Epidemic-avoiding Ottoman pilgrim railroad seen in rare National Library photos
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Epidemic-avoiding Ottoman pilgrim railroad seen in rare National Library photos

Hejaz Railway, built in early 1900s, ran from Damascus to Arabian Peninsula; brought hajjis to Mecca and Medina, moved military forces

A railway bridge on the Hejaz Railway. (Construction on the Hejaz Railway. Photo - Karl Lorenz Auler, from the National Library of Israel archives)
A railway bridge on the Hejaz Railway. (Construction on the Hejaz Railway. Photo - Karl Lorenz Auler, from the National Library of Israel archives)

Rare images showing the construction of a railway line that ran through the region to bring pilgrims for the hajj in Mecca and Medina, as well as dodge epidemics, were released Tuesday by the National Library of Israel.

The never-before-published photos of the “Hejaz Railway” were presented as the world marks the annual hajj season with pilgrims reduced this year due to the global coronavirus pandemic, the NLI said in a statement.

They show work on the line, which was built from 1900 to 1908 by the Ottoman Empire to connect Damascus with the Hejaz region of the Arabian Peninsula, where the holy cities of Mecca and Medina are located. A branch of the line, which sliced through what is modern-day Jordan, also went to Haifa.

An album of the 68 photos, which have handwritten captions, is available online. They were taken by Karl Lorenz Auler, a Prussian general who was sent to survey the project’s progress and study local geography and ethnography.

“His photos provide important evidence of the construction in progress, as well as daily life in the region,” the statement said.

Construction on the Hejaz Railway. (Construction on the Hejaz Railway. Photo – Karl Lorenz Auler, from the National Library of Israel archives)

“Greater mobility in the 19th century directly contributed to the rise of a global pandemic,” said National Library of Israel expert Sam Thrope in the statement. “Cholera, native to India, was carried to Mecca by a hajj pilgrim in 1863, and from there spread worldwide. In alarm, European colonial powers imposed strict quarantine regimes on those arriving in and, especially, leaving Mecca.”

The railway had little economic benefit and, aside from prestige, confronting European colonialism and religious reasons, was also built to move military forces and bypass the quarantines, the statement said.

It served the purpose of “burnishing the image of Ottomon ruler Abdulhamid II as the preeminent pan-Islamic leader of his day, an image further strengthened by the fact that the project was entirely funded by Muslims,” it said.

Although built by the Ottomans, German engineers and advisers played an important role in the planning and construction, which is why Auler was able to get a firsthand look at the project. Other photos of the railway construction have been published before, the NLI noted, but not those released Tuesday.

The images were donated to the library by Gotthold Weil, “a noted German-Jewish scholar of Islam, and the library’s former director who likely received them from Auler himself,” the statement said.

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