Islamic Studies Hijaz Railway
William Ochsenwald
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 August 2018
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 August 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195390155-0086


In 1900–1908, under the leadership of Sultan Abdülhamid II, the Ottoman Empire built the main line of the Hijaz (also Hejaz, Hidjaz, Hicaz) Railway between Damascus and Medina, including a branch line to Haifa. According to the Ottomans, the chief purpose of the railway was to foster the Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina; the railway was even allegedly turned into a waqf (Muslim religious endowment), thereby stressing its religious status. However, many authors emphasize the secular purposes of the railway, such as helping to extend the power of the central government in Istanbul to its faraway provinces in Arabia. Therefore, the importance of the railway may be viewed as religious and of interest to all of the world’s Muslims, or as secular and of concern chiefly to the history of the Ottomans, Arabs, and the successor states of the Ottoman Empire after its disappearance following World War I. Some sections of the railway continued to be used after 1918, but proposals to rebuild the whole line have so far not been realized. Most sources for the Hijaz Railway are in German and Turkish because of the prominent role played by the Ottoman Turks and German engineers in the construction, financing, and operations of the railway. Also, the Ottoman archives in Istanbul and the German archives contain an abundance of documents on the railway. During World War I the Ottoman Empire and Germany fought Arab forces from the Hijaz and their British advisers, such as the famous T. E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia), along the railway. Most English-language materials are centered on the railway’s role in World War I. Whatever the language, most of the earlier accounts of the railway are generally straightforward and lacking in theoretical approaches, although more sophisticated studies have appeared since 1990. Since 2000, greater historiographical interest in the seaborne pilgrimage through the Indian Ocean has lessened scholarly attention to the railway.

General Overviews

The most accessible general introduction in English is Özyüksel 2014, followed by Nicholson 2005, though scholars may wish to turn also to Ochsenwald 1980. However, the best treatment and analysis of the Hijaz Railway, available in Turkish, remains Özyüksel 2000, a more informative version of his 2014 book. Gülsoy 1994 is the best source for the actions of the central administration of the Ottoman government. Readers of Arabic and those interested primarily in the religious role of the railway will find Diqin 1985 of interest. Three other studies that provide general coverage along with more specialized treatments are Fiedler 1984, important for its exhaustive treatment of the post–World War I story of the railway; Mansur 2008, which covers in detail the Dar’a-Haifa branch of the railway; and Tourret 1989, useful for railway history fans.

  • Diqin, Sayyid Muhammad. Sikkah Hadid al-Hijaz al-Hamidiyyah: Dirasah Watha’iqiyyah. Cairo: Matba’ah al-Jabalawi, 1985.

    The book emphasizes the Islamic nature of the railway and is based chiefly on British and French archival sources and Arabic published works. Though difficult to obtain, this is a good beginning point for Arabic-language readers.

  • Fiedler, Ulrich. Der Bedeutungswandel der Hedschasbahn: Eine historisch-geographische Untersuchung. Berlin: Klaus Schwarz Verlag, 1984.

    The historical first half of this thorough study is based largely on German, Austrian, British, and French archives. The author’s major contribution, however, lies in the geographic second half, which examines the railway’s operations and administration since the end of World War I.

  • Gülsoy, Ufuk. Hicaz Demiryolu. Istanbul: Eren, 1994.

    Invaluable for the official Ottoman government role in the planning, construction, financing, and operations of the railway to the end of World War I. This is the best study based chiefly on the Ottoman archives in Istanbul. Also contains numerous illustrations.

  • Mansur, Juni. Al-Khaṭṭ al-Ḥadīdī al-Ḥijāzī: Tārīkh wa-taṭawwur qiṭār Darʻā-Ḥayfā. Jerusalem: Mu’assasat al-Dirasat al-Maqdisiyyah, 2008.

    Specializes in the history of the Hijaz Railway branch that ran from Dar’a in what is now Syria to Haifa in what is now Israel. The most useful sections of the book deal with the period from World War I to 1948. The work is copiously illustrated and based on archival research in Israel and Jordan.

  • Nicholson, James. The Hejaz Railway. London: Stacey International, 2005.

    While more than a coffee-table book, the photographs are perhaps the chief contribution Nicholson makes in this beautifully illustrated study of the Hijaz Railway, which also includes a detailed examination of the railway’s role in World War I. The author’s failure to cite sources for specific information (other than direct quotations) limits the scholarly usefulness of his work.

  • Ochsenwald, William. The Hijaz Railroad. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1980.

    Discusses the planning, construction, financing, operations, and social impact of the Hijaz Railway to the end of World War I. The book traces the railway’s history as an example of Ottoman attempts at independent technological and economic modernization, thereby applying modernization theory. Main sources include British and French archives, and printed works in Arabic, Turkish, and German.

  • Özyüksel, Murat. Hicaz Demiryolu. Istanbul: Türkiye Ekonomik ve Toplumsal Tarih Vakfi, 2000.

    The author examines the history of railways in the Ottoman Empire, the decision to build the Hijaz Railway, and its financing, construction, extensions, and role in World War I. This work is more analytical than most other studies. It is based on new research in the German, Austro-Hungarian, and Ottoman archives as well as a careful utilization of printed sources and is the best single study of the railway.

  • Özyüksel, Murat. The Hejaz Railway and the Ottoman Empire: Modernity, Industrialisation, and Ottoman Decline. Translated by Sezin Tekin. London: I. B. Tauris, 2014.

    In this translation of his 2000 work in Turkish the author’s main points remain stated, but an awkward translation and shorter footnotes mean that scholars should also consult the Turkish original.

  • Tourret, Richard. Hedjaz Railway. Abingdon, UK: Tourret, 1989.

    Despite its useful discussion of the technical details of the railway’s construction and its rolling stock, this book does not provide sufficient detailed information about sources, thereby limiting its scholarly importance.

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