering challenges, including water scarcity, drifting sand, flash floods and difficult terrain. The Jisr al-Mejamie across the Jordan River at Gesher was and still is the world’s lowest railway bridge at 246 meters below sea level.

Within four years of its completion in 1908, the Hedjaz Railway was transporting some 300,000 passengers a year. But these were not only devout pilgrims – the Turks eagerly used the railway to transport soldiers and supplies. As immortalized in David Lean’s 1962 Academy Award-winning epic Lawrence of Arabia and Col. T.E. Lawrence’s masterpiece of aggrandizement Seven Pillars of Wisdom, during the World War I (1914-1918), the British adventurer together with the guerrilla fighters of Prince Faisal repeatedly mined the tracks and derailed Ottoman troop trains.

At the end of the war, the still operative sections of the railroad were taken over by the relevant Syrian, Palestinian and Transjordan governments. The section between Ma’an in today’s Jordan and Medina in Sa’udi Arabia suffered severe damage, and ceased operation in 1925.

Melling notes Yosef Navon and Heinrich August Meissner (1862-1940), the brilliant German railway engineer responsible for laying 1,463 km of track linking Damascus to Medina and the Dara’a-Haifa branch line, are all but unknown in Israel today. Wikipedia pages in German and French but not English or Hebrew detail Meissner’s extraordinary career.

While Turkey honored Navon and Meissner with the respective titles of bey andpasha, today the two fathers of Israel’s railroads are all but forgotten. Neither is recalled with a postage stamp, a street or a statue. Ironically Israel issued a stamp in 2011 commemorating the Valley Railway – missing its centenary by six years. Haifa’s Ottoman train station once faced Hedjaz Street. Today the road has been renamed for the Golani Brigade.

Meissner Pasha

What of the future?

Melling dreams of high speed trains zipping from Cairo to Tel Aviv and Haifa, and on to Damascus and Beirut – as they once did. “Assuming there’s a new Middle East. A train to Istanbul and Europe isn’t science fiction. It’s a matter of money, technical challenges and politics.”

Amongst those technical difficulties are differences in gauge. Israel Railways’ tracks have all been upgraded to a standard 1435 mm gauge while Jordan and Syria continue to use the Hedjaz Railways’ 1050 mm narrow gauge track.

Valley Railway map

Melling is optimistic the Israel Railway Museum and the story of the Turkish railroad’s construction, demise and current rebuilding will finally get the attention they deserve.

The Valley Railway’s former train station at Kfar Yehoshua (then called Tell ash-Shamam) was restored in 2008 as a museum and the offices of the Society for Preservation of Israel Heritage Sites, he smiles.

The ruined station at Tzemach, the site of a key battle on Sept. 25, 1918 between the Australian 10th Light Horse Regiment and Ottoman soldiers, is also being restored as part of Kinneret College.

The romance of antique railroads is good for business: the former train station in Jaffa has become an upscale shopping district called ha-Tachana, and Jerusalem’s Ottoman-era train station recently underwent a similar repurposing and is now known as The First Station. The abandoned track has been made into an elegant linear park preserving the antique railroad equipment. The Turkish train station in Beersheva is also back on track to be renovated as a railway heritage center. At the end of December an antique British locomotive of the type operated by Palestine Railways and then Israel Railways until the 1950s was delivered to the site.

“Today the railroad [in Israel] is again part of people’s lives,” notes Melling. More than 40-million people rode the rails in 2012, he adds. “For many years it didn’t exist. Railway heritage is born of the nostalgia that comes from railroad culture.”

To book a tour of the Israel Railway Museum, e-mail Melling at [email protected] or phone him at 04 856-4180.