The once-vast Hijaz Railway was originally designed to speed Muslim pilgrims from Damascus to the holy cities of Makkah and Medina but ended in ruins less than two decades after its start. Its sun-scalded remains can be seen today, cut adrift across northwestern Saudi Arabia in the form of sand-dusted rails, abandoned stations and rusted locomotives.
The railway was created primarily to establish a link between Constantinople and the Hijaz region in Saudi Arabia, home to the holiest sites in Islam, and to shorten the journey of pilgrims performing Hajj. The line, begun in 1900, spanned 1,600km from Syria to Medina by 1908, though its planned final leg to Makkah would never be realized.
During the first world war, sections of the line were attacked by T.E. Lawrence and his Arab allies and by 1918, less than two decades after the project’s beginning, the railway lay in ruins. The track was unofficially abandoned by 1920.
Hijaz Railway remains
The most accessible of the railway’s remains are in Medina and Tabuk, where the line’s largest stations were built and have since been restored. The addition of locomotives and information centres help to immerse visitors in the railway’s brief and poignant history.
Head to the museum, which is housed in the Edwardian former station, to see its treasure trove of artefacts, manuscripts and photographs from a bygone era; some from the age of the railway, and others from far earlier. Further north in Tabuk, you’ll find one of the best-preserved examples of a station, including a restored locomotive and freight car, alongside other period relics.
Hijaz Railway station
For a more evocative experience, you’ll need an SUV – and a map. An hour’s drive northwest off the Medina-Al Ula road, you’ll find Al Buwayr station, where you can see an almost-complete train and several carriages, as well as the crumbling remains of a station and fort – which soldiers would have used to protect the railway line. The area is fenced off, but the site is still clearly visible.
Lastly, don’t miss the ruins at Huraymil. Once you reach the town’s outskirts, take the road through the mountains for about 4km. Here, you’ll find the remains of a further station and fort, as well as the rusting carcass of a huge locomotive, lying on its side in the sand.