A trainload of history

The Ottoman-built Tzemah station on Lake Kinneret is being renovated to become a tourist and academic center.

Tzemah Station 521 (photo credit: Sybil Ehrlich)
Tzemah Station 521
(photo credit: Sybil Ehrlich)
About 100 years ago, the Ottoman Empire built railway stations in what was then Palestine to connect with their regional network for transporting Muslim pilgrims from Damascus to Mecca. The railway actually never reached Mecca, falling short a few hundred miles away from Medina because the outbreak of World War I halted its construction.
Today, some of those stations, or what’s left of them, can be found in Haifa, Kfar Yehoshua, Afula and at the southern tip of Lake Kinneret (the Sea of Galilee).
While the railway hasn’t run for decades, there is growing interest in revitalizing the stations, which tell much about not only the multicultural roots of the Holy Land, but also the struggles fought to help build the modern State of Israel.
The Tzemah Station in the Galilee is next in line to get a face-lift.
Kinneret College, the Jordan Valley Regional Council, Israel Railways and the Council for the Preservation of Buildings and Historic Sites are investing $1 million in restoring the dilapidated station, along with its docking bay, warehouse and metal water tower.
The rebuilt station will house classrooms for students in the college’s Land of Israel studies program, as well as students working toward tour guide certification, says historian Ze’ev Drory, managing director of Kinneret College.
Land of Israel studies focus on the recent history of Israel, over the last 100 years or so, and on the rise of modern-day Zionism. While the country is rich in biblical history, the last century also saw wars and conflicts worthy of academic examination, Drory believes.
THE TZEMAH railway station – which lies adjacent to the back end of the college campus, a stone’s throw from Lake Kinneret – was built as a way station on the road to Mecca.
The site will include a memorial to the soldiers who fell in battle there.
For instance, in 1918, an Australian cavalry unit defeated the Germans at Tzemah. Descendants of soldiers who died in that battle will come from Australia next year for the dedication, says Drory.
“There are more than 700,000 visitors, Israelis and foreigners, who come around this way to the Sea of Galilee every year,” he says. “We will be building a visitors’ center so that it will tell the story from the time of the First World War and Australia, and after that what happened in the War of Independence. It’s about the past and the future.”
The station came under fire regularly, as it was a strategic location for various foreign forces battling for control of the region. By 1948, when Israel gained statehood, Tzemah Station was no longer in use; the railway had stopped running. The station became an army base and then an animal pound before it was left neglected.
The restoration project will show the history of this railway network, the construction of which, remarkably, incurred no debt and included several miles of track below sea level.
Evidence of Ottoman railways in the Middle East can already be seen in its restored glory at the Tahana (station) in South Tel Aviv, which has been transformed into a new fashion outpost and hip coffee stop for Tel Avivians.
The Jaffa-Jerusalem Railway took pilgrims and building supplies from the Jaffa Port to Jerusalem.
The revitalized Tzemah station should be ready this year for thousands of visitors passing through the Galilee region. The renovation will also attract international students, as Drory is working on an archeological and history program in conjunction with the University of Miami, to begin next year.