With Daish (ISIS) advancing (5/15/2015) toward the gates of Syria's ancient city of Palmyra (Tadmur), an irreplaceable treasure for the Syrian people and for the world, where this observer has been honored to spend many inspiring awe-filled hours these past few years observing and contemplating its unique blend of Greco-Roman and Persian influences, another global archeological tragedy may be unfolding. Fears are raised today in Syria that this UNESCO World Heritage Site could face destruction of the kind the jihadis have already wreaked in Iraq and other areas of this country.
The Director-General of Antiquities and Museums (DGAM), Syrian patriot, Dr. Maamoun Abdel-Karim, who has devoted life to preserving our global heritage in Syria, and whose office this observer had just left when the news broke, declared that "If ISIS enters Palmyra, it will be destroyed and it will be an international catastrophe."
Against this horrific backdrop, discussing other aspects of Syria's cultural heritage could appear to dear reader as relatively less significant at this moment. Yet, Syria's historic Al Hijaz railway system, as is the case with much of this country's cultural heritage, has also been damaged, looted and in some cases maliciously destroyed. Trains being considered by some jihadist salafis and deranged miscreants as somehow religiously subversive. One barely teenage Da'ish (ISIS) tryout, deselected when he lied to recruiters about his real age which was 13, explained to this observer recently that in the for sure to be established Caliphate, camels, donkeys and horses, and other 7th century modes of transportation should be required via fatwa in order to render us all more religious and nearer to what he imagines Allah would really want us to be.
Virtually all Syrians scoff at this and related notions and countless numbers today are volunteering at archeological sites, wherever and whenever security conditions allow, preserving and protecting their and our, cultural heritage. This work includes many heritage projects around the Damascus area, including Syria's historic train system which formerly was also a major national and international tourist attraction.
Admittedly, Syria's rail system, old in terms of much of western history including North America is very recent in the context of this country's ten millennia cultural history. Yet Syria's trains have been an important cultural aspect in the history of the Levantine region from the eastern coast of the Mediterranean, to the sea north of the Arabian Peninsula and to the south of Turkey, and on down to Jordan and including still occupied Palestine.
Government workers and volunteers here are protecting and restoring the train system with the support and appreciation of this war-battered public.
An earlier railway for this area had been suggested in 1864 by the Ottomans in order "to relieve the suffering of the hajis on their 40-day journey to Mecca" through the wilderness of Midian, the Nafud, and the Hejaz Mountains. But not until 1900 was the railway started by order of the Ottoman Sultan Abdul Hamid II and was built largely by the Ottomans, with German advice and support, again, ostensibly to facilitate religious pilgrimages to Muslim holy places, including Mecca. But as is often the case, particularly these days, religion was used as a mask to facilitate political objectives and in fact the main reason for the train system, according to some scholars, was to strengthen Ottoman control over the most distant provinces of its empire. Before the construction, German military adviser in Istanbul Auler Pasha advised the Sultan that the transportation of soldiers from Istanbul to Mecca would be reduced to only 120 hours. Another advantage to be gained was that the line would protect Hejaz and other Arab provinces from British invasion.
German engineers oversaw construction and German trains were imported for the 820 miles of track that traversed 820 miles (1,320 km) of difficult terrain and was completed in only eight years. It ran from Damascus southward to Darʿā (Deraa) and thence over Transjordan via Az-Zarqāʾ, Al-Qarānah, and Maʿān into northwestern Arabia, and inland via Dhāt al-Ḥajj and Al-ʿUlā to Medina. The major branch line, 100 miles (160 km) long, from Darʿā to Haifa on the Mediterranean coast of Palestine was added.
World War I devastated much of Syria's railroad system but even before the war started, trains were sometimes attacked by Bedouins from adjacent desert areas because they threatened the tribes control and profits over pilgrim routes to holy places. When the Arabs of the Hejaz revolted against Turkish rule in 1916, the track that ran to Medina was put out of operation by Arab raids, largely planned by the British archeologist and military strategist, Thomas Edward Lawrence. Lawrence was dispatched from London to Arabia to assure the Arabs that England had their best interests at heart and would deliver on their pledges which Lawrence communicated. After the war Messrs.' Sykes and Picot arrived and the operative sections of track were taken over by the Syrian, Palestinian, and Transjordanian governments.
The very popular Rabweh to Dumar line of Syria's railway system, which begins in central Damascus, is protected by the government and after nearly four years closure due to rebel threats has this month re-opened. The public is demonstrably elated. Most of whom, like this observer, seem to be steam engine train lovers as they explain that they are also filled with memories of childhood family train trips as well as inhaling breadths of joy and optimism over even a partial return to pre-conflict life these warm spring days. Today, nostalgia is widespread in Syria for days past.
Not long after
this country convulsed in conflict, Syria's railway system stopped functioning
and rebels destroyed $250 million worth of new train cars, not yet even put
into service that had recently arrived from China. Also destroyed were many vehicles and parts
of buildings when rebels occupied the largest railway museum in the world, at Qadam,
a Damascus suburb. Serious damage was
done to the "museum of the rolling stock of Al-Hidjaz Railway" with fires
destroying antique steam engines, wrecked and burned out train cars, buses,
heavy equipment and assorted vehicles. Damage also resulted from shelling of
the outer walls and ceiling of a large maintenance and storage facility at
Qadam. The jihadists also looted
computers and large LCD TV's but in some cases passed on many irreplaceable
objects--such as old Morse code machines, historic documents and other heritage
items apparently not appreciating their
historic significance or cultural value which they were bent on destroying.
In February 2014, the central Damascus Hejaz railway station was bombed by a rebel mortar killing 12 people while shrapnel damaged the exterior of the station but missed its large historic red, yellow, blue and green stain glass window and Ottoman period ceilings. The elegant building, which was designed by the Spanish architect Fernando de Aranda, currently houses a museum and is a popular meeting place for the public. Other damage to Syria's heritage railway includes the derailment, in 2012, of a passenger train to Aleppo, which Mr. Younes Al-Nassar reported insurgents perpetrated with a kitchen pot stuffed with explosives, killing the engineer and his assistant. The 500 passengers miraculously escaping serious injury.