Newspaper article International New York Times

Syria's Fractured Railroad Echoes with Nostalgia and Loss

Newspaper article International New York Times

Syria's Fractured Railroad Echoes with Nostalgia and Loss

Article excerpt

Conflict in Syria has brought the country's rail system to a halt, severing links to business and society that once knitted the Middle East together.

For Younes al-Nasr, the Hejaz railway station in the heart of the Syrian capital is a repository of shelved ambitions.

Every day, Mr. 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 place a century ago when it bustled with travelers headed for Mecca. And he pictures the future -- the grand plans to connect the site to an expanded suburban railway network, restoring the 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 busy square just outside, killing 12 people.

To Mr. Nasr, the shutdown is only the latest contraction of the region's horizons. As borders and conflicts proliferated during the past 100 years, they cut rail ties that symbolized the lost links that once knitted the Levant, and the wider Middle East, together.

"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. Mr. 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, 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, an episode immortalized in the film "Lawrence of Arabia." Later, in 1920, Syrian independence fighters gathered at the Hejaz station before heading west to Maysaloon, Syria, for a suicidal stand against the French, now remembered as a heroic act of resistance. …

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