Back on the rails

A new exhibition in Tel Aviv offers a look at the Hejaz Railway, which was meant to enable Muslims to reach their holy cities.

choo choo (photo credit: Courtesy)
choo choo
(photo credit: Courtesy)
The Eretz Israel Museum in Tel Aviv is hosting "The Railway of Faith," an exhibition marking the centenary of the Hejaz Railway. This railway was initiated by the Ottoman Sultan Abdul Hamid II to enable Muslim pilgrims to reach the holy cities of Medina and Mecca. In the end, the railway reached only as far as Medina, 400 kilometers short of Mecca, as the First World War put a stop to construction. The Hejaz region, in what is today Saudi Arabia, was part of the Ottoman Turkish Empire. Donations toward the building of the railway were received from throughout the empire, and construction started in September 1900. Although the actual work was carried out by the German engineer Heinrich Meissner, the financing of the project was entirely Muslim. According to the exhibition's curator, Sarah Turel, David Wolfssohn wanted to donate £500 - a considerable sum in those days - from the Zionist Congress, but the money was refused and went instead to the Syrian Orphanage in Jerusalem. The Hejaz Railway was an entirely inland line, but it had a link to the outside world at Haifa. This port was chosen mainly for topographical reasons, as it was obviously easier to build a line through the flat Jezreel Valley than from Beirut through the Lebanese mountains. This branch line, from Haifa to El-Hama (now Hamat Gader) was known as the "Valley Railway," which had its own folklore and was an important contributor to the development of the city of Haifa and of Jewish settlement in the region in the early part of the 20th century. The Hejaz Railway was said to be the most successful Ottoman project ever undertaken. Work finished on time and with no budget deficit, something almost unimaginable in today's world of railway construction. The exhibition, in the museum's Postal History and Philately Pavilion, focuses only on the Hejaz Railway and not on the Valley Railway branch. Historic photos are juxtaposed with recent pictures of the same places, taken in 1998 by Turkish photographer Mustafa Aksay. There are also old maps showing the railway, and items such as the book of rules and regulations for railway employees (in French). At around the same time as the railway was inaugurated, bringing previously isolated and backward areas into communication with the outside world, mail services in the Middle East took a great leap forward. Many letters were, of course, sent by rail, the fastest means of transport at that time. Journeys that previously took several weeks could now be accomplished in a few days. The exhibition includes several rare postal items from the period, from the Alexander Collection, as well as old postcards showing railway scenes. A 17-minute film on the history of the Hejaz Railway, in English with Hebrew subtitles, is shown continuously. The exhibition is under the auspices of the Turkish Embassy in Israel, and runs until April 20. Eretz Israel Museum, Rehov Haim Levanon 2, Ramat Aviv. Sunday-Wednesday: 10 a.m.- 4 p.m.; Thursday: 10 a.m.- 8 p.m.; Friday and Saturday: 10 a.m-2 p.m.. (03) 641-5244;