Thursday, August 28, 2008

The Hejaz Railway

My grandfather helped rebuild the railway that Lawrence of Arabia helped destroy. Robert Smith Bell, graduate of engineering from Columbia U. and hailing from Philadelphia, came to the Middle East in 1917 and ended up with the British team in Amman assessing how to rebuild the Hejaz railway after the First World War.

That line, first conceived in 1864 by Sultan Abdel Hamid and completed by the Ottomans in 1908, extended from Damascus to Mecca, and was intended to facilitate the pilgrimage to the Holy City.

The railway was a major financial undertaking for the Ottomans, trying to vault themselves into technological competition with European powers. Building railways was a major financial exercise requiring its establishment as a 'waqf' or religious endowment with innovative funding techniques including 'donations' on the part of Turkish soldiery.

Its construction was fraught with dangers - lack of water, fuel, risky and hostile terrain. Indeed, many Arab bedouins and caravan operators attacked the line because it threatened their ancient livelihood of escorting pilgrims to Mecca. The line saw 8 years of solid service (1908-1916) and carried 300,000 passengers in 1914 until the First World War and T.E. Lawrence presented its destruction in the great Arab revolt against the Ottoman Empire.

My father was born in Amman because of the Hijaz railway and my grandfather's death in 1937 was a result of the desert conditions and the scourges of such difficult engineering endeavours. 'Mr. Lava' as he was known succumbed to a stroke in the upper eastern arm of what is now Jordan while building the road on the lava plain in that area. The road was needed to construct the oil pipeline from Kirkuk to Haifa.

He is now buried in the British cemetary in Haifa near the very railway lines that run along the Mediterranean coast, once stretching from Cairo to Beirut.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Hi John and John. This a very interesting post. I'm writing a story about the Hejaz railway for a national Jordanian newspaper and I wondered if you would mind me using some information about your grabndfather/ answering a few questions.

Please get in touch.