In the Baqaa Valley, Lebanon, driving north towards Baalbek alongside the road there stand a number of rusty old railway trucks, on a railway line that now goes nowhere. Once it was a part of the line linking Damascus to Tripoli. It is now some of the last remains of a line disused many years ago.
I have travelled through the Jordan valley on many occasions before I noticed to the left of the road north of Bet She’an, what looks like a small cutting followed by an embankment. It is the remains of an old railway.
In Jerusalem the old railway station is now used as a rather expensive but very pleasant group of restaurants. It’s known as the “First Station” and on notices around the building the story of the railways around Jerusalem is told. Once you could get on a train in Jerusalem and travel to Cairo, Beruit, Damascus and as far north as Tripoli.
I had been told that if I had some time when I was driving north in the Jordan Valley it is well worth turning off to see “Old Gesher.” Being earlier than intended on my journey to Tiberias, I drove down to the border fence between Israel and Jordan and there standing on a ruined bridge were a set of railway trucks.
There is a small museum with some interesting audio visuals. Standing in the yard is one of the old engines.
The museum uses, as an office, an old guards van. When I told them I was from England they said that the guards van was built in Birmingham!
On examination of the makers plaque, I discovered that it was actually Smethwick where it had been built (I was a minister in Smethwick for 8 years in the ’90’s).
The railway bridge over the River Jordan was once a part of a line that ran from Haifa to Damascus with connections at both ends to other great Middle Eastern Cities. The line was known as the Valley Line and was built towards the end of the Ottoman rule over the area. The museum even had a timetable for the service!
Old Gesher is the location where bridges have been built over the River Jordan for more than two thousand years. The oldest is a Roman Bridge, but there was also the Ottoman railway bridge and a road bridge constructed by the British. All are now disused and inaccessible as the river forms the border between Israel and Jordan.
A short distance away as tthe crow flies, though today you have to travel some 15 kilometres to get there, remains the almost intact local railway station.
There are no railway lines there now, but otherwaise you could imagine the almost inaudible sound of a station announcer! This station now stands on a raised area of land known as Peace Island. The Island is formed by the River Jordan on two sides, its tributary the River Yamouk which today forms the border between Jordan and Syria, and an artificial canal created in the 1920’s for a Hydro Electic Scheme.
Railways rely upon stable political environments. It is easier to disrupt a railway network than almost any other form of transport, and so in many parts of the world where political instability has developed railway lines quickly fall into disuse. In the Congo there was once an extensive railway network. Today almost all of it has been lost to the Jungle.
The same can be said of the extensive railways that once covered the Middle East. There are still some railway services in Israel and Egypt, but they don’t cross borders. Where once communications were established, today the fractured politics of the region leave people divided and travel only possible by air, and that a great cost. Dreams of peace, so hopeful in the early years of the twentieth century now seem a very distant prospect, perhaps one day in the future railways will connect Jerusalem and Damascus, Tripoli and Cairo, Beruit and Haifa once again. Insh’Allah as they say here.