DAMASCUS, Syria — For Younes al-Nasr, a lifelong train lover, the Hejaz railway station here in the heart of the Syrian capital is a repository of shelved ambitions.
Every day, al-Nasr, 68, a Transportation Ministry employee, pads around his offices in the Ottoman-era building, where light filters through red, yellow and blue stained glass. He imagines the past — the few short years a century ago when the place bustled with travelers headed for Mecca. And he pictures the future — the grand plans to connect the site to an expanded suburban railway network, allowing commuters to disembark in the center of town and restoring the landmark station to life.
But that will have to wait until after the war. For now, the only evidence of those ambitions is an enormous pit out back. There, workers dug tunnels from outlying stations and began the foundation of a 12-story shopping mall over the tracks, before the country convulsed in conflict three years ago, bringing construction, and eventually Syria’s entire railway system, to a halt. Even here at the Hejaz station, the war has encroached; a few months ago, a mortar shell fired by insurgents struck the square just outside, killing 12 people.
To al-Nasr, the station shutdown is only the latest contraction of the region’s horizons. As borders and conflicts proliferated over the past 100 years, they cut rail ties that symbolized the lost links of business and society that once knitted the Levant, and the wider Middle East, together.
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“Railways are the most sociable form of travel,” he said, recalling his own train trips through Turkey to Romania, Bulgaria and Iran, along a route now made impassable by fighting in northern Syria. “They connect societies and economies. There would have been no United States without railways, and Europe is Europe because of trains.”
Nostalgia is widespread here in the Middle East for the brief age of railroads that fostered such connections in the region. Al-Nasr said his grandfather rode to work in what was then British-administered Palestine on trains that linked Damascus to Haifa and other cities there — trains now long cut off by hostilities with Israel. Trains to neighboring Lebanon stopped during its civil war decades ago, along with the whole Lebanese railway system, never to resume.
The Hejaz railway was completed in 1908 to much fanfare, reaching Medina in Saudi Arabia, and cutting travel times to Mecca, the most important Muslim pilgrimage site, to five days from 40. The Damascus station opened in 1913.
But that line did not survive World War I. British-backed Arab fighters sabotaged the tracks to weaken Ottoman supply lines during World War I.
Later, in 1920, Syrian independence fighters gathered at the Hejaz station before heading west to Maysaloon for a suicidal stand against the French, now remembered as a heroic act of resistance.
“The Hejaz railway is part of the Arab memory,” al-Nasr said. “It should stay alive.”
But periodic efforts to “restore the glory,” as government brochures put it, of the line to Medina foundered over the decades because of regional rivalries and shifting priorities. Syrians rebuilt their section of track, but Saudi Arabia never signed on to reviving the whole route.
The railway became an attraction for history buffs. Before the current war, visitors to Syria could take a vintage, narrow-gauge, coal-powered train on a scenic trip toward the border with Lebanon. The Damascus station, its towering hall crowned with an enormous chandelier, became a museum, where tourists inspected antique wooden telegraph equipment and heard tales of a visit by Agatha Christie.
Now, Syrians occasionally pass through to gaze at a new exhibit: photographs of the destruction of the country’s railroads. They show stations burned and shattered, bridges collapsed and antique steam engines wrecked along with the Qadam depot, on the capital’s outskirts, where they were stored. Others show the derailment, in 2012, of a passenger train to Aleppo, which al-Nasr said insurgents accomplished with a kitchen pot stuffed with explosives. The engineer and his assistant were killed, but the 500 passengers were saved by “destiny,” he said.
Plaques list the names of railway workers killed, injured and kidnapped. The tracks that had carried millions of passengers and millions of tons of freight annually are quiet.
Ministry employees still report for work every day in the offices tucked inside the Hejaz station. They still draw their salaries, but there is little to do.
In one office, decorated with a map that shows the old routes extending into the Galilee, workers sipped tea and stared at advertisements scrolling by on a government television station.
But al-Nasr wanted to make one thing clear. “We are not bored,” he said. “Not bored! The Syrians are doing their duties, and we will win.”
Dreams of rebuilding
Down the hall, the director of railways, Hasanin Mohammed Ali, showed off mock-ups of the proposed mall and spoke of plans to open a new line through Iraq to its southern port of Basra, with connections to Iran; both countries have provided critical support to the Syrian government.
Even the lines to Turkey, whose prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has been a foe of the Syrian government, will someday reopen, Ali said.
“Sooner or later Erdogan will be leaving and the relations will return,” he said, adding that he thought Syria’s role as a hub had also made it a target for Western designs on the region. “Syria is the connection between Asia and Europe and all the world, and this whole war is because of this.”
But reconstruction will be expensive. Given the widespread damage across the country, and continued insurgent control of wide swaths of territory, it remains unclear whether Syria’s railroads will remain, like Lebanon’s, just a memory.