Blog TWHS Visits

Hejaz Railway

Nabatean Hegra may be its main tourist attraction nowadays, but Saudi Arabia’s Unique Selling Point is being the custodian of the two holy sites of Islam: Mecca and Medina. No less than four TWHS are directly related to the pilgrimages to these sites. There are three Hajj Road serial transnational sites, of which the Darb Zubaydah seems to be prepared at the moment as a joint nomination between Saudi Arabia and Iraq. And there’s also the Hejaz Railway, which despite the “transport” theme also is closely associated with the Islamic pilgrimage route. The Islamic pilgrimage routes probably are the closest the Saudis will get to putting forward its holy sites as WHS (Mecca’s Kaaba is #9 of our Missing List).

My first encounter with this subject was at the National Museum of Saudi Arabia in Riyadh. At the moment they are hosting a special exhibition called ‘Hijrah’. It tells the story of how the Prophet Mohammed fled from Mecca to Medina to avoid persecution. Although this seems like a difficult and intangible theme, they found clever solutions to bring the message across also to non-Muslim visitors. Large video screens show his journey day by day and the desolate landscapes he passed through, alternated with works by modern artists (among them many female).

The Hejaz Railway entered Saudi Arabia from the northwest, bringing pilgrims from Turkey and Syria – essentially it was the early 20th century version of the Syrian Hajj Road. The remains of the old railway station of AlUla can be found in the center of that town. They have created a neat little park around it (even with a bike path!) but the buildings are fenced off and seem to be in a bad condition. There isn’t much interpretation beyond “this was a railway station plus some administrative buildings”. Water provisioning was much needed at every station, here in AlUla it came as a wind-driven pump that supplied a twin-tank water tower from two wells. Across the street, two wooden carriages have been preserved. I didn’t notice any remains of the railway tracks.

Medina was the end station of the Hejaz Railway. Originally the trains were meant to continue as far as Mecca, but that never happened after a successful tribal campaign in 1907 claiming the loss of revenue from transporting pilgrims on camelbacks. Mecca and Medina nowadays are served by railways: the high-speed Haramain Rail connects both holy sites via Jeddah. The wagons come from Spain, the slick but understated railway stations were designed by the firm of Norman Foster. I used this train to visit Medina on a day trip from Jeddah; it takes under 2 hours.

The Haramain train isn’t used only by pilgrims, and that was probably true for the Hejaz Railway as well. I noticed plenty of businessmen, families and regular commuters using the train to get from Jeddah to Medina. Despite its holy connotations, it’s also ‘just’ another large Saudi city with one million+ inhabitants. There is nothing of note along the way, no other cities, only flat and uninspiring desert for over 400km.

In the city of Medina, I used the Hop-on Hop-off bus to get a first look at its sights. The old Hejaz Railway station has its own stop, but when booking the bus ticket online it showed that this stop was unavailable due to road works going on and the railway museum being closed. Just another case of unfortunate Saudi closures? We did pass it from a distance and I got unobstructed views, so after the tour, I decided to just walk there from the Prophet’s Mosque in the city center (in contrast to the modern station, which lies just outside the Haram area, the Hejaz one lies firmly within its borders). You have to cross a few multi-lane streets but it isn’t far and there are pavements. I arrived around 2 pm and the sun was just on the wrong side to get good shots of the station’s pretty façade. But it is worth walking around it, as the back is just as good and you can see that this was a ‘real’ railway station with remaining tracks and wagons. I am sure when the museum reopens, it will be a worthwhile visit.

Els - 26 November 2023

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Els Slots 2 December 2023

Yes, except for the interior of the Holy Mosque of the Prophet

CugelVance 2 December 2023

Els,one question,please: is it possible to enter Medina for non-moslems without any restrictions??