NOW & Zahra Hankir

Iron horse

Woven like a patchwork quilt onto cumbersome terrain, Lebanon’s railway and tram lines are a forgotten gem and the mark of a long lost past.

Though the railway route and the electric tramway tracks are today either completely destroyed or obscured by asphalt, rocks and overgrown bushes, they are still visible to the observant eye and some French-style station stops are still fully intact.

Moreover, memories remain fresh to many who recollect with nostalgia the tram and the train as key parts of the nation’s most charming era. Renowned historian Dr. Kamal Salibi recalled with NOW Lebanon his dear memories of the train, which, he says, defined his early understanding of the passing of time. “My concept of historical time… was related as a child to the railway and still is,” he said, describing the development of the early twentieth century as if it were a trip from Bhamdoun to Sofar to Dahr al-Baydar.

The train, Salibi explained, opened villages up to surrounding areas, offering people who could not travel by any other means exposure to other regions in the country. As for the electric tram, which first began operating in 1909, Salibi called it a “social institution,” a truly “democratic” form of transportation, whereby people from various areas were able to interact on a ride from one end of Beirut to another.

Reminiscing the railway

Stretching from the center of Homs, Syria, the railroad track entered Lebanon on two lines, one passing along the coast to Tripoli, to the capital and then Zahrani, and the other passing through the Bekaa and ending at Chtoura. The track was part of a greater Syrian-Ottoman railway that ran from Haifa, through Beirut, to Damascus and beyond.

The lines were traveled by pilgrims making their way to Mecca, regional merchants, Lebanese families and British troops of the Second World War. They also facilitated the delivery of hundreds of thousands of freight to and from Damascus and, on the Zahrani line, shipments of fuel as well.

The rail network was the first of its kind in the region and was painstakingly developed for some 75 years after it was launched in 1895 with its first steam locomotive. The task of building the track was immense, as the mountains were steep, rocky and vulnerable to snowy winters. Inclines were so steep that special metal hooks were used to prevent the trains from backsliding.

The Haifa-Tripoli line was cut in 1945, allegedly due to the onset of the Arab-Israeli conflict, and was transformed into the Tripoli-Naqoura line. The bulk of the remaining tracks were destroyed in just two years of the civil war, though some parts of it, such as the Beirut-Damascus line, had become inoperable long before.

Though small portions of the original track operated in the late 1980s, violence halted attempts by some European companies to rebuild the tracks. Today, Lebanon is cut off from a railway system that still operates from Syria to Istanbul, Tehran and Baghdad. There are currently no plans on the part of the Transportation Ministry to restore the tracks, as the cost to do so would likely be in the hundreds of millions

Taking the tram

Lebanon's electric trams ran from Manara in Ras Beirut to Furn el-Chebbak on the other side of the city, as well as from Basta to Dora. Operating as a commuter service in the early to mid twentieth century, the tram was popular among students traveling to university, as well as families and commuters. 64-year-old Dr. Mansour Ajami, for example, used to take the tram to and from the American University of Beirut while he was a student in the sixties.

The tram also has a place in the country’s political history. It was, according to AUB historian Dr. Tarif Khalidi, “one way in which you could demonstrate.” Whenever AUB students wanted to protest for Algeria, he explained, they would “unhook the electric wires above the train and it would stop.” Because the trams were associated with France, said Salibi, such demonstrations were considered a gesture of attack against foreign forces. 

Despite their popularity, the trams were driven out of service by the growing number of buses and cars even before the start of the 1975 civil war. Nevertheless, the tram remains a dear memory to those who used it. As Salibi said, “Nothing has ever replaced it.”

*Thanks also to Kheireddine El-Ahdab for images.