The doomed Ottoman Hejaz Railway, with its echoes of British Army officer TE Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia) and the Arab Revolt, cuts across northwestern Saudi Arabia in the form of abandoned and evocative stations, garrison forts and the odd bridge.
The railway was meant to make life easier for pilgrims trying to reach the two holy cities of Medina and Mecca. It dramatically cut journey times and made it difficult for waiting bandits to carry out raids. The line, begun in 1900, finally arrived in Medina in 1908, covering 1600km from Damascus in Syria, though the planned final leg to Mecca would never be realised.
Despite many Arab tribes supporting the railway for its economic potential, during WWI, the Hashemite ruler of the Hejaz at the time, Sherif Hussein, made an alliance with the British to drive the Ottomans out of the region, and their new flagship project became an obvious target. Harnessing the hostility of local Bedouin, TE Lawrence helped orchestrate the Arab Revolt's successful attacks on the railway, and by 1918 – less than two decades after the project had started – the line lay in ruins.
The stations in both Medina and Tabuk were the biggest in Saudi Arabia and are the most accessible sites. They have both been fully restored along with a few locomotives, and are now home to exhibitions featuring artefacts from the fabled railway, including old Ottoman telephones and unused ticket stamps.
For a more atmospheric experience, you'll need a 4WD. Start near Medina along Route 15 heading west out of the city. Just before it veers north near Qalata Makhit, you'll find the ruins of a small substation and fort off As Salaam Rd. It can only be admired from afar, as it is surrounded by fencing.
Staying on Route 15 until Al Mulaylih, join the slower road to Al Ula. About 20 minutes along, Al Buwayr station and fort, with an almost-complete train and several wagons, will come into view. A further 25 minutes down the road you will see tyre tracks heading northwest through the rocks. Follow them for about 10 minutes and you'll come upon the lonely Jadaah substation, the first to truly evoke the isolation of these romantic relics.
Get back on the road and drive for 30 minutes until you see the turning for the town of Huraymil. Follow the road to its outskirts and take the dirt road west through the mountains for about 4km. A wire fence will suddenly appear on your right and behind it a huge rusting locomotive, turned on its side, as if blown up by the Arab revolters yesterday. It sits surrounded by the ruins of a substation and fort. This is the most rewarding area along the route, for when you backtrack to Huraymil, another dirt track heading north will lead you to a beautiful 150m long Ottoman railway bridge that spans a dry riverbed. Surrounded by barren desert and connecting an invisible track from one bank to the other, the bridge is a poignant picture of what has been and gone.