Israel’s Abandoned Railroads

January 20, 2020 | Matti Friedman
About the author: Matti Friedman is the author of a memoir about the Israeli war in Lebanon, Pumpkinflowers: A Soldier’s Story of a Forgotten War (2016). His latest book is Spies of No Country: Secret Lives at the Birth of Israel (2019).

When empires still ruled the Middle East, trains ran across what are now impassable borders and war zones. The rails, now fallen into disrepair, still can be found throughout Israel, as Matti Friedman writes:

The country’s most storied ghost line is the Valley Railroad, built in 1905 by order of the Ottoman sultan as part of the grand Hijaz railway project, meant as a leap into modernity for [his] empire. The Valley Railroad made a connection, entirely logical and yet now inconceivable, between the port of Haifa in modern-day Israel and the city of Damascus, now in Syria. (The train got its name from the Jezreel Valley, which contained much of the route.)

The Haifa train met the main imperial line at Dara’a, a sleepy Syrian junction. Dara’a became known to the world only much later, in 2011, as the site of the crackdown that helped ignite Syria’s civil war, signaling the breakdown of more of the region into hostile enclaves, and also severing the vestiges of the Turkey-Syria rail link.

Israel and Syria became enemies 72 years ago, but when the railroad was built, neither existed. According to a rail schedule I found from 1934, you could steam out of the Haifa station at 10 a.m. and reach Damascus that evening at 8:02.

Israel has a peace agreement with the Jordanian government, as it does with Egypt, but most Jewish Israelis don’t dare visit either country. For us, land travel is limited to the confines of a state the size of New Jersey. When we leave we use the airport. The country might as well be an island.

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