Driving That (Ottoman Steam) Train
The train reversed down the tracks, its engine facing backward, and passed the collected Swiss tourists, cameras ready. It returned a few minutes later, the steam engine facing forward this time as it pulled four aged, wooden passenger cars. Here was our ride, a relic of the Hejaz railway, the Zabadani Flyer.
“Why do you ride steam machine on weekend holiday?” the Syrian government tour guide asked in broken English as we took our seats on wooden slats.
Three of us had been picked up at the defunct Hejaz Station in central Damascus by a government bus, which drove us to a section of open track by the side of a road where we and all the Swiss boarded the train.
Our guide told us that he lived at a railway museum near the station, “the steam machine museum.” He parroted the alternate name “steam machine” throughout our two and half hour train ride north up the Barada River Gorge in the dry mountains that border Lebanon.
The old narrow-gauge steam engine that pulls the Zabadani Flyer, as its known in the tourist books, was built in Switzerland in the 1890s. It’s part of the hundred year-old Ottoman railway that once linked Damascus with Medina, the target of so much bombing by T.E. Lawrence during World War I.
Today the train betrays its name, as it doesn’t go all the way to the mountain resort town of Zabadani, some 50 kilometers outside the city. Instead it stops sooner at Ain El Fijeh, the source of the Barada River and long Damascus’s lifeline.
The English travel writer Colin Thubron wrote of Damascus in the late 1960s that the city, like Cairo’s pyramids or Shiraz’s roses, “conjures running water, a river running out of Lebanon which carries down calcareous soil and smears it over the desert for a hundred and seventy miles, giving birth to a miracle of trees.”
Today that miracle is drying up as the city swells in cheap concrete, a sad shift from the stone and woodwork and hidden courtyards of the UNESCO-protected Old City.
And yet the Barada still sustains Damascus; the springs at Ain El Fijeh supply the city’s vaunted water supply.
The tap water is safe to drink there — it shuts off around midday since it is scarce and the desert is eating Syria — and Damascenes are rightly proud of their potable public water, an exception in the region.
A service taxi can get you to Zabadani or Ain El Fijeh in under an hour. The relic train takes nearly three hours as it chugs along tramway tracks through suburban Damascus, moving slowly enough for families in the street to stand and wave, say hello, and ask how you are.
The train then runs along the banks of the Barada River, a strip of green through caked and yellow hills, passing through quiet picnic towns.
“Damascenes come here to cheat the summer sirocco,” Thubron wrote forty years ago “but in autumn it is deserted.” Little has changed.
We passed piles of old rolling stock and stopped so the conductor could pump more water into his steam tank. It slowed the trip even more, but this was consistent with the journey: a leisurely ride every Friday (except in winter), departing officially at 7 or 8am — we left around 9:30 — and returning to Damascus by 5pm. Families and tourists are the target audience, and between the Swiss tour group, the Syrian television crew, and the clapping and singing consortium of teenage Syrians, the ride was as advertised.
The arrival in Ain El Fijeh was underwhelming. Thubron went there expecting a scene described by a 19th travel writer, of “the river gushing from a cave beneath the ruins of two temples.”
Instead he found the town more or less as it exists today:
“I saw a huge restaurant, equipped with every seaside offence: vermilion railings, mock-brick walls, canopied swing-chairs. Rows of jet fountains, mercifully extinct, had been piped round the stream and a chimney-stack of stones waver above it: the swan-song of a Roman temple… For a while I leant over the wall and wondered if there was another Fijeh.”
On my visit last year there was no mystery, but everything was closed. It was after all Friday, the Muslim day of rest and gathering.
“Come back on Sunday,” a man behind the gates of a water pumping plant recommended. But the appeal of Ain El Fijeh is the ride there, and the train only goes on Friday.
I ate peanuts and battled a few hours of sleep for the first hour of the ride, sitting on a wooden seat, my arm out the window, occasionally my head, the morning sun and the exhaust of the steam machine better than the usual Damascene morning of thick coffee and heavy traffic. Other language students were sharing our car, alongside a television crew from the main state channel that made the train feel even more like a set piece.
The passenger cars are as old as the engine, and the ride is not only a charming impression of the past, but a reminder of the burden of early travel. The train is part of the city’s and the region’s history, that bygone Ottoman-era before colonial mapping and mandated states. But it also conjures up something else: blazing through the desert in 1910 on a pilgrimage from Damascus to Medina, praying the steam machine might not overheat.
Top photograph by the author. Bottom via MidEastImage.com with the caption “Third Class Carriage, Sultan’s Railway, Syria 1908.”
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