Named for the region parallel to the Red Sea in which Tabuk, Medina, and Mecca sit, the Hejaz Railway once touched a number of farflung locations along the Abraham Path. The railway, constructed under the Ottoman Empire, originally ran from Damascus to Medina, with plans to extend the line all the way to Mecca. A side branch ran to Haifa on the Mediterranean coast, passing through the Gilboa Region and extending southward through the Jenin and Nablus Regions; a second side branch was later added to Beersheva. The stated purpose of the project, begun in 1900, was to assist Muslim pilgrims on their hajj to Mecca. Upon final completion of the railway, its advocates hoped that pilgrims could travel via rail from nearly anywhere in the empire to Mecca. An obvious second outcome of this project also benefited Ottoman rulers: extended rail access allowed the empire to rule more effectively over the far reaches of its territories.
After several years of construction, the section of track between Damascus and Medina was completed in 1908; and the official Hejaz Railway Station opened in Damascus in 1913. Completion of the route reduced the journey from Istanbul to Medina from nearly 40 days to as few as five.
The onset of World War I, however, prevented the railway from ever reaching Mecca. Many may be familiar with the Hejaz Railway from the film Lawrence of Arabia, which featured a number of scenes depicting attacks on the railway coordinated by T.E. Lawrence and the local Bedouin – episodes based on the actual history of the project. From the beginning of the railway’s construction, Bedouin tribes sought to undermine its success; and their attacks grew in severity and frequency as the residents of the Hejaz began their revolt against the Ottomans in 1916, assisted by Lawrence. Due to these and other developments of World War I, the Hejaz Railway never reached Mecca.
Today, various remnants of the railway and its infrastructure still dot the landscapes between Damascus and Medina. Near al-Ula, once a maintenance base for the railroad in the Tabuk Region, entire trains can be seen lying on their sides in the desert. Hejaz Railway stations have been rebuilt at Tabuk, Mada’in Saleh, and Medina, and a variety of museums documenting the railway’s history have opened along its former route.