By Matti Friedman
Jan. 16, 2020
Once you start noticing them, ghost rails are everywhere in Israel: tracks rusting in weeds, empty limestone stations. On the Jordan River, railway ties run across a graceful bridge of black basalt that connects nothing. Under slopes of olives and pines at the banks of the Yarmouk, a tributary of the Jordan, there’s a station house used as a storeroom by fish farmers and eight abandoned rail tunnels leading to Syria.
On maps of the Middle East of 2020, the most important features are the borders — the lines dividing states in conflict, and people in conflict within states. But on the old maps, those from 80 or 100 years ago, different lines stand out: rail, the kind of lines linking people to one another.
Following the dead tracks around Israel, as I’ve been doing for a few years now, brings to life a fluid Middle East that used to exist and throws into relief the constricted frontiers of the present. It gives you time to contemplate other places in the world, places where people take for granted things like international trains and free movement across borders — and to consider how much is lost when the human mood turns from rails to walls.
If you take the modern train north from Tel Aviv, for example, you’ll have to get off at Nahariya, a few miles shy of the Lebanon border. That’s the last stop, but it’s not where the tracks end, and you can keep walking north if you like. The old British line is still visible here and there, cutting past stucco buildings and eucalyptus trees before disappearing into a tunnel through the chalk cliffs that mark Israel’s northern extremity. In the 1940s, you would have continued out the other side and up the Lebanese coast to Beirut. But now the border is impassable and the tunnel is cut halfway.
Not long ago, at the other end of the country, I camped out with my kids in a tamarisk grove by a Turkish military line from 1915 — a high earthen berm that still swoops through miles of the Negev desert, running over a bridge across a desolate ravine before hitting the razor wire of the Israel-Egypt frontier. The barrier was built a few years ago because of smuggling and terrorism, but when the tracks were laid there was nothing there. Following the old route toward the fence, we were warned off by the army and turned back. The line just kept going, pushing obliviously into the desert on the other side, as if there were no border at all.
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 the Turkish 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.
Remnants of this line are visible at Kibbutz Gesher on the Jordan River, where a third-generation kibbutz member, Nirit Bagron, showed me around. The basalt rail bridge from 1905 lies behind a formidable army gate topped with barbed wire; this is now the frontier with Jordan, and the bridge is in a buffer zone. Nirit just kicked the gate open with her sandaled foot and assured me the area had been demined.
In the spring of 1948, the war around Israel’s creation changed the bridge’s meaning from a welcome connection to a threat — a crossing point for an Arab expeditionary force from Iraq. In the battle, a team of kibbutz defenders disabled it with an explosive charge, and you can still see the damage over the second of the bridge’s five elegant arches. The train hasn’t run since then.
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.
The vanished lines, and particularly the Valley Railroad to Syria, left behind a sediment of folktales, many of them jokes about the train’s relaxed attitude toward schedules and speed in the days before everyone was in a hurry. There’s the one about passengers in the first car hopping off while the train was moving, brewing a pot of coffee beside the track, drinking it slowly and hopping onto the last car as it passed. Another is about the Jewish pioneer who became despondent, lay down on the tracks and ended up dying of starvation.
One story I always assumed was myth concerns German pilots based here during World War I who were so frustrated by the train’s leisurely pace that they bolted one of their propeller engines to a railway carriage and broke a speed record. This story is actually true: Photos of the wondrous contraption can be found, along with other arcane facts, in a vast train history published in 2015 by Yehuda Levanony, a retired intelligence officer.
Mr. Levanony tracked down stationmasters, drivers and other ordinary people who remembered the heyday of the train, like Shaul Biber, who grew up in the 1930s near the station at Tsemach (which was recently restored and now sits, lovely and useless, on the shore of the Sea of Galilee). Mr. Biber remembered the exotic comings and goings of his childhood, before the empires died and the borders closed in: the seaplanes that used to land in the Sea of Galilee carrying British ladies to India, and the colorful carriages clacking down the track from distant places, bringing with them “the smell of the great world.”
Not all train memories are fond. During World War I, the Turks built a line to Tulkarm, a city now in the West Bank, and along this line, in April 1948, came the last train. So remembered Saleh Abu Raysieheh, a passenger on that train, interviewed 50 years later by a researcher collecting the memories of Palestinian refugees. He was 15 when he fled Haifa after Arab forces lost the battle for the city. The train took him to Tulkarm, which was held by Jordanian troops, and then the line was cut. A hostile frontier appeared between his old home and his new one. “Finally the train stopped in Tulkarm,” the refugee said, “and never went back.”
Today Israeli Jews don’t go to Tulkarm, and Palestinians go to Haifa only if they brave the checkpoints and permit system. Many people don’t know there was ever a train. The same goes for the line that could take you, according to the 1934 schedule, from the junction near Tel Aviv at 11:05 a.m. to Gaza City by 12:40 (and then to Kantara, on the Suez Canal, by 5:30). Today there is hardly any contact between people in Israel and Gaza.
The idea of reviving deadlines has a hold on the popular imagination and occasionally even comes to pass. In Jerusalem, for example, an unused section from the country’s oldest line, the Jaffa-Jerusalem train of 1892, has been turned into a bustling park for pedestrians and bikers. There’s also a new incarnation of the Valley Railroad, the notoriously slow train of Israeli folklore, that has run since 2016 on part of the original route. It no longer continues to Syria, though there is a plan to extend it one day over a bridge and down through Jordan to the Persian Gulf. Israel’s transportation minister pitched the idea last year during a visit to the sultanate of Oman, calling it “tracks of peace.” I believe in bridges and trains. But it’s hard to know how this one will pan out.
If you hike the overgrown line up to Israel’s northern border at the cliffs of Rosh Hanikra, where the tunnel to Lebanon was cut in 1948, you’ll pass a little sign on which someone has composed a meditation in Hebrew. “The management of the Cairo-Jaffa-Haifa-Beirut railway apologizes to passengers,” it reads. “The clock is broken, the track worn down, the locomotive tired, the weeds high, the fuel expensive, the engineer asleep, the tunnel at Rosh Hanikra blocked. And one more little detail — peace is running late. But don’t give up: The train is coming. It’ll be just a few more minutes.” Every time I read that I just want to sit down and wait.
Mr. Friedman is a contributing opinion writer and the author of “Spies of No Country: Secret Lives at the Birth of Israel.”
Original Headline: Ghost Rails of the Holy Land
Source: The New York Times