History brought to life: Jordanians take a ride on the Hejaz

Why We Wrote This

Need to get out of town in these claustrophobic times? For Jordanians, there’s a solution. Taking a ride on the Ottoman-era Hejaz Railway can transport them back in time ... and back on time.

Taylor Luck
Jordanian families board the Hejaz Railway, the historic train built by the Ottomans in 1913, at the Amman Hejaz Railway station in Amman, Jordan, Sept. 25, 2020.

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Just like when it was unveiled by the Ottoman Empire in 1913 as an engineering marvel, the Hejaz Railway today runs on the same tracks winding through Amman, Jordan, and southward into the desert.

The railway running from Syria to Saudi Arabia was so crucial to Ottoman power that it became the main target for the Great Arab Revolt led by Sharif Hussein, the great-great-grandfather of Jordan’s current monarch, King Abdullah II. Sharif Hussein’s guerrilla attacks on the line – as depicted in the movie “Lawrence of Arabia” – helped seal the Ottomans’ collapse and the birth of what would be known as Transjordan.

This fall, many Jordanians are discovering the train, with its luxurious and refurbished wooden cars and its glimpse of the nation’s history, for the first time, thanks to a Tourism Ministry campaign offering socially distanced discount trips.

On Friday, Nasser Kawaldeh brought his children and grandchildren to Amman for a ride on the Hejaz and an enjoyable history lesson. “Our ancestors built this track,” he says. “By learning about our past, we Jordanians are learning about ourselves.”

The luxurious, refurbished wooden train car rattles between the rows of houses in Amman, and Nasser Kawaldeh points outside the window.

“You see? We are moving along the Ottomans’ track,” he tells his grandson. “This is better than the history books.”

Indeed, just like when it was unveiled by the Ottoman Empire in 1913 as an engineering marvel, the Hejaz Railway today runs on the same tracks winding through Amman and southward into the desert.

Mr. Kawaldeh and his family were among 100 masked passengers who lined up last Friday morning for a ride on the Hejaz, with coffee thermoses, bags of popcorn, soccer balls, and drums in tow.

Children screeched with delight at the sight of imposing locomotives and wooden carriages that once carried Emir Abdullah, Jordan’s first king.

This fall, many Jordanians are discovering the train for the first time, thanks to a Jordanian Tourism Ministry campaign offering socially distanced discount trips.

Taylor Luck
Nasser Kawaldeh, who brought his children and grandchildren to ride the train, stands by a refurbished carriage belonging to the Hejaz Railway at the Al Jiza station outside Amman, Jordan, Sept. 25, 2020.

The Hejaz takes eight hours from Amman to the southern desert of Wadi Rum and eight hours north to Damascus, Syria, although the railway mainly runs trips to a station just outside Amman.

But the Hejaz is more than just an old train. It’s a living link to the past running on wooden and steel tracks that mark the birthplace of a nation.

Ottoman artery

The Ottomans built the railway with taxes and conscript labor to link their Arab provinces and ferry hajj pilgrims to Mecca. They ran 810 miles of track from Damascus through the arid deserts of modern-day Jordan and to the holy city of Medina in Saudi Arabia, then known as the Hejaz. The train reduced a 40-day journey to a few days.

The railway was so crucial to Ottoman power and troop movement that it became the main target for the Great Arab Revolt led by Sharif Hussein, the great-great-grandfather of Jordan’s current monarch, King Abdullah II.

Sharif Hussein’s guerrilla attacks on the line in 1917-18 – as depicted in the movie “Lawrence of Arabia” – helped seal the Ottomans’ collapse and the birth of what would be known as Transjordan.

Today, 270 miles of the narrow-gauge track runs through the middle of Jordan like a spine, from its northern border to southernmost tip, preserved and maintained by the Jordan Hejaz Railway company for Jordanians and tourists alike.

Taylor Luck
The Hejaz Railway train station in Amman, built with hand-cut stone by the Ottomans in 1910, now stands in the center of Jordan's bustling capital.

Despite growing up just a mile away from the Amman train station and walking over the track each day on his way to school, 28-year-old Mohammed Al Awad rode the train for the first time on Friday.

“This makes you realize that the past never died but still lives with us. All these great civilizations – Ottomans, the Romans – all came through Jordan,” Mr. Awad says as he sat for lunch with his parents and sisters at the Al Jiza Station, 20 miles from the Amman station.

“Today we are part of that chain of civilizations,” Mr. Awad says.

Mr. Kawaldeh says he jumped at the chance to ride the train, coming from his hometown of Jerash 30 miles northwest of Amman with his children and grandchildren.

“Our ancestors built this track,” Mr. Kawaldeh says. “By learning about our past, we Jordanians are learning about ourselves.”

Jordan as crossroads

When the Hejaz first opened in 1913, Amman was a village of a few thousand; its rail station and line ran alongside deserted hills of wild grass and shrubs.

Today, a capital city of 4 million has grown on either side of the track. Closely.

Leaving the Amman station, the train navigates houses, makeshift patios, and traffic jams, and cuts through the center of cemeteries, the metal undercarriage skirts within an inch of headstones.

Children race uphill and down at the sound of the locomotive, stopping at the tracks’ edge to shout and wave and, if they are fortunate, get a train horn blast back from the conductor.

Toddlers too small to follow their siblings poke out of nearly every window the train passes, their heads, legs, and arms dangling from window bars as they wave and point. An older couple sitting at a folding table near the tracks for their morning tea raise their glasses as the train rumbles by. 

Taylor Luck
A refurbished VIP carriage of the Hejaz Railway, featuring decor and furniture reminiscent of the train's first years with the added modern luxury of air conditioning, shortly before a journey from Amman, Jordan, Sept. 25, 2020.

In less than two hours, the Hejaz offers a glimpse into Jordan’s unique makeup as a crossroads of urban, rural, and nomadic Bedouin life – today and more than a century ago.

South of Amman, the claustrophobic apartment-dotted hills give way to sprawling factories, before melting away into wheat-swept plains and olive groves; people are replaced by sheep, donkeys, horses, and dogs herding flocks.

A few miles later, the train passes through squash and tomato farms whose seasonal workers stop their picking to watch the families rumble by.

As the train nears Al Jiza, the second station outside Amman, the wheat fields become parched and camels graze near the tracks, their camel-mounted Bedouin keeper raising his riding crop in the air in salutation. 

Al Jiza, built of hand-cut stone, is one of 20 stations that remain intact and in use in Jordan, unchanged from Ottoman times.

Tracking change

But the Hejaz is not just history for Al Jiza stationmaster Ahmed Masri; it’s personal history: He was born in the station house 50 years ago.

Mr. Masri’s father, who hailed from a Bedouin settlement near the station, worked maintenance on the railroad for decades, his family living in the station and adjacent house.

Now a 28-year veteran of the railway, Mr. Masri has seen many changes the past three decades.

“Before there was no electricity, no houses, no highway; the airport hadn’t expanded near the tracks,” Mr. Masri says as he motions to houses poking out from the desert.

Taylor Luck
An employee of the Jordan Hejaz Railway company peers out from the carriage platform as the train passes over a bustling Friday market in downtown Amman, Jordan, Sept. 25, 2020.

Once regular trips from Amman to Damascus are now impossible due to ongoing war.

Government plans to revive the Hejaz as a regional rail hub connecting the Gulf, Syria, and beyond are on hold amid a lack of funds and willing partners, and the need to overhaul the track for the modern, wider gauge used by its neighbors.

While Jordan’s Hejaz Railway still has nine British and German steam engines in service, some dating back to the 19th century, it now mostly runs Belgian diesel locomotives from the 1950s to keep down costs.

The telegraph line that once ran alongside the track is long gone.

The rail line practically disappears once it leaves southern Jordan and enters Saudi Arabia; there, much of the track has been uprooted by tribesmen or reclaimed by desert.

But one thing has stayed the same.

“The train still runs on time,” Mr. Masri says with a smile. “And everyone is welcome aboard.”

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