Trans Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften 16. Nr. Juni 2006

12.1. Reisen und Ortswechsel: Interdisziplinäre Perspektiven
Herausgeber | Editor | Éditeur: Arnold Groh (Technische Universität Berlin)

Dokumentation | Documentation | Documentation

ALIYAH. A concept and its reflections on railways

Walter Rothschild (Berlin)


The Hebrew term ‘Aliyah’ means, simply, "Going Up" or "Going Upwards"- it is used as a metaphor for the act of travelling to or emigrating to the Land of Israel or, within Israel, to the city of Jerusalem or, within Jerusalem, to the site of the Temple. One "ascends" in terms of the holiness or importance of a place. In the same way, normal English usage speaks of "going up" to the capital city, or - in Oxford and Cambridge at least - "Going up" to University - and at the end of term or the end of one’s career, "coming down" or, if one has been very naughty, being "sent down".

Another meaning of the word 'Aliyah' refers to one of the main events during synagogue service, the reading from the 'Sefer Torah', the old parchment scroll. It is regarded as an honour to attend these Torah readings and to participate. In former times, it was probably common that one was called up to read a part oneself. Today, a trained "Ba'al Koreh" ('Master of Reading') is reading from the Torah, while other prayers are being called up who then say a Beracha (blessing) and stand by, while he is reading 'for them'.

This is also called "an Aliyah", because one is ascending to the pulpit, then being closer to the Holy Scriptures. The one who has been called up remains on the podium until the next one has said the blessings, too, and then returns to his seat. Now, his Aliyah is over.

So - one word, many meanings. Who would not want to ascend, go up, improve, be promoted?

A beautiful example of this can be found in the railway companies that used to operate in Great Britain before the ‘Grouping’ of 1923, when almost all major lines were forcibly merged by the Government into four large companies. Almost without exception, those railway companies which had a line that extended to London referred to London-bound trains as "up trains", the track as the "up track" and the platform as the "up platform". The reverse was then, naturally, also true. Railwaymen use these terms still, referring to a "Down Express", an "Up Goods", the "Up Starter Signal" and so forth. (The Rev. James Spooner, who was famous for a form of mental slippage whereby letters were unconsciously transposed, referred famously once to "the next town drain" rather than "down train".) Where lines did not touch London, or with short branch lines, the same system would be applied in terms of where they joined a junction on the main line - "up" to the main line junction, because from here the possibility existed of continuing upwards.

The major exception was the Midland Railway. This proud company served, as its name implies, the Midlands - primarily the East Midlands but it controlled lines from Birmingham down to Bristol, lines into Wales, into the Peak District and Manchester, and across the Settle and Carlisle line to Carlisle on the border with Scotland. It also built a major trunk route into London and Saint Pancras Station. The headquarters of this complex system was in Derby - and so all trains ran "Up" to Derby and then "Down" further along their journey to Birmingham, Leeds, London, Sheffield or wherever. Which certainly told the Londoners how important they were in the scheme of things!

Elsewhere, the Capital city (‘capital’ from the Latin ‘caput’ meaning ‘head’) is perceived somehow to be ‘the top’, the zenith, the peak, the pinnacle. The Israeli airline is called "El Al" - meaning "towards and upwards!" There is a technical halachic concept, "Ma’alin baKodesh, lo Moridin" - whereby one may ascend in holiness but not descend. Following this principle, one may exhume a body for reburial if the place where it is to be reburied is ‘more holy’ than where it currently lies - for example, to take it to Israel.

Although there were many early schemes and dreams, railways came late to the Land of Israel, and often almost by accident rather than design. (We should not omit to mention the dream of Theodor Herzl, expressed in his visionary novel ‘Altneuland’, for a network of electric railways criss-crossing and linking the cities of the new, revived Middle East, and the Wuppertal-type ‘Schwebebahn’ which would provide urban transport. He was, as in so many other things, ahead of his time here...) The very first to be started, promoted by an English company (the Syria-Ottoman Railway Co.), from Haifa towards Beth Shean and Syria, was never finished, never opened, never ran a train, and a little later the earthworks (but not the standard gauge tracks(1)) were taken over by a Turkish State enterprise - the so-called ‘Hedjaz Railway’ - which was building a 105cm.-gauge line from Dera’a to Haifa, not because either Haifa or Akko were at the time such important harbours or sources of such potential commercial traffic, but simply because it would make access for engineering equipment and stores for the construction of the Hedjaz line southwards through Transjordania and into Arabia easier and cheaper than using the French-owned line from Beirut to Damascus. This Hedjaz line was built ostensibly for religious reasons, to aid the poor Moslem pilgrims on their arduous and dangerous journey to Mecca, but in reality for strong politico-military reasons, to improve access for Government troops to the hinterland as required.

In the meantime, on 25th September 1892 the metre-gauge railway from Jaffa to Jerusalem was finally opened, with a formal ceremony at Jerusalem station in which two sheep were ceremonially slaughtered to ensure prosperity for the line. Clearly the Priests were not in top form that day, as the company went effectively bankrupt a few years later and had to be re-organised and placed in administration. I don’t know whether this is relevant, but the original promoter, a Jew, Navon, who had perhaps considered opening up the land to Jewish visitors, had to sell the concession to a French Catholic company whose backers were more interested in opening it up to Christian pilgrims and missionaries.

One major problem the railway faced was that the Ottoman authorities were not prepared to let it build a decent rail-connected harbour at Jaffa. A pier was built into the breakers (and rebuilt after it was washed away in a typical storm) to permit the offloading of equipment for the construction of the line (the boilers of the American locomotives had to be floated ashore onto the beach!! Salt water is hardly good for boilers) - but then had to be dismantled by decree. So any tourists, pilgrims and potential Olim - immigrants - were faced with having to disembark into rowing boats and be taken ashore, all cargo likewise had to be transshipped into ‘lighters’, brought to what passed for quays, then taken by camel or donkey through the narrow streets to the station a kilometre or so inland. (During 1917 the British Army built a narrow-gauge tramway for goods to the station, but the local residents complained about the rails getting in their way and it was dismantled fairly soon afterwards.)

Travel was not necessarily swift, speedy or comfortable - the timetable showed only one or two trains per day. H. Rider Haggard described in his "Winter Journey" of 1900 a typical journey:

"If all the trains that leave Charing Cross in the course of a busy day were to start during one single hour, I do not suppose that the sum of the noise and confusion would equal that which occurs at the station at Jaffa when the daily tram - it is scarcely more - gets itself off for Jerusalem. Heavens! How those dusky untamed sons of the desert fight and yell. How they stagger to and fro beneath the boxes, hurling them to earth here, there, and everywhere. How they clamour for baksheesh! How they rush to prepare seats for their various patrons and demand more bakshseesh! What life, what excitement, what turmoil, what deadly feuds! What vociferations on behalf of the officials! But we get off somehow in a very crowded carriage. And the various dragomen, clad in their best attire for the entry into Jerusalem, explain, as their command of English and French gives them grace, the wonders through which we are passing."

(Rider Haggard, 1900, cited in Cotterell, Railways of Palestine & Israel, 1984, p. 8)

Travel by train to the Land of Israel was not, however, possible so long as there were no links by rail to other countries. Here I must simply and briefly state that the Jaffa - Jerusalem line remained isolated and metre gauge from 1892 until 1915. The Turkish military then constructed a line of 105cm. gauge southwards from Afula on their Dera’a - Haifa branch, through Jenin, Tulkarm and joining at Lydda, as part of a scheme to project a line southwards through Beersheba and into the Sinai Desert to support an attack on the Suez Canal. Once the British had beaten this (surprise) attack off, they in turn constructed a standard-gauge line in 1917 from Egypt along the coast to support their military effort and eventually - also at Lydda - crossed the Jaffa - Jerusalem line, which was in due course regauged yet again. From now on it was possible - at various times crossing the Suez Canal by ferry or swing bridge - to travel by through carriage from Cairo to Jerusalem - or at least to change at Lydda Junction from a Cairo-Haifa into a Jerusalem train. The route was used by civil servants, merchants and by the military, but not, it seems, by many hopeful immigrants, most of whom continued to arrive by sea, landing at Jaffa, or after the Arab riots of the 1930’s at the new port of Tel Aviv, or - mostly - at Haifa, a harbour greatly expanded and improved by the British, as a naval base and the end of the oil pipeline from Iraq. From Haifa well-heeled tourists, too, could take special trains to Jerusalem.

There was the narrow gauge link then through the Jezreel to Dera’a and Damascus, but the standard gauge link to the north came only in 1942, with the construction of the Haifa - Beirut - Tripoli Railway by the British military, and it was effectively closed in 1947 by the political developments which led to an independent Lebanon. The "Via Maris", the road of the sea, the road parallel to the coastline, which for centuries linked Asia and Africa along the Eastern Littoral of the Mediterranean, was, thanks to 20th. Century politics, never truly replaced by the railway.

Many people have sought to reach the Promised Land by train, but there are some strange twists and turns to the history. I present here one story. Some years ago I saw a brief Mandate-era newsreel shot of a train of refugees arriving at the Atlit camp - it was, let us be honest, a sort of concentration or holding camp - and climbing out of TCDD (i.e. Turkish) wagons. I have not been able to find any official records of this traffic - not even in Palestine Railways archives, but here is a tale of something vaguely similar - the differences being it was wartime, passenger stock was used for a part of the run, and the passengers were taken right through Palestine and out the far end! It forms therefore an exception, describing in vivid personal terms that very brief period of maybe five years when such a journey was physically possible.

For some years now I have edited and published a little magazine about the railways of the Middle East - called ‘Harakevet’, "The Train". In this time I have been fortunate to have made contact with various former military railwaymen and others, who have had some fascinating tales to tell, and I have devoted a lot of my limited spare time to rescuing these stories, encouraging my correspondents to write what they could, editing and publishing the results. One correspondent I treasured - alas, the last letters went unanswered, and he was living in an Old Age Home in Australia at the time - was Wynford (‘Doc’) Fear, formerly of the Great Western Railway in England, and here I take a section of one of his reminiscences - a story I published in ‘Harakevet’, in June 1996. It is a little long, but one needs the whole picture. It is basically in his own words, just ‘tidied’ or annotated a little. He kept a diary or notebook and, being a soldier, always noted where he got fed! In order to give the context I shall include the section where he heads north...... to show the geography and the technical details of the sort of journey that had to be made by anyone coming south (or 'up') to Israel this way.

"It would be about the end of 1943 when several men, locomotives, a crane and wagons had spent several weeks clearing up wrecks in the North African Desert. Trucks, tanks, guns of all types from both the enemy and the Allies, were brought near the railway and, when we had a ‘Line Clear’ possession we would pick up all this equipment - and there was a lot of it. Typically of the Army with its attitude of "Hurry up and Wait!", one day a truck arrived from HQ to collect my fireman and I to go away. At the Camp, Control said "You’ve got a special job". No details. Eventually five drivers and five firemen were to catch the passenger train for Egypt. Included in the posting was a Sergeant (none-too-bright!) and a cook.

Ten hours later we arrived in Cairo. We got something to eat and expected some camp for the night but, no, we were put straight onto the Palestine train; there were big question marks over where we were going, but no-one could or would tell us. Ah well, we were Passengers - so why worry? Over the Suez Canal, at Kantara East, where we got food, and then across the Sinai Desert again - through Gaza and Lydda to Haifa. More food. Now for the first time I went over the H.B.T. - the Haifa - Beirut - Tripoli Railway, opened in 1942. The American Whitcomb diesel locomotives we had been using on the Western Desert Railway were now being used by South Africans on the H.B.T.

Through Beirut and on to Tripoli. We decided we did not like the H.B.T. Railway, but little did we realise what was ahead. Food at Tripoli... This was a French-built railway - the Damascus, Homs et Prolongements (D.H.P.). We now set off from Tripoli going North and after hours of climbing we arrived at Homs. We were given some sandwiches at Homs and here discovered that Homs was an important junction. Looking south you could see the right-hand fork went to Tripoli and the Lebanon, and to the left was for Rayak, thence connecting for Damascus and eventually to Amman and Medina.

On again to Aleppo, for yet another hundred miles. Now we left the train and it was very cold, but we ended up in a five-room billet next door to the Italian Hospital in Aleppo. Beds and mosquito-nets had been arranged for us, which was surprising. Next morning we went to the L.S.B. railway workshop. Here we had to learn the Rules of the L.S.B. (‘Lignes Syriennes de Baghdad’), which were written in French, so they were translated first into Arabic, and then into English, and some peculiar instances occurred. ...... The L.S.B. drivers did not fancy us learning their job, and no-one had taken the trouble to explain why we were there. Our locos were supposed to be there the next week, but they never came. We were there for now to ‘learn the road’.

My first trip on the Railway made me feel that there were better places than Northern Syria. I forget most names, but the first section was a ready-made ‘Big Dipper’. The section was fair but at one point you had to stop in section, pull a pipe out of the wall and fill up with water. There were no valves - the water normally just poured down a drain. Then you came to a place called Katma (55 km. from Aleppo). Here we had to wait. I now noticed that the train was loose-coupled and there were boxes at the end of some wagons, and that there was a man in each box. When the train driver blew "Three" each brakesman would screw his brake on; when the driver whistled "Two" they would release the brakes. Now I looked and our loco had gone! "Don’t worry!" said George my fireman. "I understand he’s gone ahead to look if the line is safe". I gave up, and just sat and waited.

After nearly an hour a train came in, and it turned out that our locomotive was acting as the Banking(2) engine to this train. Now our locomotive, together with this train’s loco, hooked up onto the front of our train. Away we went, downhill all the way, whistling "Three", all brakes on, including those on both the locomotives. The gradients were at 1 in 20, 1 in 30, for a while 1 in 19! They had warned me at Longmoor(3) that there were worse railways; here I had found one!

When we reached Kurt-Kalac (73km. from Aleppo) there was another train waiting there. Now the engine which had braked us down the hill acted as banker to the train which was waiting.(4)

You must remember the peculiar attitude of the L.S.B. drivers, which was because they were afraid we were going to take their jobs. We could not speak their language but felt again that the people in charge had let us down.

It was dark as we left Raja, the last station before the end of the line. About one mile flat, then downhill at 1 in 30. I felt we were going too fast, but it was some time before the driver called for the brakes. We would be doing 60 m.p.h. as we went into a tunnel; now the Driver kept whistling. About three-quarters of a mile in tunnel, and as we emerged from it a man was holding a green light. It seemed as if we came out of that tunnel in complete silence, then almost instantly into another tunnel. It wasn’t until the return trip that I could see why. Between the two tunnels was a bridge 70 to 100 feet long. The only thing the bridge consisted of was two R.S.J.’s(5); several lengths were riveted together but the width was exactly one sleeper wide. When you went over it you looked down and you saw Nothing! It felt as if you were airborne!

Coming out of the second tunnel it felt as if we were on a rough road and against the horizon I could see a small hill. We circled the hill but instead of leaning towards the right to go around a right-hand curve we were leaning to the left. The driver kept blowing "Three" on the whistle, which told me we were in trouble. Ahead I could see lights which were the station, and someone was swinging a green light. We went through the border station of Medain-Ekbes (117km.) doing at least 40 mph. and stopped at least half a mile into the next section. The Driver reversed and pushed us back into the station, and then I saw the border signs of Turkey and Syria. I said to George, "If we had been in uniform, you know we should have been interned for the duration of the war, because we were in a neutral country". That really cheered him up.

The only food we had was tea and sugar, so I had to buy the native bread, Chapattis, and that was our evening meal. It was by now about 9 pm. The air was full of mosquitoes, although it was cold, and I did not fancy having to stop here for the night. We now sat in a room for train crews with only a cheap hurricane lamp for light.

It would be about 11.30 p.m. when a Sergeant-Major came into the room and calmly remarked, "Ah, there you are, I’ve looked all over for you". My answer was "Why?" He now started to tell us why we had been sent; we had to pick up "the train coming in" and get it away as quickly as possible, "secret cargo", etc. After all this I said, "First complaint, where is our food?" "Don’t know anything about that", was his answer. I was getting mad, so I said, "As a senior N.C.O., you should know." "I’ll see what I can do, where is your engine?" he answered. It was now my turn to look dumb. "Engine?" I said, "Don’t know anything about that". Eventually it turned out that we were to have brought an engine to pick up a train of Jewish refugees from Turkey.

After much talk it was decided the L.S.B. engine would be used to take this train to Aleppo. The train from Turkey came in, and it consisted of 22 cattle trucks. One door was open, and I was shocked at what was inside; about 20 women and 10 children, all looking frozen. It was 6am. and very cold. This wagon had a two-foot gap five feet above the floor for air, which was now ice-cold. There was only a bucket for all purposes.

We pulled out of Medain-Ekbes at about 7am., with the L.S.B. crew driving. Now it was my chance to look at the railway. The bridge over the chasm or canyon was guarded by a man with a flag, and if the Driver could see the flag he knew the bridge was still there, because during the war, well, "Who knows?" It was quite a climb from the Turkish frontier to the first station. We stopped for steam once, but it didn’t seem to worry anyone.

After five hours we arrived at Aleppo, and the train was shunted into a siding with a wide platform. On the other side were passenger coaches from the E.S.R.(6). All the refugees from Eastern Europe were now bathed in special showers. All clothes were burned, and each one was given British A.T.S.(7) uniforms, fed, given extra food, put into passenger coaches and eventually went south.

My fireman and I did this trip four times from Aleppo to the Turkish frontier. We learned that the Jewish refugees were escaping from Eastern Europe, Bulgaria, Hungary, and Greece and making their way to Turkey; since Turkey was neutral the Jews were safe once they had arrived there. The British Government arranged for Turkey to send these people to Syria, but the Arabs did not know what was happening.

After my fourth trip to the Turkish border I was taken ill and I went into the Italian Hospital next door to our billet in Aleppo. I thought I had a cold but the Sister took a blood test and made me wait; in half an hour I was in bed because I had malaria.

I was put on an Ambulance Train and taken south to Saida(8), to the 43rd. General Hospital. Here I lay for two weeks on the Danger List, but got over it and returned to the Company at Beirut.

I was allowed two days to recuperate, and then back to work. The Jewish refugees were still coming and we were taking empty coaches north or taking full coaches south. My fireman and I took one load of the refugees south from Beirut to Lydda, where a driver from the 189 Railway Operating Company (Royal Engineers) told me, when I asked where they were going to, that they were destined for El Shatt.

Now this was on the eastern side, at the north end of the Red Sea, at the south end of the Suez Canal; from the eastern end of the Firdan Bridge a line had been built running parallel with the Canal on the eastern side. It was single track and I drove on it several times to El Shatt. A tent city there became a sight to see - I saw it from Suez. I often wonder what happened to the Jews in there..... The millions spent, the long hours worked, the machines used which had to be repaired - I often wonder - was it worth it, for them and for us?"

(Fear, Harakevet, June1996).

The establishment of the State of Israel in May 1948 did not, as is often supposed, lead to the cutting of the rail links to neighbouring countries - these had already been severed, by the neighbours, beforehand. Transjordan became independent in 1946, Lebanon in 1947, and neither had much interest in restoring blown-up bridges or re-establishing trade and communications with Palestine at the time, or with Israel later. The Egyptian State Railways had already prevented through bookings beyond the border station at Rafah, where traffic or passengers had to be transshipped and new tickets purchased.

The dream of re-establishing railway links between Israel - whose own internal railway system is flourishing, with new lines and major infrastructure and rolling-stock improvements in recent years - and the railway systems of neighbouring countries such as Jordan and Egypt, remains current - though there appears to be no chance of rebuilding the line northwards to Lebanon. In Sinai, the Egyptians have rebuilt their bit of the old desert line as far as El Arish, which is served by a daily train - further progress is blocked by the political turmoil of the Gaza Strip, though there is also a scheme for a line bypassing this entirely. The old Jezreel Valley line will soon be rebuilt in standard gauge, with the ultimate aim of connecting to Irbid in Jordan, where the remains of the old Hedjaz line to Damascus would be standard-gauged, thus forming a potential through link via the Syrian network with both Turkey and Iraq (were political developments ever to make open borders and through commercial traffic a real possibility). One should be aware that new rail links are being designed between Iraq and Iran - both countries now have railway systems which are standard gauge, apart from some small sections to Russian 5-foot gauge in northern Iran - and it was recently announced that Khazakstan is planning a major project for an East-West standard-gauge line which will link the railways of Iran and China - both standard gauge - for transit traffic, the main Khazak system itself being of course to the Soviet 5-foot rather than standard 4ft. 8 1/2 inches (1435mm.). Turkey is building a rail tunnel under the Bosphorus to eliminate complex ferry transshipments between the stations at Haydarpasa on the east and Sirkeci on the west side. If all of this comes to fruition, and if the world ever changes, it would indeed, within a decade or so, be technically feasible for a container wagon (I do not, to be fair, envisage passenger carriages) to travel from Scotland, via the Channel Tunnel, through Europe, through the Balkans, European and then Asiatic Turkey, Syria, Iraq, Iran, Khazakhstan and on to Beijing - or to be diverted at Aleppo for Damascus, Irbid, Haifa, Lod, Rafah, El Arish, Kantara and into Egypt.

" If you will it, it is no dream "(9) wrote Theodor Herzl - who sparked off the whole Zionist political movement. Aliyah takes many forms. Maybe, one day, the land of Israel will regain its ancient function as a nodal point in the transit traffic between Europe, Asia and Africa, and the ‘Up Trains’ will run from all directions. We shall see....

© Walter Rothschild (Berlin)


(1) 4ft. 8 1/2 inches / 1435mm.

(2) i.e. pushing (all footnotes of this quotation by W.L.R.)

(3) the Military Railway Training Camp in England

(4) Each train needed an extra loco to go both up and down - for the braking power - and, rather than stationing an extra engine specifically to perform this function, the trains performed this complex dance.

(5) rolled steel joists.

(6) Egyptian State Railways

(7) women’s forces

(8) Sidon

(9)   Herzl (in 'Altneuland', 2004 München edition; p.7. Translation by author.)

(10) Harakevet items are indexed by issue and number, not by page.


Fear, Wynford: Private correspondence; published in Harakevet, 1996, 33, Item 20

Haggard, H. Rider (1900): Winter Journey. In: Cotterell, Paul: The Railways of Palestine and Israel. Abingdon, 1984, p.8

Herzl, Theodor (1902): Altneuland. München, 2004

Rothschild, Walter L.: Harakevet, 1996, June, 33:20. (10)

12.1. Reisen und Ortswechsel: Interdisziplinäre Perspektiven

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