Rumbling Through Modern Jordan, a Railroad of the Past

AMMAN, Jordan – Straddling century-old tracks that cut through the modern metropolis of Amman, a historic train honked its horn to annou...


AMMAN, Jordan – Straddling century-old tracks that cut through the modern metropolis of Amman, a historic train honked its horn to announce its departure. This sound prompted families carrying bags of food, pots of coffee, soda coolers, grills, hookahs and many children into action, climbing iron ladders to get into the wagons. wooden train.

But the party had already started in car No. 9, where a group of women and dozens of children were cheering on an Arabic pop song played through a battery-powered speaker with flashing disco lights.

The train honked again and came to life, shaking the revelers, who laughed as they sat up and burst into applause at the sight of the world streaming past their windows.

So began a recent journey from Amman, the Jordanian capital, on the last working strip of the original Hejaz Railway, the most iconic train in the Middle East.

Built by the Ottomans at the dawn of the 20th century, exploded by Lawrence of Arabia and Arab fighters during the World War Oneand used as a nostalgic backdrop in “The return of the mummy” and in syrupy arabic music videos on desperate loversthe railway is a relic of the bygone dream of regional unity before wars, borders and more advanced modes of transport rendered its services obsolete.

A favorite project of Sultan Abdul Hamid II, the railway was completed in 1908 and traveled more than 800 miles through the mountains and deserts of the Levant and Arabia to transport pilgrims. damask in Medina, one of the holiest cities in Islam, now in Saudi Arabia. From there they would travel by other means to Mecca, the center of the pilgrimage.

Secondary lines served Haifa – now a major Israeli city – and Beirut, the Lebanese capital on the Mediterranean coast. And plans were in place to connect the line to Constantinople, the Ottoman capital, in the north and to Mecca in the south, bringing together a large swathe of the Ottoman Empire.

But only six years after the first triumphant arrival of the train in Medina on September 1, 1908, the First World War broke out, leading to the dismemberment of the empire and new borders. The Haifa line was decommissioned around 1948, when the creation of Israel left it at war with its Arab neighbors. The Beirut line came to a halt at the start of the 15-year Lebanese civil war in 1975.

Today, the narrow gauge tracks remain, but the railway’s main line passes through three countries – Syria, Jordan and Saudi Arabia – whose leaders have shown little interest in reviving the project.

Saudi Arabia welcomes pilgrims bound for Mecca during a posh airport terminal and transports them around the holy places on a modern means high-speed train. Rail traffic in Syria suddenly stopped after the outbreak of its civil war in 2011.

That leaves only Jordan, which now offers 50-mile leisure trips from Amman to Al Jizah station south of the city and back, with a four-hour lunch break in the middle.

It’s a journey that goes nowhere no one needs to be, so riders come for the journey – and a big dose of nostalgia.

“I love trains because they remind me of Agatha Christie novels,” said Islam Dawoud, 36, sinking into his plush red chair and staring out the window.

She first took the train as a schoolgirl, she said. There was no air conditioning and the cars were dusty, but the memory stuck with him nonetheless.

“What I liked was that the window was open and I could stick my head out,” she said.

The train departs in the morning from Amman Station, a beautiful ivy-covered stone building dating from the first decade of the 20th century.

In the rail yard were two original but refurbished passenger cars, including the one that Abdullah I, the great-grandfather of the current King of Jordan, drove into the city in 1921, when he became ruler of the territory.

Parked nearby were seven giant black steam engines with red wheels. They are all still working, but are only used on special occasions because they take hours to light up and are big polluters, said Nader Malkawi, a railway official and train driver who organizes the trips.

On its recent trip, the train was pulled by two diesel-electric locomotives built in 1976. Some components of the cars were original, but most were Japanese tank cars that Jordan had converted into wooden passenger cars in 2005.

This upgrade also added electricity for lighting, as well as air conditioning and speakers that play Arabic pop music in the cars throughout the trip.

Railway enthusiasts in Jordan also have another option: a line that carried phosphates to Aqaba, Jordan’s only coastal city, ceased operation in 2018, Malkawi said. But this line goes through the scenic Jordan Wadi Rumwhere tourists can take short trips there and sometimes watch a band of locals on horseback and dressed in period costumes re-enact Bedouin attacks.

Journeys from Amman are longer, but without the theatre. Tickets are $7 for runners 12 and up and under for kids. Children under 3 travel free. The train has a snack car as well as a VIP car with soft seats, burgundy curtains and a wreath on the door.

The journey was different three decades ago, said one passenger, Fidaa Abu Safia, 38, who first walked the same tracks when she was 6 years old.

There was no music, the wooden seats were uncomfortable and it was hot, she said, but the train still felt magical. She remembered the trees passing by with yellow flowers falling in the windows.

“It was the best trip of my life,” Ms Abu Safia said.

As the upgraded train meandered through the sprawl of cinder blocks in South Amman, there were no flowers to be seen. Instead, numerous industrial warehouses, junkyards, and machine shops appeared, along with a gargantuan failed mall and lots of trash strewn along the tracks.

The railroad lacks crossing guards to stop traffic; the police are supposed to. But they weren’t in evidence that day, so the driver slowed as he approached intersections and leaned on the horn as cars and motorbikes raced through until the last moment.

There was also a problem with the boys throwing rocks at the train to break its windows.

To stop them, railway workers had tried to distract them by throwing candy at them, Mr Malkawi said, but it didn’t work. So they took the photos of the boys and handed them over to the police, who ordered their parents to sign vows that their children would not target the train again. This tactic worked, most of the time.

The lack of vistas did not bother Hussam al-Khatib, a soldier, who had learned of the trip on Facebook and brought his wife and their three sons. All were first-time train passengers.

He said Jordan didn’t have good public transport and the views weren’t great, but he felt it was important for Jordanians to know their country.

“We are proud of Jordan’s views,” he said.

Outside Amman, the landscape opened up, with fields of golden wheat, greenhouses full of tomatoes and eggplants, herds of sheep, the occasional herd of camels and barking dogs chasing the train.

Before Al Jizah station, where passengers stopped for lunch, the train passed Amman International Airport, from where jets took off, reminiscent of the technologies that had reduced the train from one state-of-the-art transportation to a historical curiosity.

At the station, as workers moved engines from one end of the train to the other for the return trip, families claimed shady spots under cypress and eucalyptus trees and lit charcoal barbecues and hookahs while their children ran around a sandy playground and climbed over abandoned boxcars.

Later, the train honked and passengers returned, taking pictures next to the cars.

The return trip was calmer, with the sun, the creaking cars and the steady click-clack of the train which lulled many children, and a few adults, to sleep.

But Heba al-Shishan refused to miss anything. Smiling and taking pictures while admiring the scenery, she too remembers a childhood trip. On this journey, the train had to stop because the nomads had tied sheep to the tracks and had to move them before the journey could continue.

“These are experiences I will never forget,” Ms al-Shishan said.

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