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The Incredible Forgotten Railways of the Middle East

Written by Nicholas Suarez 


By far, the most consequential invention to come out of the industrial revolution was the railroad. Before its introduction, transport over land was done by pack animals, which meant that caravans and wagon trains were sharply limited. Animals need to be fed and watered, and can only carry so much on their backs, and only go so far in a day. It was doable, but for most of human history – and to this day – the bulk of long-distance trading has been done over the water, via rivers and the ocean.

All of that changed with the railroad. The ocean and rivers are fixed; well, unless you count canals, but not everywhere can have a canal, either. Now, however, huge amounts of goods and people could be delivered over land, at rates cheaper than they had ever been before. Vast distances across continents were suddenly within reach; in North America, Asia, and Europe, rail networks offered an unprecedented opportunity for connection.

Today, however, we will be focusing on a different part of the world that is most well-known for division, not connection. Ever since the breakup and partitioning of the Ottoman Empire following the first World War, the Middle East has been split apart along colonial lines, carved into arbitrary pieces by the empires of France and Britain. The decisions made back then are still impacting the region today, and it has been considered by historians as the agreement that ruined the Middle East.

But there’s more to the story than that. As it turns out, the many cities and regions of the Middle East used to be connected by railroads. You could travel, by rail, through what is today the countries of Syria, Lebanon, Israel/Palestine, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia, by train car, and one could even go further afield, to the cities of North Africa. Alas, today, you can do no such thing; the railroads are dead. But who killed them, and why? This is the story of the Middle East’s forgotten railroads.


The Sublime Porte

For four hundred years, the Middle East was ruled by the Turkish Ottoman Empire. For nearly a millennium, the region was the primary crossroads for trade along the Silk Road, and the cities of Baghdad, Damascus, Alexandria, and more were among the most populous and wealthy cities in the entire world. This trade was the catalyst for the Islamic Golden Age, a period where the Middle East outshined many other parts of the world as the center of sciences, arts, and grand medieval states.

This trade also attracted rivals. Many warlords sought to conquer the region’s riches for themselves, from the Seljuk Turks in the 11th century, to the Mongols in the 13th century, and then the Ottoman Empire in the 15th century. But unlike these earlier warlords, the Ottoman conquests would be lasting and transformative. This was because the Ottomans built tolerant governing institutions, designed to appease the many ethnic minorities in their empire. That’s not to say the empire was a bastion of progressive ethnic relations – it wasn’t – but it certainly did some things well in this regard, better than most European states at the time managed.


Fast forward a few hundred years, to the 1800s. The Ottoman lands in the Middle East are not what they used to be; European empires have pioneered new trade routes to the Far East, specifically to bypass the Muslim lands and their heavy taxes and restrictions on trade with Europeans. As such, the trade that made the region so rich in the first place was now mostly gone, and the Ottoman Empire itself had entered a long period of economic and political decline. Many minorities in the Empire began to wonder why they should bother being ruled by the Turkish sultan in faraway Constantinople (it wasn’t called Istanbul yet).

With the advent of the industrial revolution, however, there presented itself a chance for a reset. If the Ottomans could connect and industrialize their far-flung territories, not only might they manage to reverse the relative decline of their empire, but it might ingratiate the ethnic minorities which were agitating for more autonomy, or even independence. There was just one problem – the Ottomans had no money.

This “no money” problem became particularly acute in 1855, during the Crimean War. For various complex reasons that mostly boiled down to a d*ck measuring contest, the Russian Empire had attacked the Ottoman Empire, while France and Britain had allied themselves with the Ottomans. But again, the Ottomans had no money. No matter – France and Britain made some incredibly generous offers to loan the Ottomans any money they needed. The Ottomans then spent this money on building railroads, factories, and ports, creating the infrastructure necessary to support a burgeoning industrial society. France and Britain were all too happy to give the Ottomans these loans, which came at the tremendously generous rate of “you will be bankrupt in two decades.”

“Wait, what was that last part?” said the Ottomans. “Oh, the war’s over,” said France and Britain, “can we have our money back now?”

The Ottomans couldn’t pay, partly because the loans were extortionate, partly because of the aforementioned economic decline hurting tax revenues, and partly because the Ottoman imperial court was blowing a lot of money on lavish things it didn’t need. Whatever the case, the Ottomans found their annual interest payments taking up a significant portion of the national budget, which was a problem. Their solution to this was to take out more loans, in order to pay back the previous loans. Shockingly, that didn’t work, and the Ottoman government declared bankruptcy in 1876.

The European powers who had lent to the Ottomans then moved to set up an organization called the Ottoman Public Debt Administration, or OPDA. The goal of the OPDA was to collect revenues from the Ottoman state in order pay down its debt obligations, and to that end, it was essentially embedded into the Ottoman government as a separate, independent bureaucracy, collecting its own taxes to then pay the empire’s creditors. It was run mostly by Europeans, with a rotating presidency between France and Britain.


Since part of the Ottoman’s already-diminished tax revenues were now being directly siphoned off, public services began to suffer, particularly education, which is rather important to improving people’s lives, so we’re told. This struggle would be a cause for agitation across the empire, and would become important later. For now, though, the European powers who were milking Ottoman state revenues were becoming more and more interested in the empire’s territories, and decided to start bankrolling some new ventures there.

One form that those ventures took, of course, was trains. The relatively flat geography of the region made it an ideal place for construction, and soon railway projects started getting funding all over the Empire, from its European territories in the Balkans to the Turkish-dominated lands of Anatolia, along with, of course, the lands of the Fertile Crescent, including the cities of Baghdad, Jerusalem, and Damascus.

We should be clear that, despite the many projects going up, it was small potatoes compared to elsewhere in the world. In 1914, for example, France had almost ten times as much length in railroads in France alone than the Ottomans did in their entire empire. The majority of the Ottoman economy was, and would remain, agricultural, and so these railways were most definitely the exception, not the rule.

Yet up they went. Railways were laid between cities across the Ottoman’s Middle Eastern territories, and even cities beyond them. Lines crossed from the Ottoman empire into Egypt, linking Alexandria and Cairo to the Holy Land. On the other side of the Empire, many train lines were extended to connect with European cities, linking the two regions together in a way they never had been before. Germany, for example, bankrolled part of a railway that ran all the way from Berlin to Baghdad – mainly, it should be noted, out of a desire to control a port in the Persian Gulf, which was quickly becoming a center of the emerging global oil industry.

Industry and geopolitics, however, were only part of the story. As the Industrial Revolution steamed on, many well-off individuals in Europe took advantage of the new interconnectedness of the world to go abroad. Cities in North Africa and the Middle East were particularly popular, both for their proximity to Europe and for the general Orientalist fascination running through the time period. Tourists came in the thousands, and when people weren’t arriving in steam ships, they were arriving by train car on passenger rails, the most famous of which was the Orient Express, setting of the Agatha Christie novel Murder on the Orient Express.


And lastly, there was the Hejaz Railway, starting in Damascus and intended to go all the way to Mecca, the holiest city in Islam. Publicly billed as a means for facilitating the hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca that every adult Muslim man is supposed to make at least once in his life, it was also a convenient way for the Ottoman government to quickly move troops to a region where the loyalty of the locals could best be described as “questionable”.

And with that, we come to the elephant in the room. Underneath all of this development was an undercurrent of mistrust, the idea that these railways were going up not for the sake of connection or commerce, but for competition – the influence of one great power over another. From the moment industrial development was brought to the region, it was inextricably linked to empire, primarily of the British and the French. As empires are held together through violence, it’s no surprise, then, that violence followed soon after these rails.


The Decay

The catalyst for the decline of the Middle East’s railways was World War I. But even before the start of the war, tensions were rising over them. The British interpreted Germany’s investment in the Baghdad railway as a potential threat to their holdings in India, because if there’s one word that describes Britain’s attitude to India in the industrial era, it’s “paranoid”. That railway, by the way, wasn’t even finished by the time war broke out.

When the war began, the military usefulness of railroads made them obvious targets. The Ottomans joined on the side of the Central Powers, pitting them against the British in the Middle East. The British, for their part, had expected to walk all over the Ottomans, believing them to be the “sick man of Europe”, as the saying went. Instead, the Ottomans put up fierce resistance every step of the way, forcing the British to a stalemate in the Sinai peninsula and in Baghdad. All of this fighting caused severe damage to the region’s rails, some of which would never be repaired.

In addition, rather famously, a man by the name of T.E. Lawrence was working with the tribes of the Arabian peninsula, to ally them with the British against the Ottomans. To hugely oversimplify a complex story, this worked, and the Arabs began explicitly targeting railways and bridges to hinder the Ottoman supply lines. This continued, more or less, until the end of the war.

When the war did end, the first big hit had been done to the Middle East’s railways. But it was about to get worse. Again, to oversimplify, the British had promised the Arab tribes that they would recognize an independent, unified Arab state in the region in exchange for their help, including Syria, Iraq, and the entire Arabian peninsula. That, obviously, didn’t happen, and the reason for that was because Britain and France had already agreed to divide the Middle East between themselves. With the war over, they did just that, under the infamous Sykes-Picot Agreement, dividing Syria and Iraq between them. Mandates were made, borders were drawn, communities were divided, and what had been internal rail networks became international ones, with multiple parties needing to work together for their maintenance.


That cooperation would never come. First, Britain and France weren’t keen on maintaining the railways in the first place. As time went on, they decided they didn’t want the primarily Muslim population of these areas from going on pilgrimage so much, and they decided to let the railways between their respective territories fall into disrepair to make any movements of people harder. It is more complicated than that, but that was a reason.

Another major reason, far more pronounced than imperialist indifference, was just how thoroughly the Sykes-Picot Agreement ruined the Middle East. The borders followed no geographical, cultural, or really any reasonable type of boundaries whatsoever. Iraq was left without a deep water harbor, so that Britain could keep Kuwait; Syria was carved into pieces and was reformed as a mix of Christians, Muslims, and ethnic divisions. From the very start, long before these countries became independent, they were set up to fail. That is, of course, to say nothing of the resource curse that is oil, as well as the establishment of Israel, which was overwhelmingly opposed across the Arab world. These artificial borders would crystalize over violence, and international connection would soon be thrown out in favor of national entrenchment.

And even inside countries, that sense of entrenchment would be the death of many rail lines. In Hejaz, a new family was in control – the House of Saud. In their state, today called Saudi Arabia, they ripped up what remained of the Hejaz Railway. The railway had never been particularly well received in the region, partly because of the highly traditional society in the area, and partly because it was seen as an attempt by the Ottomans to extend their reach. This latter point was shared, in a way, by Jewish Zionists in Palestine, who ripped up British railways during the Mandatory period.

That desire of hardliners to keep their own parcels of land free of outside threats, both real and perceived, was the final nail in the coffin that did in many of the region’s remaining rail lines. Israel became independent in 1948, marking the start of decades of international conflict. Dictators took control of governments, isolating themselves and their countries. Borders grew ever more closed. The idea of any of these countries cooperating on anything became a distant aspiration, and as such, the railroads that had once run through them withered away.

And that is the story of how the Middle East’s train cars stopped running: a parallel of the rest of the region’s history. Through violence, empire, dissolution and disagreement, the borders which started as lines on a map have become very much real, and regularly fought over. Even in North Africa, newly independent countries found reasons to disagree and fight with each other, and border-crossing rail lines were closed. Today, from Morocco to Iraq, not a single railroad crosses international borders, a punctuating illustration on just how divided the Middle East is, and the origins of that division stem from the same thing that built those railroads in the first place – empires.

The Legacy of Empire

Today, the Middle East is, hopefully, becoming a more peaceful place. But it’s far from certain. Even as the Syrian civil war has drawn to a close, the fact remains that many countries in the Middle East are run by authoritarian governments, from Egypt to Syria to Algeria, and they hardly seem interested in the idea of opening their countries up to their neighbors. It seems unlikely that the Middle East will ever have a rail network on the scale that it had before.


There is some cause for optimism. Even though international lines are not forthcoming these days, some countries are building internal networks, or otherwise planning for them. Saudi Arabia has some, and Israel is in the process of building a few. Some, like Jordan, are even going so far as to plan networks close to their borders, in the event they ever get the chance to build across them again. Maybe one day, that chance will come. They might even stop to think about those that came before.

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