Chugging along

Israel's come a long way since Herzl took the "miserable little railway" from Jaffa to Jerusalem in 1898.

old train 88 248 (photo credit: Courtesy)
old train 88 248
(photo credit: Courtesy)
On Chariots with Horses of Fire and Iron By Anthony S. Travis Magnes Press 236 pages; $49.95 The Jaffa-Jerusalem Railway, which opened for business in 1892, was the first in the Middle East. But long before that, pilgrims and tourists made their way to the Holy City by any means available. In this fascinating and meticulously researched book, Anthony S. Travis presents not only the history of the railroad itself, but also the social background, descriptions of early tours to Jerusalem and the conditions endured by intrepid travelers. Thomas Cook's tour in 1869 marked the start of regular package cruises to Palestine. Participants camped in sumptuous tents, with servants preparing baths and picnic tables. In case of bad weather, the tourists could stay in hotels in both Jaffa and Jerusalem belonging to Cook's first local agent, Alexander Howard, a Maronite Christian. Before long, tourism to the Holy Land had become big business. By 1883 Thomas Cook & Son had taken 4,500 travelers to Palestine. With increasing demand, a railway from Jaffa to Jerusalem was clearly desirable. Building the railway was a tremendously ambitious undertaking, considering the local conditions. Travis notes that hundreds of tons of rails were brought from Belgium, coal from Britain and rolling stock from France. The unloading of all this in Jaffa's primitive harbor presented an immense challenge. A report in Railway Magazine of 1902 said it was "a wonder that all the materials for the railway were safely and without loss conveyed to their destination... Bulky but light articles, such as boiler barrels or water tanks, were thrown into the sea and tugged ashore..." The weather also presented difficulties, as heavy rains washed away the jetty, and in some places along the track bridges were destroyed. Despite other problems related to construction crews leaving to tend their crops, and outbreaks of disease in the work camps, work progressed fairly rapidly, and by December 4, 1891, the line had reached Deir Aban (today's Beit Shemesh). From there, construction was much more difficult, owing to the mountainous terrain. The first passenger train arrived in Jerusalem on August 27, 1892. Reactions were mixed, with some local inhabitants declaring it to be the work of the devil. However, the Jewish Chronicle wrote: "The year 5653, which is about to burst upon us, will witness one of the grandest sights that have been known in many centuries. May it prove an unmixed blessing." The official opening took place with much ceremony a month later. The book continues with early travelers' descriptions of their journeys and of the excitement of their arrival in Jerusalem. Theodor Herzl, who took the train in 1898 on his way to meet Kaiser Wilhelm II, was not very impressed, calling the line a "miserable little railway." It was in stark contrast to the earlier part of his journey, in the luxurious Orient Express, with dining cars and sleeping accommodation. The Jaffa-Jerusalem railway coaches did not have ashtrays or toilet facilities, and according to Herzl, not even drinking water. He said the heat was "frightful... sitting in the cramped, crowded, scorching compartment was torture." As if that were not enough, when Herzl and his party arrived at the hotel for which they had reservations, it turned out there were no rooms available, as they had been appropriated by Turkish officials and members of the Kaiser's entourage. Travis points out that Herzl was very keen on science and technology, and his utopian novel Altneuland (1902) predicted that by the 1920s there would be high-speed electric railways throughout the country. Unfortunately even now, more than a century later, Israel has not yet reached that stage, although railway development has certainly come a long way in the last 20 years. This beautiful book is Magnes Press's first non-academic venture, a "semi-popular" book aimed at a general readership. It contains material that is new even to specialists in railway history, including a large number of color and black-and-white photos and maps, some from historical archives and others taken in recent years, mainly by the author. The focus is on the earlier years of the railway, up to the early days of the British Mandate, with a brief look at Israel Railways today. The language is non-technical, and there is plenty of social history to appeal even to those who have no particular interest in railways.