I count myself incredibly lucky to have travelled to Syria in 2009. My trip there counts as one of my all time best – little did I know of the horrors that were soon to unfold, as I received an incredibly warm welcome everywhere I visited from the smiling locals.
The whole country appeared so relaxed and contented.
My journey there was also epic, taking the train from Istanbul to the east of Turkey and over the border close to Aleppo, a route now oft travelled by those intent on conflict it sadly seems.
I will be sharing some pictures and thoughts about my short time in Syria on this blog and start here in the capital.
Damascus was our final port of call of the trip (I was with Hamish as normal) with a few days spent in the capital following a bus journey from Palmyra, truly the road to Damascus.
There were many highlights of the time spent in the city, but I will concentrate on a railway theme for this post.
Near our hotel stood Hejaz Railway Station, then used for administrative & retail purposes only plus to serve as a reminder of when the station thronged with Muslims bound for Mecca & Medina in Saudi Arabia.
The building itself was very well maintained with its stained glass windows and well-polished wooden floors, stairs & balconies, a majestic wooden roof and ornate ticket booths.
There were also many pictures adorning the walls of pilgrims massed onto steam trains, animated in their joy at the prospect of fulfilling the Hajj, one of the five pillars of Islam and thus confirming their status as devout believers.
The photographs were wonderfully evocative and certainly made me joyful just looking at them.
Out of the back windows, you could still see some tracks. Overgrown and rusting maybe, but it was not hard to imagine them bursting wife life and energy. What a carnival a departing train must have been as Muslims from the likes of Jordan, Lebanon & Turkey joined their Syrian brothers.
Our enthusiasm for the pictures and the whole railway building caught the eye of one of the administrators.
The grey-haired and moustachioed gentleman then proceeded to tell us the history of the station and its trains.
The train never did actually make further than the 1300km to Medina some 400km short of Mecca, but it was still extensively used with the journey to the holiest of Islamic sites finished by other means. The heyday had only lasted around eight years from 1908 when the line to Medina had been completed up until the first Great War.
The building of the railway by the Ottoman Empire had been designed to cut the journey time from the Empire’s capital in Istanbul to Mecca from forty days to five, but this was interrupted first by the advent of WWI and then the fall of the Empire in 1920, which was when the majority of the railway ceased to operate all together.
Much of the railway was attacked by opponents to the Ottoman Empire led by Lawrence of Arabia, with many trains and stations lying abandoned in the Saudi Desert.
So enchanted were we at his history lesson that he uttered the words, “would you like to visit the new museum of Syrian Railway History?”
We did not need asking twice and soon found ourselves in a taxi bound for Kadam station on the outskirts of the city.
Kadam was now Damascus’s main operating train station with trains available to the likes of Amman & Aleppo, as well as the site of the museum and a working train maintenance depot.
Well I was pretty excited by all the exhibits and the goings on, but Hamish who is a self-professed railway nut was in his element.
The exhibits included old radios, parts of locomotives, signalling equipment, photographs, timetables, uniforms and much more.
However, it was the working train sheds and maintenance works that took the biscuit and sent Hamish into a proper frenzy.
Old locos and carriages from Romania, heavy equipment and even the wooden carcass of a new carriage being built on site.
We were allowed to stroll around as sparks flew and hammers pounded around us. Outside stood restored steam engines lined up in neat rows.
Just as we were about to leave after a real schoolboys delight, an engine pulling a load of wood chugged towards us and off into the distance – you can see a short video by clicking here.
A very enjoyable couple of hours indeed.