THE FAR SIDE OF THE SKY

© Christopher Earls Brennen

RAILWAY IN THE ETHER

``For I dipt into the future, far as human eye could see,
Saw the Vision of the world, and all the wonder that would be;
Saw the heavens fill with commerce, argosies of magic sails,
Pilots of the purple twilight, dropping down with costly bales;
Heard the heavens fill with shouting, and there rain'd a ghastly dew
From the nations' airy navies grappling in the central blue;
Far along the world-wide whisper of the south-wind rushing warm
With the standards of the peoples plunging thro' the thunder-storm;
Till the war-drum throbb'd no longer, and the battle flags were furl'd
In the Parliament of man, the Federation of the world.''.

From ``Locksley Hall'' by Alfred, Lord Tennyson.

On this, the second night of their grand adventure, they had formed the four-wheel-vehicles into a circle beside the rusted remains of an old steam engine, half buried in the sand. Making their camp here under the desert stars, they lit a fire to ward off the chill of the desert night, to focus their conversation and companionship. Talk turned from their tiny and distant homeland of Northern Ireland, to the vast and empty expanses of this Saudi nation. From the great romance of Lawrence of Arabia who wrecked that steam engine, to modern Middle Eastern politics and, inevitably in this day and age, to the wonders of computers, the internet and global communication. They reflected how search engines had allowed a connected people who had dispersed throughout the world to find each other and to communicate again though separated by many thousands of miles - even when that diaspora reached into places as remote as this northwestern corner of the great Arabian desert. Justin listened as his friend described how he had recently used a new search engine to rediscover a great friend from his college days. He resolved to try that when, after this adventure, he returned to the hospital in Riyadh where he was currently employed. But, for the moment, the present adventure was all-consuming and many hundreds of miles of the historic Hejaz Railway would challenge them in the days ahead. For Justin and his friends had set out to follow the route of the Hejaz Railway all the way from Tabuk to Medina, a distance of about 700 miles across one of the most forbidding deserts in the world. The rails and even the sleepers had long ago been borrowed for other purposes, but the raised embankment of gravel and rock along which the railway ran is still extant and can be followed in four-wheel-drive vehicles.

Photos by Sami Sabat
   
Train in the sandBridge over a wash

The Hejaz Railway was originally built to transport Islamic pilgrims from Damascus to Medina. For untold centuries before, the only method of travel was by camel caravan and the journey would have been arduous and dangerous. The one-way journey alone would have taken about two months. Travel through winter's freezing temperatures and torrential rains, or through the scorching heat of the summer would have been unavoidable. Settlements along the way were sparse and hostile tribes, no doubt, compounded the difficulties. But around the end of the 19th century, the Ottoman empire that dominated the region north of the Arabian peninsula and battled the Arab tribes in an effort to expand into the great desert, raised about eight million pounds from sources such as the Turkish sultan Abdul Hammed, the Khedive of Egypt, and the Shah of Iran to allow construction to begin. And that construction posed multifaceted challenges. The engineering problems alone were considerable, since the ground was solid rock in some places, soft and drifting sand in others. Moreover, torrential rainstorms would occasionally create flash floods, wiping away bridges and banks and causing the line to collapse. And yet most of the year water was in precious short supply. In addition, the construction crews had to contend with open hostility from local tribesmen and from camel caravan owners whose livelihood was clearly threatened by the railway. Thus most of the construction and maintenance of the line became the responsibility of the Turkish army. Of course, that was part of the Ottoman strategy for the railway would allow the empire to exert a control over the region that was otherwise impossible.

Photos by Galen Frysinger
   
A garrisoned station. Maintenance shed at Mada'in Saleh
Rolling stock at Mada'in Saleh

The railway was finally opened in 1908 and business boomed in the next few years; the number of pilgrims taking the train mushroomed from 30 thousand in 1912 to 300 thousand in 1914. In addition, the Turkish government was able to transport a substantial army into the heart of Arabia. But, with the outbreak of the First World War, the pre-existing struggle for dominance of the region between the Ottoman and British Empires, flaired into open agression. Recognizing the strategic importance of the railway (as well as its vulnerability) the British encouraged the local tribes to cripple that supply line. The most famous instigator of this activity was Thomas E. Lawrence, the legendary Lawrence of Arabia. Many of the trains he sabotaged still lie where they were wrecked. After the war, the Ottoman Empire was dismantled and, though some of the northern sections of the Hejaz Railway continued to function, the long stretch through the Saudi desert melted away leaving only skeletons in the sand. Much, however, still remains to be seen along the deserted route of the railway. The stations, built about 20 kilometers apart, served more as armed watch towers than as stops along the way. Their robust construction meant that they continue to preside over the empty desert.

Justin and his friends had resolved to follow the route all the way from Tabuk in the northwestern desert to the terminus at Medina, a distance of some 1200 kilometers. Their four wheel drive vehicles had been "shipped" to that desert oasis, and there they began their southward journey. The going is rough but not excessively difficult since the rails were removed long ago, and local farmers used the iron sleepers as building supports and fence posts. In the grey, rocky hills outside Tabuk, the expedition first encountered the station at Al Awjariyah, a two-storey fortress built from natural grey stone. From there, following the track along the Wadi Saba for about 13km brought them to another station, where the track seems to double back on itself. From there it enters a deep gorge and then into a tunnel. The eighth station, Ad Dar Al Hamra, is situated at the end of a wide, flooded section of the wadi and was built near the ruins of a Turkish fort that they enjoyed exploring. A subsequent station at Al Mutalla has several overturned carriages lying beside it. At Mada'in Saleh, the station is more extensive with an enormous old engine house, containing several rusting steam locomotives.

The station at Al Sawrah, about 116km south of Al Ula, is one of the most scenic. Situated in a wide, beautiful wadi, the three station buildings are constructed of an attractive yellow stone. Just outside the station one can see the shells of a couple of old pick-up trucks, probably the remains of an attempt to rehabilitate the railway line. Some 34km south of Al Sawrah twisted iron rails lie buried beside the remains of an engine, sitting bolt upright in the sand despite being some distance from the track itself. An explosion ripped open the metal at the back of the engine and wrecked bogies, blown apart from their carriages, lie nearby. Nothing seems to have changed since 1917. It is not hard to see Lawrence's white robes glinting in the desert sun. Further south is the site of the first mining of the Hejaz Railway at Aba el Naam.

Willie Howard and his wife Janine had journeyed from Lisburn in Northern Ireland to join Justin and two other families on this historic adventure. Thus the talk turned to their native land, to the scarred and battle weary city of Belfast. It was a joy to rekindle their origins but the talk left a shread of sadness as they remembered the lost connections with others that had left to seek a better life in distant lands. And yet there was now new hope of reconnecting. Just as in a byegone age, the advent of railways had allowed families to reconnect, now the internet allowed one to find friends and relatives in the most distant corners of the globe.

Photos by Sami Sabat
   
Train in the sand

Back in Riyadh, Justin logged onto the Internet and began his search by entering his name into the search engine Google. The number of responses was overwhelming but he soon learnt to enter additional words to more narrowly focus the search. Suddenly, there it was - his father's name, his mother's name, even a brief mention of their lives together and of their children. There was even an old photograph of his grandmother as a young girl, standing in a portrait of his great-grandparent's family. All on some webpage he had never seen before on a website somewhere in the United States. In the vernacular of his homeland, Justin was gobsmacked!

But he found my name at the bottom of the webpage and the name rang a bell in his distant memory. He vaguely recalled the visit many years ago that he made with his mother and sisters to a village called Magherafelt some 35 miles from Belfast where some distant cousins lived. He remembered the boys a few years older than he and the mother who had been such a good friend of his own mother many years before. Indeed his mother had acted as bridesmaid when Wilfred Brennen and Muriel Earls were married in the oncoming shadow of the Second World War. It was strange what the brain was capable of remembering when triggered by a word, a sound or a glimpse.

More importantly for the present, Justin found my e-mail address alongside my name and quickly rushed off a message througn the new railway of the ether. He also e-mailed his older sister, Caroline Thorpe, who had lived within thirty miles of me for thirty years without knowing either of us was there. And so it was that just two days later, I got a second e-mail from Caroline. She, it turned out, was the administrative assistant to the publisher of the Los Angeles Times. And, about a year earlier, the California Institute of Technology where I work, had held a reception for the publisher of the Los Angeles Times. Caroline had attended that reception. I had attended that reception. We undoubtedly saw each other at the reception. And yet we could have had no idea of each other's presence.

It seems really amazing to me that two relatives had come so close without realizing it. Instead it took a casual conversation around a campfire in a strange and remote land plus the magic of the internet for us to make contact and renew the genetic bond. Some technologies make us poorer as human beings; the internet, on the other hand, has an ability to truly enrich us.

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Last updated 1/1/01.
Christopher E. Brennen