Custom designed to travel up and down the daunting slopes of the mountains that separate Beirut and Damascus, the railroad linking what are now the capitals of Lebanon and Syria was a world-class engineering feat of the late 19th century. It was also an economic booster to the eastern Mediterranean region for some eight decades until the Lebanese Civil War forced its closure in the 1970s. What remains is a historic route that last year marked its 125th anniversary.
Though less than 100 kilometers apart on the map, Beirut and Damascus were connected for centuries only by mule paths. Due to the mountains, the journey took three to four days. In 1863 the French paved a road along the route using macadam, or compacted stone, making possible a one-day journey. The road soon became congested.
The decision to build a railroad between the cities came in the late 1880s along with plans to expand Beirut’s port. Ottoman Sultan Abdel Hamid II gave the railway concession to the French; however, he also granted a similar deal to the British, who were proposing a rival railroad route to Damascus from a different port, Haifa, where they held influence. The French, worried that the British effort could eclipse their aspirations for Beirut, joined with Lebanese commercial leaders to thwart the plan. Funded mainly by French investors, surveys and construction began in 1891. Within four years trains were running, and the British line was never completed.
Inaugurated on August 4, 1895, the Beirut-Damascus railroad became the first major railway in the Levant, preceding the more famous Hijaz Railway by 13 years. The winding, 147-kilometer route took the steam engines just nine hours.
The builders addressed the challenge of the mountains by laying narrow-gauge tracks 1,050 millimeters apart. Where the track became too steep for the iron wheels to keep their grip, they laid a third, toothed rail in the center, with which the locomotive’s rack-and-pinion cog system could mesh and provide mechanical traction. Other challenges included shortages of local expertise to operate trains, stations, switches and repair sheds, as well as resistance from busy stagecoach operators.
It did not take long for the railway to become established and vital to other rail lines that helped both passengers and freight reach farther into Syria, to Jordan, Turkey and, from there, to Europe. According to historian Fawaz Traboulsi, author of A History of Modern Lebanon, by the early 20th century the Beirut port was handling three-fourths of the trade from the Mediterranean Sea to the Syrian interior.
The prosperity lasted until 1976.
“It’s a pity that we lost this train, because the train was not only connecting the Lebanese areas to each other. It was connected to the region, and Lebanon was connected to the world,” says Carlos Naffah, president of Train/Train, an NGO whose name reflects the group’s dual missions of preservation and future revival. When the Lebanese Civil War began, he explains, it took less than a year for the trains to stop operating, and soon the entire line fell into disrepair. Now most of the rails are gone, looted over the past 45 years by scrap metal profiteers and militias, but most of Lebanon’s 16 stations remain, along with more than two dozen locomotives, train cars and trainyard paraphernalia.
Last spring, we set out on a series of walks to discover what remains along Lebanon’s 87 kilometers of this once-vital railroad. To trace its route in the city, we relied on old diagrams, online maps and our own eyes as we searched out evidence of the crushed stone used for the track bed, castoff railroad spikes, crossing signposts and pieces of rail lying under veneers of asphalt. We began in the neighborhood of Mar Mikhael, home of the first station on the train’s route after its port terminal, which was destroyed in the war.
Last spring, we set out on a series of walks to discover what remains along Lebanon’s 87 kilometers of once-vital railroad.
What we found was far from the kinds of glowing descriptions that pepper travelers’ accounts from bygone times. American author Albert Bigelow Paine, who had written travel books but is best known for his biographies of Mark Twain, in 1910 described departing the city through fields of flowers where “the crimson anemone mingled riotously with a gorgeous yellow flower. … Never was such a prodigality of bloom.” The Mar Mikhael station was damaged from the catastrophic explosion of ammonium nitrate just a few hundred meters away on August 4, 2020, ironically 125 years to the day after the train’s inaugural trip. Outside the station, silently weathering under canopies of trees and underbrush, stand several old locomotives that were not greatly affected by the blast. The station, which serves as the headquarters of Lebanon’s Railway and Public Transportation Authority (RPTA), has been partially restored.
Following one of few visible stretches of track in Beirut, we saw no wildflowers. There was only the city’s maze of congested streets, concrete apartment blocks and piles of trash. Five kilometers to the southeast, the Furn el Chebbak station proved barely discernible amid shopping malls and new developments. In between, the parts of the railway that had not been devoured by the city were being reclaimed by nature. In some low-income areas, residents had planted vegetable gardens between the iron rails to help offset the current soaring costs of food as the country suffers through one of the worst economic crises since the late 19th century.
It wasn’t until we reached Hadath station, located in a southern suburb nine kilometers on at the base of Mount Lebanon, that we began to reliably follow the train’s route. Back alleys led to side streets and finally up a footpath where the route begins its ascent toward the next stop at Baabda. Soon we were looking back on a view of Beirut and beyond to the Mediterranean.
It was on the climb out of Hadath that the grade steepened to exceed 25 percent, or about 12 degrees, which was slope enough to require a locomotive equipped with a rack rail system. Manufactured by the Swiss Locomotive and Machine Works, based in Winterthur, Switzerland, this system’s technical name was rack-and-adhesion: Rack meant a toothed cogwheel that dropped like a gear to engage a similarly toothed middle track; adhesion meant simple, friction-based traction—the way trains normally travel.
Whereas the Swiss had contributed technical expertise, the French had designed and built the stations. While most in Lebanon are in varying states of ruin, a few have been converted to government offices or even homes for former railroad employees, including those at Baabda and Jamhour, the two stops after Hadath. Faced with lack of funds and more urgent social priorities, little is being done at present to maintain these historic buildings.
The Chouit-Araya station came next. While its structure has suffered the same fate as its counterparts, its location distinguished it. Well outside the city, mountain mist gave the abandoned site, nestled in a fragrant pine forest, a mystical air. The life that thrived decades ago felt like it had been gone only for moments.
From Chouit-Araya the terrain became so steep and narrow the engineers who designed the line had to be creative to allow the train to continue traveling up the mountain. When it became impossible for the locomotive to either go forward or turn sharply, the driver had to reverse the train and switch onto another track that inclined as much as 70 percent, or about 35 degrees. The train traveled this way, in reverse, until it reached the Aley station five kilometers away, where could switch again and move forward.
In Aley, the only trace that remained of the railroad was the station and the water tower. Following the route on foot from the station was difficult, as the tracks had been covered by roads and illegal construction. We found the path by spotting the lines of cypress trees that had been planted near the stations and along the route to prevent erosion along the tracks. The fate of the iron rails here was similar to what has been happening to so many of them in Lebanon: During the civil war, the rails were ripped up and used as barriers, and to this day, they are being stolen for their value as scrap metal.
“If we were to reestablish this today, how wonderful it will be to let the Lebanese people rediscover a beautiful patch of Lebanese territory.”
The railway path continued its ascent to Bhamdoun. If there is a chance of reviving a portion of the railroad, it could begin in this town. The next 25 or so kilometers, from Bhamdoun up over the pass at Dahr el Baidar and down to the western edge of the fertile, historic Bekaa Valley, was arguably the most scenic part of the route. During its heyday, it was the several towns along this stretch that had benefited the most, and Aley and Bhamdoun grew into major summer resorts for local and foreign tourists. In Sofar, the Ain Sofar station had been built just across from the Grand Sofar Hotel, which had catered to the glitterati of the Arab world.
Even though most of the tracks were gone, there were few obstacles to following this segment of the line, which became more like a rough walking trail. Naji Boutros, a financier by trade but who maintains he remains a farmer at heart, walked with us there. He sees great potential in reviving the portion linking his hometown of Bhamdoun with Sofar by restoring the tracks and running a “Mountain Express” tourism project that could in time connect other towns and villages in the mountain districts.
“If we were to reestablish this today, how wonderful it will be to let the Lebanese people rediscover a beautiful patch of Lebanese territory,” said Boutros. “The train will energize so many villages along the way because we know that the train brings ecotourism.”
From Bhamdoun to the pass and down the eastern side of Mount Lebanon, in spring wildflowers blanket the slopes in displays of nature worthy of Paine’s description, softening landscapes still scarred by war. Old mansions along the stretch between Bhamdoun and Sofar had been gradually abandoned during the civil war, and then they were ransacked, damaged and many destroyed during the 1983 Mountain War. The Grand Sofar Hotel had served for a time as a barracks for the Syrian army. What remained of these grandiose structures was tattered, deserted except for those recently occupied by refugees from Syria.
From Ain Sofar, the mountain landscape opened as the route ascended above the treeline, heading for the pass at Dahr el Baidar, at 1,506 meters. There we walked through several cement tunnels built in the 1940s to protect the tracks from snow. At Dahr el Baidar, the train passed through a vaulted, 500-meter tunnel that cuts through the mountain.
For Assad Namrud, 93 and the only living train driver in Lebanon, the pass was one he had crossed routinely over his 47-year career. He remembered its challenges well.
“We used to drive into the tunnel in winter and slide on the snow. We would get stuck inside and get asphyxiated from the smoke. So, we covered our mouths with a wet cloth to protect ourselves.” He recalled also the joyful rides from Beirut up to Dahr el Baidar when passengers used to smoke nargileh (water pipes) and play the derbakeh (goblet drum) as they headed out to enjoy a day in the snow.
Namrud drove his last train in 1976. He spoke with pride of his engine, number 303S, that he had driven as far as Jordan to the south and Turkey to the north, carrying freight of phosphates, sheep and much else. “I used to tell my assistant to polish the brass to make my machine look shiny. When I drove it up to Dahr el Baidar, it sparkled under the sun, and people stopped to photograph it.”
After walking down the eastern slopes of Mount Lebanon, we reached the station at Mreijet, which was in better shape than others for having been restored recently as a film set. Farther down the mountain was the Jditah-Chtaurah station that was only a skeleton. It sat just below the unfinished Pan Arab Highway, a project that has been stalled for years and that, if not revived soon, may start to resemble the abandoned railroad.
Heading out of Chtaurah, long stretches of track reappeared, crossing town centers and running amid village homes. The next stop at Saadnayel had been converted to an outdoor museum and a park with a restored locomotive together with a railway car. And from there the traces of the line ended again for an interval, as the widening of the road between Chtaurah and Zahleh, two major cities in the Bekaa Valley, erased the railway that ran alongside. Near Zahleh, at Ma’allaka, the station had been replaced by a government hospital. All that remained was the old water tower.
From here the train traveled more due east, across the Bekaa Valley to the junction town of Rayak. It had been in Rayak that passengers transferred to a standard adhesion train for the rest of the trip to Damascus, as the grades on the remaining 60 kilometers were gentler, and the rack and its toothed rail was no longer required.
Beginning in 1902, travelers had also been able to change at Rayak to a northbound train headed to Baalbek and its famous Roman ruins. Four years later that line had been extended farther north to the Syrian cities of Homs and Aleppo, and on through Turkey to Istanbul, from where the Orient Express departed for the cities of Europe. As Rayak became a major transit station, the town prospered quickly.
“In a place that was a backwater, a few years after the railway was introduced, we had a souk [market],” explained Train/Train founder Elias Maalouf, who is from Rayak. “Railway workers were taught French to communicate with the French engineers. A railway worker who started as a cleaner could drive a train after eight years. The railway company was like their religion, their raison d’être.”
In addition to an elaborate station reflecting its status, Rayak had been home to the region’s largest train repair yard. A foundry produced spare parts, and a workshop serviced the trains. During the Arab Revolt of 1916, as British Colonel T.E. Lawrence and his Arab allies had been blowing up tracks and trains along the Ottoman-run Hijaz Railway, Rayak had been supplying the parts to repair them. The town also hosted both German and French airbases at different times, and during World War II the train yard became a repair center for French fighter planes and weaponry. After the Syrian army entered Lebanon in 1976, its soldiers occupied the station and the train yard, turning them into a military base until they withdrew in 2005.
Much of the equipment and spare parts had been looted over the years, but still 22 locomotives made Rayak a veritable museum, all left to the elements, together with train cars choked by the vegetation that covered the compound. Here were 14 of the Swiss-made rack-and-adhesion locomotives, along with six German G8 trains dating from the turn of the 20th century, seized by the French at the end of World War I and transported to Lebanon during the French mandate of 1920-1943.
“The Swiss trains were specially made for our railway lines. The size of the trains was made specially for the Beirut-to-Damascus line. They are unique collection items that deserve to be restored,” declared Maalouf, who has spent 15 years researching the history of railways in Lebanon.
At Rayak our walking journey came to its end. The ongoing conflict in Syria made it impossible even to visit the last stop in Lebanon, Yahfufeh, 10 kilometers from the border. From there the train crossed to Serghaya in rural Syria, on its way to Zabadani, a town at 1,500 meters that had been established as a summer resort by the French and continued to attract local and international Arab tourists until the beginning of the Syrian war in 2011. After seven more stops, during which the train traveled along the Barada River, the main source of water for Damascus, it reached the station in downtown Damascus.
Following the August 2020 Beirut Port explosion, discussions about railroads may have a new chance.
Fares Garabet, 59, remembered riding the train from Damascus to Serghaya as a child with his father, Anton Garabet, who had been a driver on the Syrian segment of the railway. After arriving at Serghaya in the late afternoon, he recalled they would spend the night before the return journey. “I had to wake up at 4 o’clock and saw the train when there was no fire in it. Then they started the fire, and the train came alive. I’ll never forget this image,” he reminisced.
In a region that has seen more conflict than stability in the past half century, restoring a historical railroad could seem superfluous. Yet following the August 2020 Beirut port catastrophe, discussions about the railroad may have a new chance.
“There is now an opportunity to rebuild the port of Beirut in a better way,” says Yarob Badr, Regional Advisor for Transport and Logistics at the Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia. “There is a need to consider railway connectivity in the port of Beirut which is now missing.”
The plan would reconnect the port with the Syrian railway and, from there, to Iraq and the Arabian Peninsula countries. However, he adds, it is essential for Lebanese authorities to act before encroachment on the land along the train’s path becomes irreversible. “The railway between the port of Beirut and Damascus gave the port a huge advantage over the port of Haifa,” says Badr. “The port of Beirut can still win back its competitiveness. … If there is a political will, it is now that it should be expressed.”