The Hejaz Railway was constructed by the Ottomans between 1900 and 1908, primarily to facilitate pilgrimages to the Muslim Holy places in Arabia. It also served to strengthen Ottoman control over the far flung provinces of their empire. The main line linked Damascus to Medina, over a distance of 1,320km, passing through Transjordan via Az-Zarqa’, Al-Qatranah and Ma’an and into northwestern Arabia to the region of Hejaz where Medina and Mecca are located.
The railway replaced the ancient caravan route, which was formerly used to transport goods to and from Damascus and Arabia, a round trip that would have taken approximately four months to complete. The caravan traders were far from happy with this new form of transport as it posed a serious threat to their livelihoods, and many attempts were made by them to disrupt its construction.
It took some 5000 Ottoman soldiers to construct, maintain and guard the line. The whole operation presented enormous difficulties, with unpredictable and often hostile local tribesmen and difficult terrain – in some places very soft and sandy and in others, solid rock. There were water shortages to contend with, and variations in the terrain itself made construction difficult. The ground was very soft and sandy in places and solid rock in others. And then there was the weather – mostly extremely hot with dust and sandstorms, but sometimes there were flash floods that would wash away bridges and banks, causing the lines to collapse.
Within four years of its completion in September 1908, the Hejaz Railway was transporting around 300,000 passengers a year. But these were not only pilgrims – the Turks had started using the railway to transport troops and supplies and, during the World War I (1914-1918), many attempts were made to disrupt it so as to impede the advance of the Turkish Army.
The track between Ma’an in Jordan and Medina in Arabia, suffered irreparable damage from sabotage, much of it inspired and instigated by the British military strategist, T. E. Lawrence, who, together with combined Arab forces, mined the tracks and derailed several troop-carrying trains and carriages.
At the end of the war, the operative sections of the railroad were taken over by the relevant Syrian, Palestinian and Transjordan governments.