We hopped on a bus to trail the old railway spread across Lebanon. Passing by abandoned stations; Jamhour, Dahr el Baydar, Sofar, Saadnayel, we took a halt at the largest of them all, Rayak, where we found machinery, wagons and even old travel documents only altered by rust and dust.
In our archives, we had this article about the mythical Orient Express, which gives a glimpse of the history of trains that ran along our coast, valley and mountains. Here’s the translation:
‘In 1876, George Nagelmackers, who belonged to a family of bankers from Liège, in Belgium, founded the Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits. The idea came during a trip to the United States, where he was sent in 1867 to forget a young lady he was courting. He traveled the American continent by train, in the wagons of George Pullman which boasted dormitories, lounges and a restaurant. He then decided to adapt the idea to Europe’s railway. He conceived a train with sumptuous interiors to offer voyagers comfortable seats, private compartments and refined meals while limiting the inconveniences of travel: multiple stops, customs and identity controls.
In 1883, the Orient Express was launched. The train linked Paris to Istanbul (Constantinople at the time), first through Varna, with a final junction by boat, then directly in 1889. The Orient, which was then accessible to only a handful of adventurers, opened up to a well-to-do clientele, curious to discover bazars, mosques and architectural wonders. The Taurus express, which started operating in 1930 offered extended travels to further destinations; Beirut, Rayak, Aleppo, all the way to Egypt in the South and Bagdad and Teheran in the East. New road openings were influenced by international relations between countries. World war II, the israelo-arab conflict and Lebanon’s civil war put an end to the unified network.
The wagons bustled with a lively and sophisticated atmosphere. Travelers wore elegant outfits; pearl necklaces, fringe dresses or tarbouches. It was not uncommon to come across celebrities such as the performance artist Josephine Baker in the 1920s. The wagons of Orient Express even witnessed an attack and a hostage-taking episode. These turbulences and intrigues inspired cinema and literature. Agatha’s Christie’s renowned Murder on the Orient Express, set in a train trapped in the countryside, was inspired by real facts.’
The trains in Lebanon stopped in time but our imagination can still travel back to the adventures they once carried.
Article originally published in L’Orient le Jour Junior, June 2014 Issue