The Cultural Legacy of Baron Edmund de Rothschild’s Built Heritage in Israel
The Valley Railway: The Stations

The Jezreel Valley Railway (known as the Valley Railway) made an incomparable economic and cultural contribution to the northern region in the days of pre-State Israel. 

Exploring the Rich History of The Jezreel Valley Railway: Tales from the Tracks

Our grandparents tell us that once upon a time, there was a train in the valley
That went round and round, and became a legend. 
It would wobble on the tracks; the locomotive was so slow that 
You could jump off for a bit to pick the wild flowers along the way. 

Villagers traveled by train, together with goats and sheep
Surely even others; many surprises awaited the passengers
The train would suddenly stop, and you could have a drink. 
Take a little walk and get back on again.

One day the train went silent, its wheels suddenly stopped
Where are the train cars? Only a dream remains.
You can still hear the echo of the locomotive’s horn
It no longer runs, it just stands there.

Excerpt from a song by Rivka Paz (lyrics) and Shmulik Zohar (music)


Perhaps a more befitting name for The Jezreel Valley Railway would have been the Train of the Valleys since it passed through the Zevulun, Jezreel, Jordan, and Beit Shean Valleys. From 1905 to 1948, the railway, including its tracks, its stations, its bridges, and even the train cars themselves made an undeniable mark on this region, while significantly promoting the development of Jewish settlement.

The railway is the subject of stories, legends, jokes, and songs embellished with local color that describe the experiences of Jewish and Arab residents who lived along the tracks and used the train.  As the train was very slow, it was possible to walk (or ride a donkey) alongside it as it was moving. The train transported agricultural goods from the Jewish settlements to Haifa and elsewhere. Representatives of kibbutzim and the various organizations held meetings in the cars as the train was traveling. Passengers also took the train to regional hospitals when they were in need of medical treatment.

Unveiling the Forgotten Stations: A Journey Along the Valley Railway

The Valley Railway is the first part of the Hejaz railway line; it was built so that Muslim pilgrims could travel to Mecca, from Haifa through the Valleys, Damascus, and Medina. Laying the railway line involved many engineering and logistical challenges resulting from the extreme topography, the passage across the Yarmouk and Jordan rivers from different directions; the harsh climate; and a lack of skilled engineers. 

The Hejaz railway did not achieve its initial goal.

As the line was only built as far as Medina. However, sections of the railway that passed through pre-state Israel, from Haifa to Zemach, had a decisive impact on the development of Haifa and the Jewish settlement in the valleys.  In addition to railway tracks, train stations of different sizes were built at various points along the line: 

  • some were a complex of several buildings
  • some featured only a small cabin or even just a sign. 
  • Bridges were built across rivers. 

The buildings, bridges, and railroad tracks, along with the stories and legends that emerged, all made the Valley Train an integral part of the physical and cultural landscape of the North.  

In recent years, a new term has been coined to describe the symbiosis of human activity and environment: cultural landscape. 

The Valley Railway runs through the open spaces of the northern valleys; its buildings, tracks, cars, bridges, and ditches represent human activity that made an impact on the landscape. Today some of the old tracks have been destroyed or are concealed by weeds and other overgrown foliage; some of the old station buildings, as well as the old bridges, have been abandoned and destroyed, and the cars do not operate anymore. However, the stories and experiences that became an integral part of the pioneer culture in this period of state-building still exist.

 According to the Charter on Cultural Routes (2008), a cultural route is ‘’Any route of communication, be it land, water, or some other type, which is physically delimited and is also characterized by having its own specific dynamic and historic functionality to serve a specific and well-determined purpose.” 

The Charter goes on to state that a cultural route must meet three conditions:  a)

” It must arise from and reflect interactive movements of people as well as multi-dimensional, continuous, and reciprocal exchanges of goods, ideas, knowledge, and values between peoples, countries, regions or continents over significant periods of time.” 

In this regard, the Valley train transported people and goods and was a space of interaction between Jews and Arabs; b. 

“It must have thereby promoted a cross-fertilization of the affected cultures in space and time, as reflected both in their tangible and intangible heritage.” 

In this regard, the Valley Railway accelerated the economic growth of the Jewish and Arab cities and towns along its line; and c) 

“It must have integrated into a dynamic system the historic relations and cultural properties associated with its existence.” 

In this regard, when the Valley Railway line was first built, it had few stations.  

Later, under the British Mandate, it was easier to build Jewish settlements, and this represents political and historical development.  This cultural route exists in the natural landscape of the valleys of the north. The route is visible in the tracks, the stations, the bridges, and drainage ditches.  It was built by humans and is not a creation of nature. The significance of the Valley Railway for all residents of the region emphasizes the importance of the route as a whole. 

The Historical Background of the Valley Railway

The idea of laying a railway line between Acre or Haifa and Damascus was first conceived in the 1880s. 

The Greek Sursock family, who lived in Beirut and owned land in the Galilee and the northern valleys was looking for a way to reduce the costs of the transportation of agricultural produce from the Hauran and the northern valleys. In 1882, a group of Arab dignitaries headed by the Sursock family received a firman (royal mandate) from the Ottoman government to lay a railway from Acre or Haifa to Jasr al-Majma (Nehalim Bridge); this was the beginning of a track that would eventually continue on to Damascus. 

These plans failed due to lack of funding. 

Sir Laurence Oliphant also tried his luck, together with George Egger, a resident of the German colony in Jaffa, and engineer  Gottlieb Schumacher. However, the company they founded failed to obtain funding.  

In 1890, a franchise was granted to Yusuf Elias, a Christian from Beirut, who was an engineer in the service of the Ottoman government. He sold the franchise to the English entrepreneur Robert Pilling, who founded a new company called the Syrian Ottoman Railway and listed it on the London Stock Exchange. At first, there were plans to start the line at Acre but then the first station was moved to Haifa where the large steamships docked. On December 13, 1892, a ceremony was held to mark the beginning of work. 

However, the company soon encountered problems due to competition with DHP, a French company that was laying a line from Beirut to Damascus, almost bringing Pilling’s company to bankruptcy. Although the company was reorganized in 1898 with new partners, and the franchise extended, these efforts were in vain. In 1902, the Ottoman government decided to lay the line itself, so it canceled the franchise and paid compensation to the English company. 

Engineering Marvels and Historic Landmarks: Bridges of the Railway

On May 1, 1900, on the 25th anniversary of his reign, Sultan Abd al-Hamid II announced the laying of the pilgrims’ railway from Damascus to Medina and Mecca.  

This railway, known as the Hejaz railway, was to become the most important project of the Sultanate. The initiative had several purposes: 

  • transporting Muslim pilgrims to the holy cities;
  •  improving the reputation of the Ottoman Empire, whom the Europeans were calling the “sick man of the Bosporus;” 
  • promoting the export of wheat crops from the Hauran and the economic development of Transjordan; 
  • developing an alternate route to the Suez Canal ; 
  • increasing control over the rebel Bedouin tribes in the Hauran, in the north of the Arabian Peninsula and in Yemen; 
  • and finally, in accordance with Abd al-Hamid’s pan-Islamic policy, strengthening the connection between the two holy cities and the Ottoman center of power in Kushta. 

The laying of the Hejaz track was an unmitigated Ottoman effort at a time when European powers were penetrating the Levant and vying for licenses to lay railroads, get their hands on natural treasures and establish public services.

 Although the Sultan did indeed finance the construction of the railroad line he sought the support of the German government, which was also interested in gaining economic and political influence in the Empire. German instructors were hired to train the Ottoman army in the work of laying the tracks. 

The Germans received permission to lay the railway from Anatolia towards Baghdad and the Persian Gulf coast in 1903. The Hejaz railway was built with Turkish funding with the help of Muslim donors from around the world. The Sultan himself also made a personal contribution. This was the only railroad in the Ottoman Empire whose construction was completed without incurring debt.

The work, led by the expert German engineer Heinrich Meissner,  began on September 1, 1900. AAMedina track (1,302 km) as well as the extension of the valley railway from Haifa to Daraa (161 km) in eight years. The Haifa – Deraa line, initiated in 1902, ensured there would be an exit through the sea and through Eretz Yisrael, thus eliminating the Turks’ dependence on the French company that was laying the Beirut – Damascus line. 

The Haifa -Deraa line began in 1903 and the first train traveled from Haifa to Damascus on October 15, 1905. The event was commemorated by the Turks with the erection of a marble monument in honor of Sultan Abd al-Hamid II, which still stands today at the entrance to the Haifa East Station. 

An identical monument stands in the train station in Damascus.

valley railway train station

Monument in honor of the Sultan at the entrance to Haifa Station East.

In order to save expenses, Meissner decided to use a narrower 105-cm.-wide rail, although the accepted standard at the time was 106.7 cm.  A broader track would have been able to carry a longer train, but Meissner understood that this endeavor stemmed from political, military, and religious motivations much more than economic ones. 

 He also used some of the track that had been laid down by the British company before him.   

In September 1904, the line from Damascus to Ma’am was inaugurated and on September 1, 1908, the line to Medina was opened too.  Thousands of pilgrims enjoyed free transportation on what the Bedouins called ‘’the Sultan’s Donkey.” The rest of the track from Medina to Mecca was never 1908, the Young Turks seized power, the Sultan was deposed and interest in the railway waned.  Nevertheless, before the First World War, an additional 17.8 km. of track was added to the Valley Railway. At the beginning of  913, a 17 km track connecting Afula and Jenin was inaugurated.  During the war, a track from Silat ad-Dhahr southwards was laid. 

Promoting Development and Shaping the Landscape of the North

At first there was one train per day between Haifa to Damascus in each direction.  

However, during the pilgrimage period, 4-5 trains left Haifa every day. Over time, more trains were added and the section from Daraa westwards became the most profitable track of the Hejaz rail system; the trains became faster, too.

 In 1906, the Thomas Cook company began to sell tour packages to Europeans seeking to travel to Israel and Syria. The tours included a trip by train from Haifa to Damascus and a boat trip on the Sea of Galilee from Zemach to Tiberias and Kfar Nahum. At first, only two classes of tickets were offered: first and third. In 1912, a second class was also added. First-class passengers had the use of a sleeping compartment. 

After the First World War, a bridge was built over the Jordan River near Degania, and a stagecoach would transport train passengers to Tiberias. This service was even used as a selling point in an advertisement for a ‘’garden city” neighborhood near Tiberias, the brainchild of Dr. Arthur Rupin.  

From the beginning of World War I, because of sea blockades by the Allies, the Turkish Railway system had to deal with a constant shortage of spare parts, technical equipment and more. Reserves of hard coal were diverted to the transport of soldiers and military equipment to battle zones in the south.   When the connection with the coal mines in Anatolia was severed, the supply of coal for steam engines also ran out. The Turks began to cut down trees and forests in Eretz Yisrael and Transjordan to supply the needs of the railway system. 

In 1915, the lines from Saudi Arabia to the east of Nablus and from Saudi Arabia to west Tulkarm were completed. 

From Tulkarm the track continued south to Lod. The old French line from Lod to Jerusalem was integrated into the Hejaz railway system and the Turks began laying a new track from  Nahal Sorek Station to the Negev and the Sinai. This was only part of the Turks’ plans to build a network of trains to support the war effort.  

The British attacked these lines and began laying their own lines from south to north. Also, part of the Hejaz railway line between Damascus and Medina was destroyed during the fighting. During the Mandate period, the British took control of the Valley Railway, integrating it into the British Mandate’s train system. 

The Valley Railway operated during the Mandate period until the War of Independence, when Israeli forces blew up the bridges that led to Jordan and Syria. 

During the mandate period, the system operated poorly: equipment was outdated, the tracks were narrow, which necessitated changing trains at the Haifa Station. 

Despite this, due to the lack of paved roads that could transport passengers and goods In the winter months, the Valley Railway began to serve the Zionist enterprise. It transported passengers and goods from the settlements of the northern valleys to Haifa and the south as well as to Damascus. 

Over the years, as Jewish settlements were established along the line, new stations were constructed also.  The service was stopped and not renewed after the establishment of the State of Israel.  In 2011, work began on a modern Valley Railway, and in October 2016, the line between Haifa and Beit Shean was inaugurated.

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