Flora Neville finds the shades of TE Lawrence and the Ottoman Empire in the bombed-out stations of Lebanon
Built in 1895 by an enterprising French count, the first Lebanese railway line ran from Beirut to Damascus. Beirut was a major port and Syria a source of wheat, seeds and supplies. Before the train arrived, the route between the two cities took four days and went through rough mountain passes that were teeming with bandits.
The network expanded to four stations in Lebanon: Beirut, Malaka, Tripoli and Rayak, where there was a pioneering railway factory built in 1891. When, during World War I, the British archaeologist and spy TE Lawrence “of Arabia” started to blow up swathes of the Hijaz railway, it was Rayak’s factory that produced the spare parts for the repairs. Lawrence was so proficient with dynamite that seats on the train were priced accordingly. The safer seats at the back of the trains were five times as expensive as the riskier ones near the engine.
Following World War I and the partition of the Ottoman empire, the League of Nations authorised its member nations to govern former Turkish colonies. Lebanon and Syria were placed under the so-called French mandate – a temporary form of control as opposed to a French colony. In 1943, the French transferred power back to the Lebanese government and left three years later.
Under the French mandate, the rail network grew. French-built stations combined oriental arches with art nouveau swirling ironwork. The steam engines were designed by the Swiss and the tracks were Belgian. The rail network covered 408km– roughly the same measurement as London’s tube network. Lebanon was known as the “Switzerland of the Middle East” and Beirut compared to Paris. This was Lebanon’s golden era, when the cities were as elegant as the trains that connected them.
Twenty years after the French mandate had dissolved, and as Lebanon was heating up for civil war, the state took over the rail network and passengers began to dwindle. At the outbreak of the war in 1975, Lebanon’s entire rail network had stopped in its tracks and there it has stayed.
But since 2005, a small but growing group of former train operators, photographers, artists and engineers have been pushing to restart the trains and bring back Lebanon’s railway.