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
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
Translation from the French: Kenneth Mortimer
- The Railway station 1: >> View
Movie << (2010-05-15)
- The Railway station 2: >> View
Movie << (2010-05-15)