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The Hijaz Railroad
by William Ochsenwald
University Press of Virginia, Charlottesville
1980, Hardcover, 169 pages
Impact on Society
Appendix: Principle Stations of the Hijaz Railroad in 1914
Selected Bibliography

Hijaz Railroad Ochsenwald Cover

Book Review

This book tries to look at the Hijaz Railroad from the perspective of the Ottoman Empire, rather than through the eyes of tourism, or the British victory in World War One. The photographs in the book were taken for Sultan Abdulhamid II in the 1900s, and were reproduced in the book with the permission of the Istanbul University Library.

The railways and roads of the Ottoman Empire were mostly constructed by Europeans, but he Hijaz Railway was financed, constructed and operated by the Turks themselves. It was an effort to contain European imperialism, and the Turks had to expand their areas of conscription and taxation into areas that were formerly autonomous. This came at a time when a new government had taken over, and when financial difficulties plagued the empire. In Beirut in 1901 1,300 troops mutinied for ten months 'back pay.' In Damascus in December 1902 about 100 officers seized a telegraph office and cabled the sultan, demanding their arrears be paid. They were told that there were no funds to pay them. Salaries wee low and paid irregularly, and deaths among Turkish troops in the Arab provinces were high because of bad sanitation, poor military health, and difficult conditions of service.

After 1891 there was nearly continual warfare in Yemen, with major uprisings taking place in 1891, and 1904. By 1905 the capital city had been lost to the rebels. Much of the highlands of Yemen remained effectively independent of Ottoman control, even during times of peace. Poor military transportation on land was overcome only be sending troops to Yemen by sea. Naval communication with Yemen depended upon the Suez Canal, which could be closed at will because of the English who controlled Egypt. Syrian reserves en route to Yemen revolted in 1903 while in transit though the Suez Canal. They were eventually sent to work on the Hijaz Railway.

The Ottomans enjoyed success in the Greek War because their troops could be mobilized along the Thessaloniki-Constantinople Railroad. The Ottoman government considered the railroad of major strategic importance in controlling their empire. The first section of the railroad would stretch from Damascus to near the port of Aqaba on the Red Sea. This section of railroad would by-pass the Suez Canal, and thus illuminate the need to send troops through British controlled area. The second part of the Railway would then take the troops as far as Medina. This section of railway would also be useful and financially beneficial in the transport of pilgrims to Medina where they could travel on to Mecca twice a year. The third section of railway, from Medina to Yemen was never built. An alternative route, from the coast of Hodeidah in Yemen up into the highlands was started on, but was never completed.

The construction of a railroad was one of the most complex administrative and engineering tasks undertaken by governments in the 19th century. The Turks further complicated the process by wanting to use only Ottoman citizens and Ottoman goods for construction. Thus the goal of wanting to complete the railroad quickly and inexpensively could not be achieved. In this book, William Ochsenwald goes into great detail to explain how money was raised, where workers were recruited, how local administration was organized, the various groups that were contracted, the materials used and some of the problems that were encountered.

During construction the rail line between Beirut and Damascus became a bottle neck and a second line was needed. This line was built between Haifa and Dera, and was used for exporting grain from the Dera region as well as importing goods for furthering the rail line. Another branch line father south was considered, but the port at Aqaba was considered inadequate for unloading large ships. Eventually several smaller branches were built: Haifa to Acre to increase the port size, Afula to Nablus, and Dera to Busra, as well as a short branch line into the heart of Damascus.

The Ottoman Empire needed to find new sources of income to finance the Hijaz Railway. There were three major groups of Muslims who were the source of funds: Ottomans who were forced to provide money for the railway, Ottomans who donated voluntarily, and Muslims who lived outside the empire. Financial collections were started in 1900. Since many records were destroyed, historians have not been able to accurately piece together a comprehensive view on what took place. However, records are in place for an eleven month period from 1902 - 1903. While many Ottomans were forced to donate, popular support for the railroad was greater outside the empire. Large collections took place in Egypt and India. All together the so-called gifts reached 1,100.000 TL.

Ochenwald goes into detail as he looks at the financial organization behind the railway, the official donations, private donations, and money raised outside of the empire. He also looks at the publicity that the Ottomans used, and the taxes they levied. In the end, the total revenue that was raised was 3,975,443 T.L.

Once the railway was constructed the problem of daily operations came to a head. Would the railway use foreign operators, or could Turks be trained to run the railway.

Ochenwald goes into detail looking at the central and local administration network, and the personnel that ran the railway. He examines the passenger operation, noting that the sale of tickets slowly rose over the years. In 1909 there were 19,965 pilgrims using the railway. This rose to 31,416 by 1914. While this book does not mention this, it was common opinion among many Muslim pilgrims that the pilgrimage should really be taken by camel caravan. The railway was often called "The Women's Pilgrimage" and considered useful for women, elderly, and the sick. (.ed) In time, however, the railway gained popularity. The book also notes that in 1908 there were 8,480 military passengers, and this rose to 147,586 by 1914. The book also goes into freight operations, listing the railway as transporting between 65,000 tons and 112,000 tons per year.

Impact on Society
The Internal History of the Hijaz Railroad can be used as a way of measuring three major issues: The Ottoman Empire's ability to construct and finance a modern enterprise, the efficiency with which the empire could operate such a railroad, and the independence of the empire from Europe in personnel, finance, and material. The impact of the railway was also felt on the Bedouin who gained cash each year by guiding pilgrims to Mecca. With the loss of this cash, they began to feel resentful of the Ottomans, especially with increased taxation and conscription.

Resentment was also felt in towns and villages. The book points out that in the town of Kerak there was a rebellion in 1910. Kerak was about fifteen kilometers from the Hijaz station of Qatrana. The tribes in the area united together. The Tribes that were responsible for guarding the railway did not receive their pay, so they robbed a train, killed some railroad workers, and destroyed a section of track. The 'Atiyya tribe then attacked the railroad near Ma'an. Qatrana station was destroyed, and the rail line taken up. The Turks were slow in responding, because many of their railroad cars were south of the destruction. Eight days later though, the Turks sent in troops and put down the revolt, executed some of the rebels, and looted the town.

The book also points out how the railway brought with it a boom. As an example, while the railway was being built, over 1000 workers lived in the town of Ma'an. The Ma'anis thought that they were developing into a major center, but when the railroad construction ended, the workers all left, and Ma'an returned to a rural center.

The main impact on society though, came in the Hauran district that could suddenly export their wheat to the world. Between 1903 and 1912 gain amounted to over half of the goods transported on the rail line between Damascus and Haifa.

Ochenwald goes on to look briefly at the French railway, the Dama, Hama et Prolongements Railroad, and the German Baghdad Railroad. A map of these railroads would have been nice, but unfortunately no map was included.

All in all this is a very good book, although it is only 170 pages in length. It is not as detailed as some other books, but it gives a good overview of the financing, construction, and operation of the railway. For those who would like more detail, especially about the locomotives and cars that the railway used, they should consult Hedjaz Railway by R Tourret.

Book Review by Dan Gibson, Nabataea.net 

Other Rail Lines and Miscellaneous Pages

 Dera to Haifa Line
Balad al-Shaykh
Tel Esh Shamam
Jisr al-Majami
Yarmouk Valley
El Hamma
Tel Esh Shehab

 Ma'an to Ras al Naqb Line
Ma'an to Ras al Naqb Line
Abu Lissan
Ras al Naqab

 Jerusalem to Jaffa Line
Malcha Station under construction 
New line under construction


The Amman to Damascus Trip
Wadi Rum

Dera-Bosra Line
Garez Junction
El Taibeh Station
El Taibeh Bridge
Gasim Junction
Bosra Station
Bosra Citadel
 Damascus - Mezrib Line
 Damascus Midan
 Khan Denum
 Sheikh Miskin
 Damascus - Beruit
Damascus Baramke
Ain Fije
Deir Kanum
Wadi Barada
Wadi Barada Tunnel
Et Tekkie Hatt
Haush Hala / Moallaka
Said Neil/ Jedita / Mrejatt
Deir elBeidar/Ain Sofar
Bhamdun/Manchra/ Aleih
Areiyah / Jamhur
Baabda / Hadeth / Beirut