Before Saudi Arabia took shape on world map, the major parts of the lands encompassing the holy cities of Makkah and Madinah was known as Hejaz. The yearly Islamic pilgrimage to the Holy city of Makkah is one of the five pillars of Islam and one of the most important and most ancient religious pilgrimages in the world. For centuries, the Muslim pilgrims crossed the Arabian Desert in long caravans that followed traditional paths and routes to reach the Holy City of Makkah. More often, it was a long, perilous and tiresome journey. Sultan Abdul Hameed II, who was motivated by the spirit of science, technology and progress, built a Rail road that provided vital necessities and comfort including physical protection to Hajis from Istanbul through Damascus up to Madinah. The underlying intention was to protect Hejaz, the Holy places and other Arab provinces from British invasion. This came to be known as Hejaz Railway. The final destination of the rail route was to be Makkah. Unfortunately, the Madinah-Makkah leg could not be completed due to outbreak of World War I. It has to be underscored that the project had witnessed the true meaning of solidity in the formation and foundation of this railway.
In March 1900, Sultan Abdul Hameed II issued a Decree for the construction of the Hejaz Railroad, provided that the project be totally funded by donations from the Muslim World. Although it was a tough and costly project, this decision was received with joy in the Islamic world. The total cost of the railway was estimated as 4 million Ottoman liras (around 570 kg of gold). This amount corresponded to almost 20 percent of the entire Ottoman budget at that time. The Ottoman Sultan, the Ottoman dynasty, prominent businessmen and even the public donated substantial amounts. However, it was clear that donations would not be enough for the construction of the railway.
The Islamic world came to the rescue. Muslims living outside the Ottoman territory began making large donations through Ottoman consulates. From Morocco, to Egypt, India, South Africa, Mauritius and Kazan, which were occupied and colonized by Europe, the Muslims raced to contribute to this endeavour. The khedive of Egypt, the Shah of Iran and the Nizam of Hyderabad made donations to the cause. The donation campaign turned into a matchless project in terms of Islamic unity and loyalty to the caliphate. Our grandparents who witnessed that grand moment of Islamic solidarity were very proud of this project.
The Europeans, on the other hand, regarded it as a project which was impossible to realize. The French and the British never believed in this project from the perspective of both huge financial implications and technical complications in a desert terrain. Many issues threatened the project: the desert nature of the land, the lack of sufficient water, and the enormous financial cost especially that the Ottoman Empire was on the brinks of bankruptcy, the lack of suitable workforce and the security issue in Arabia. This did not deter the proponents from going ahead with the project. Influential Muslim figures around the Muslim World rallied in favour of the project. Between 5.000 to 7.000 workers joined in this project, most of which were from the Ottoman Army. In addition, migrant workers came from all around the Ottoman Empire, Morocco, Arabia, including European countries like Italy and Greece. Workers suffered from the lack of food and the severity of the weather in addition to fear and exhaustion. Hundreds of workers were buried alongside the track. The track passed many barren valleys, which required the construction of bridges, the total number of which were about 2000 overpasses. A great deal of these bridges and overpasses were built from local carved stone due to the hardship faced in supply and manufacture of reinforced concrete. The majority of these bridges and overpasses still remain and in good condition. The railway had no debt when completed.
When the railway opened in 1908, the arduous two-month journey was reduced to a comfortable and cheaper four-day trip. As word spread, thousands of pilgrims from Russia, Central Asia, Iran and Iraq converged on Damascus to take the train. By the year 1912 the railway was transporting 30,000 pilgrims a year, which swelled to 300,000 passengers by 1914. It strengthened commerce between the north and the south and paved the way for deeper political, cultural and economic integration within the Ottoman lands and provinces. The Ottoman Empire and the Caliph earned a huge prestige: the self-confidence of Muslims was refreshed. Indian Muslims asked to extend the Hejaz Railway to India via Baghdad and declared that they were ready to do their part in the construction of the new railroad. Unfortunately, the plans of extending the railway to Mecca and Yemen as well as Baghdad failed to be realized. The British and the French were highly troubled with the construction of this railway as the winds of war had begun to blow.
Attacks on the railway became more and more frequent, and it wasn’t long before the train journey became more perilous than the two-month trek across the hot and scorching desert. Guerrilla forces commanded by British officers successfully blew up large sections of the tracks including a moving locomotive for the first time in history. Later, the British officer T.E. Lawrence, better known as the Lawrence of Arabia, joined in on the attack and destroyed countless bridges. When the Arabs, instigated by T.E. Lawrence, rose up in revolt against Turkish domination, the railway became the principal target.
During World War I, the Hejaz Railway was used to transport military troops. By means of the railway, Medina maintained communication with Istanbul and resisted until 1919. The last trip of the Hejaz Railway to Istanbul was orchestrated to bring the Islamic Sacred Relics upon the fall of Medina. With the truce in 1918, the Ottoman Empire lost control over most parts of the railway. After the First World War, the railway was abandoned although several attempts were made to revive. The Hejaz Railway was conceived to become the waqf of the Ummah. Abandoned in the desert, the Hejaz railway is now a vestige for tourist attraction.