Can the age of Middle East train travel return?

It was once possible to take trains from the Mediterranean to modern-day Saudi Arabia

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A train trip from Jerusalem to Beirut may sound extraordinary by today’s standards, but the Middle East once boasted a railway network that connected people across the region and beyond.

“I worked in the railway network for 42 years from 1947 to 1989 and I have lovely memories,” said Nasif Elias El Mur in northern Lebanon.

Digging into a drawer for his old staff photograph, Mr El Mur, 94, reminisces about an era of cross-border travel before conflicts and car ownership.

He would drive across the stunning landscapes between Lebanon and Syria, although his work had its challenges.

“If an accident happened on the road, the chief of the train had to go from the uninhabited region to the main road, get in a car and go to Tripoli centre to report the issue,” he said.

“Handling such cases was very difficult,” Mr El Mur said at his home in the Tripoli suburb of El Mina.

When he started his career on the railways, it was possible to travel south by train to Palestinian cities such as Gaza and Nablus.

Such journeys ended in 1948 when the state of Israel was established, sparking a war between the nascent country’s military and Arab nations.

The remainder of the broader international network, which once stretched from the eastern Mediterranean to Madinah in Saudi Arabia, ground to a halt.

At Haifa, an Israeli port city about 32 kilometres from the Lebanese border, a museum stands testament to the bygone age.

Chen Melling, the museum’s director, said more than a century ago the regional railway was used by the public and by pilgrims in particular.

“It was a very poor service by today’s standards, but there was such a service,” he said, surrounded by old train carriages.

“It certainly did not live up to what you could find at that time in mainland Europe.”

The trains supported agricultural trade between what is now Israel and southern Syria, while the railway also created jobs.

“The route between Haifa and [the Syrian capital] Damascus became quite important,” Mr Melling said.

It was used by travelling tradesmen, he said, “as well as people relocating and later visiting families and mechanics and engineers.”

The Ottoman rulers expanded the railway in the early 19th century, before the collapse of their vast empire following the First World War.

“You could take a daily train … from Haifa to Damascus, and change at Deraa for the thrice weekly, or something, train from Damascus to Amman,” in Jordan, Mr Melling said.

The Ottomans were also behind the Hejaz railway network, an effort to connect pilgrims across their vast empire from the Mediterranean to modern-day Saudi Arabia.

Trains never made it to Makkah, home to the holiest site in Islam, while the service was affected by the outbreak of the First World War in 1914.

During the four-year conflict, the Hejaz trains were used by the military and were attacked by British-backed Arab groups.

The tracks ran through what is now the Jordanian capital, Amman, where an Ottoman-era bell still rings at the railway station.

Nowadays, however, those trains are only run on special occasions, such as bringing dignitaries into town from the city’s airport. The carriages trundle along at an average of 30 to 40 kilometres an hour.

Passenger trains have otherwise stopped in the Hashemite kingdom, while miners still use part of the Ottoman line to transport phosphate to the southern port of Aqaba.

A cross-border freight train between Jordan and Damascus was halted about a decade ago, following the outbreak of the Syrian war.

The fate of the railway network has also been affected by fighting in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, which borders Israel, Mr Melling said.

“After the 1956 war and after the 1967 war, after the IDF [Israeli military] took over the Sinai Peninsula, the line was again connected through the Gaza Strip,” he said.

In Haifa, a green carriage taken in Sinai by the Israeli military stands in the museum. The colours of the Egyptian flag are painted on its side.

The trains which were operated through Gaza, the coastal Palestinian enclave, were initially used by the Israeli military.

“But in the early 1970s also a civilian service was established from Gaza to Tel Aviv for workers,” Mr Melling said.

The service was scrapped in 1973, when the Arab-Israeli war broke out, and Gaza has been under an Israeli-led blockade since 2007.

Although the Middle East’s trains have been hit by conflicts, the network also went out of fashion with the rise of the automobile.

From Tripoli, Mr El Mur used to drive trains to the Lebanese capital Beirut and to Homs in western Syria.

“The train carried passengers at first, then it carried cargo, because cars have become numerous and they are more practical than the train,” he said.

Eventually lorries became more efficient for transporting goods, as they could drive directly to their final destination, and the Lebanese railways were abandoned.

“It would take one hour to go to Beirut by car, while a trip to Beirut would last three to four hours by train,” Mr El Mur said.

There have been discussions on reviving the railways of both Lebanon and Jordan in recent years, although no such projects have been approved.

Trains still run in Israel, but the bus network is far from extensive and many residents rely on cars. The Palestinian territories of East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza have no working railway system.

Israel aims to reconnect its tracks with Jordan, to facilitate trade as the two countries have ties.

Recreating such a link between Israel and Lebanon is very unlikely, as the neighbours are technically still at war.

Sitting beside the tracks in Haifa, Mr Melling said cross-border train travel has potential for fostering commercial and cultural relations.

“If you go to Beirut one day, perhaps you continue the next day to a business meeting in Aleppo, in northern Syria, then meet an associate coming from Ankara or from Mosul, or Basra,” he said.

Criss-crossing through Israel, Lebanon, Syria, Turkey and Iraq in this way remains impossible for now, though perhaps that will change for future generations.

“I hope that, some day, the political situation will allow the network to redevelop,” Mr Melling said.

Updated: June 17, 2022, 6:00 PM