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Tripoli Station and the Railway

This was 1898, the end of the nineteenth century and the promise of the twentieth. Lebanon was enjoying a certain peace thanks to the seven European Consuls who guaranteed a certain autonomy within the framework of the giant Ottoman Empire, whose Sultan was the heir of the caliphs and the supreme head of all Muslims. Lebanon stood as a deep wound which forecast the collapse and break-up of this imperial state occupying areas in Europe, Asia and Africa.

After the civil and confessional war lasting on and off between 1840 and 1860, the seven major powers, France, Britain, Austria, Russia, Spain, Italy (Naples and Sicily) and Prussia, decided to install a Christian “Administrator”, the Mutassaref, to be appointed by the Ottomans and supported by a small army, to govern and administer Mount Lebanon. These governors did considerable good work up to the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, when the Ottoman Turks once again imposed their tyranny with their brutal laws in the Christian regions, killing, raping, destroying and impoverishing, and this state of affairs lasted until their defeat and capitulation in 1918.

In 1898, France, which maintained good relations with little Lebanon, undertook a major enterprise, the laying of a narrow-gauge railway line joining Damascus to Beirut and its port. This was something new in the way of transport, both for passengers and for goods. Speaking of the train which snaked its way through the Beqaa at some ten miles an hour, the great poet Moutran said that it sped as if mad, swallowing the miles at full steam, which was true if one compared it to the plodding mules. At some of the bends on the climb, it was possible for travelers to get out and pick some grapes from a nearby vine and then jump back at the next bend.

The First World War was in due course followed by the Second and in 1942 the Allies wished to facilitate the eastward movement of their troops come from abroad, so they decided to create a broad-gauge line joining up Beirut, Tripoli, Abboudieh, Syria and Turkey to the north and Naqourah, Palestine (now Israeli) and Egypt to the south, in effect finally to link the three Cs – Calais, Constantinople and Cairo. This new enterprise was a British undertaking put into effect by an Australian company.

Technicians, engineers and workmen were to follow plans for progress from the Beirut region both northward and southward. I remember how at that time I belonged to a family of orphans, since we had lost our father four years earlier, when I was five. An Australian military man in charge took me on at the site together with my brother, who was three years younger than I was. It was my job to full a clay jug with a spout (ibriq) and make the round of the workmen for them to drink. As it was summer, between July and September, the sun and the heat made them thirsty.

At the same time the Allies wished to help the unfortunate who were still impoverished and hungry as a result of the Ottoman occupation. I was the youngest person working on the line, which was a veritable anthill of workers. Every Saturday we got paid in money and in basic foods such as sugar, rice, flour and conserves – this was the first time in my life that I had seen brown sugar. My sister, who was four years older than me, would come to help me carry this precious treasure and to take the money, which I gave to my poor mother. Once our stretch finished, the squad moved on to work further up, while I went back to the nearby school. There were a number of stonemasons working especially at the bridges and level-crossings, including a Lebanese monk who at each bridge carved the emblem of the British crown, which can still be seen as a nostalgic souvenir of the past.

At that time the trains were driven by steam, whistling and panting, while the children ran to clamber on their steps from which they jumped down further on in the station. The train would carry petrol, machinery, vehicles, flocks of cows and sheep, corn and trade goods, with one carriage reserved for passengers. There was also a shuttle railcar running between Beirut and Aleppo in Syria.

In 1990 an effort was made to revive the service between Byblos, Jounieh and Beirut for passengers only with the “peace train” but this lasted no more than a few months. Studies have started for reopening the railways with trains to Tripoli, where several trains are laid up and rusting away, while the station has become a historic tourist curiosity. Two trains arrived in September of 1975 and should have turned back to Northern Europe the very next day. But fate decreed that they were to stay for ever and so they remain, rusty, aging, and pitiable, while the trees around retain their picturesque beauty and spread their shade over this station once so full of life but today visited by only an occasional tourist or sightseer.

In some places the stations were transformed into parking lots. However, in Lebanon property ownership is sacred and one day the decision will be made for the railroad to open again. More than three hundred years have passed since the discovery of the steam engine and piston by Denis Papin towards the end of the seventeenth century, two hundred since the first train early in the nineteenth and a hundred since the Beirut Damascus service opened up.

In the meantime the means of transport and communication have been improved and speeded up. The railroad has been replaced by the highroad and the truck on the one hand and by air travel on the other. The nostalgically charming iron tracks have not even been pulled up; concrete has covered them and plants and shrubbery have invaded them. The locomotives and coaches, exposed to the sun, rain vegetation and dust, slowly fall to bits and arouse our pity. Only the DGA, the Directorate General of Antiquities, could take care of them, and then only for their tourist, educational or entertainment value. This “resurrection” might well accord with our desires.

Freight, goods and travelers are now transported by other means and at greater speed. The witness of the past in iron and woodwork decay sadly by their platforms. Near them rises the Lion Tower, Bourj as-Saba’a, built under Sultan Qait Bey in the fifteenth century, and also a small Mameluke fortress, 95 by 65 feet square, with just one door and an interior defense system. From the roof of this one ma regard not only the sea, the horizon and the Mina port but also the plot with the ruins of our once proud locomotives of the Orient-Express.

These recall for us those wonderful films which have brought to life the joys and the thrills of the prestigious C.C.C.C., Calais, Constantinople, Cairo and the Cape. While awaiting that ambitious project reaching down Africa to the Cape, may these two locomotives stranded in Tripoli bring those glorious images to mind for us?

Joseph Matar
Translation from the French: Kenneth Mortimer

- The Railway station 1: >> View Movie << (2010-05-15)
- The Railway station 2: >> View Movie << (2010-05-15)


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