Only half a century or so ago, it might have seemed that railways were just another legacy industry. Railway networks were being slimmed down or rationalised throughout the developed world, road haulage was replacing rail freight, and individuals were abandoning trains for private cars.
Air transport was making longer trips far shorter and often more affordable. While some train journeys may still have had a kind of romance, though probably not those associated with a daily commute, passenger numbers were falling, routes disappearing, and many smaller stations closing.
This situation has in many respects reversed today, with European countries investing heavily in new technologies, rolling stock, and train lines. Journeys that many people would once have thought twice about, such as London to Paris by Channel ferry, can now be done in comfort by high-speed train in a couple of hours. Freight trains routinely cross Asia from China to western Europe in 16 days. More and more passengers are filling trains across Europe.
At the same time, there has been a rediscovery of the heritage of train travel, with this quintessentially 19th-century technology, glamourised in the inter-war years and then falling into disrepair after World War II, in many cases now being rebuilt and refunctioned for new generations of travellers.
While the great fortunes of the 19th-century railway boom when the railways opened up the United States, Canada and Russia to economic exploitation might not be in prospect now, there can be little doubt that part of today’s Chinese economic miracle is related to the country’s huge investment in high-speed trains.
Such thoughts may well strike visitors to Egypt’s Railway Museum, which, entirely renovated before being reopened to the public in 2017, is still not widely enough known to domestic and foreign audiences.
A recent visit by Al-Ahram Weekly to the museum attached to Cairo’s main railway station in Ramses Square revealed few visitors to what is surely one of the capital’s more important museums. It is perhaps the only one in the Middle East in which the growth of railways is so carefully and efficiently explained, drawing on the resources of a notably well-curated collection.
There have been many famous railways in the Middle East, with perhaps the Hijaz Railway that once ran down through the Levant and the Hijaz to Medina in Saudi Arabia coming first to mind. This was memorably presented by English film director David Lean in his film Laurence of Arabia (1962) as a target of nationalist sabotage.
There is the equally famous Berlin to Baghdad Railway that was supposed to link Berlin to Baghdad through the then Ottoman Empire as part of Germany’s geopolitical ambitions in the region before World War I. Contracts were awarded to German companies to build railways throughout the Ottoman Empire from the 1890s onwards, with work on the Baghdad Railway commencing in 1903 though not actually finishing, in the wake of multiple delays, until 1940.
Work began on the Hijaz Railway in 1900, and it had reached Medina by 1908. Jaffa and Jerusalem were linked by rail in 1892, and Hama, Aleppo and Damascus in Syria were linked between 1902 and 1906.
Then there is the Orient Express, which, starting in Paris and running down through the Balkans to Istanbul, was an early victim of the division of Europe in the Cold War.
Earlier, it had produced its own kind of romance in English novelist Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express (1934), which begins with Belgian detective Hercule Poirot boarding the train in Aleppo in Syria, and, in a different key, her compatriot Graham Greene’s Stamboul Train (1932), which takes its characters from Ostend in Belgium to the famous Pera Palace Hotel in Istanbul before connections onwards to Damascus or Baghdad.
However, none of these famous lines, perhaps one day to be revived, can compete with Egypt’s railways on precedence. The first railway line in the Middle East was built in Egypt in 1853 between Alexandria and Kafr Al-Zayat in the Delta and extended to Cairo in 1856. In 1858, Suez was linked by train to Cairo, followed by Assiut in 1874 and Luxor and Aswan in 1898.
Following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire at the end of World War I, this railway network, now linked to that in the wider Middle East, was used for the Taurus Express, the Middle East extension of the Orient Express, making it possible for passengers to travel direct from Paris to Cairo or Paris to Baghdad in the space of a week.
Such new-found accessibility and speed could not help but stimulate the development of tourism. The Pera Palace Hotel, financed by the Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits, opened its doors in Istanbul in 1897, and it was still an important port of call for the characters of Stamboul Train in 1932. In Murder on the Orient Express, Poirot stays at the city’s equally resonant Tokatlian Hotel, which opened in 1897.
Egypt’s grand hotels, Shepheard’s in Cairo, the Winter Palace in Luxor, and the Cataract in Aswan, dating from much the same period, also benefitted from the new traffic brought in by railway passengers, with Shepheard’s in particular targeting travellers arriving in Cairo by train.
VISITING THE MUSEUM
Some of this history is recalled in the Railway Museum, but its main purpose is less to recall the romance of early 20th-century train travel across the Middle East and more to place the history of train transport in Egypt against the background of the country’s economic development.
The first major piece the visitor sees on arriving at the museum is a steam locomotive, painted green, occupying pride of place on the forecourt outside. This early engine, made by the British firm Robert Stephenson and Company for the Egyptian Railways in 1865, links the museum back to the heroic phase of 19th-century railway engineering. Robert Stephenson was the son of George Stephenson, builder of the Stockton and Darlington Railway in the north of England in the 1820s, the world’s earliest modern railway.
Stephenson’s railway, designed to transport coal and only later being developed for passenger services, gives a clue to the motivation behind Egypt’s early railways. These, too, were designed pre-eminently with freight in mind and were only later developed to take in passengers. The earliest lines, commissioned by Egypt’s ruler Abbas Helmi I in the early 1850s and followed up by Said Pasha after his death in 1854, were always seen with a double intention.
On the one hand, there was a need to shift agricultural raw materials, chiefly cotton or sugar cane, to ports such as Alexandria for shipping abroad, and on the other, there was a desire to speed up internal transport through Egypt before the construction of the Suez Canal. When the Alexandria to Cairo line was completed in 1856, followed by the extension from Cairo to Suez, it was possible for the first time to transport goods swiftly between Alexandria on the Mediterranean to Suez on the Red Sea even before the construction of the Suez Canal.
The museum recounts some of this history in its ground-floor display in the shape of a copy of the agreement, written in Arabic and dated July 1851, between the Egyptian government and the Robert Stephenson Company, to build the Cairo to Alexandria train line. Stephenson undertook to design the lines and any necessary bridges or other structures, as well as to supply the engineering and technical skills required. In return, he was to be paid in installments over the following four or five years.
Unlike for other major infrastructure projects completed at the time and later, perhaps pre-eminent among them the Suez Canal, there seemed to have been no attempt to raise the capital required on the European markets or to set up a joint-stock company to carry out the project, meaning that ownership was retained in the hands of the Egyptian state.
Though it is not made clear in the display or in the accompanying museum catalogue, available in Arabic and English but unfortunately linked to the display as it was before its re-organisation in 2017, it seems that the development of the railways in Egypt was financed by the state, a situation contrasting with that in 19th-century England where private companies built and owned all the country’s railway lines.
Much of the material displayed on the museum’s ground floor has to do with early rolling stock and locomotives, and two large pieces stand out. There is a 1906 passenger train locomotive built by the North British Locomotive Company for use on the Egyptian Railways that has been retired to the museum and its sides cut away to reveal its workings. Even more spectacularly, there is the sumptuously decorated locomotive for the khedival train built for Said Pasha by the Robert Stephenson Company in 1862.
Said would have been able to use this for khedival rail journeys from Cairo to Alexandria, though it would have only been under his successor, the khedive Ismail, that similar journeys would have been possible to Upper Egypt as the railway lines were still being built. Elsewhere in the ground-floor display, the museum has a large collection of less spectacular, but equally fascinating, models of early locomotives and rolling stock.
This includes models of the first locomotive used in Egypt, Robert Stephenson’s E R 1 (Egyptian Railways 1) locomotive, delivered in 1852, and other models taking the story up to the advent of diesel locomotives in the 1950s and beyond.
BRIDGES AND STATIONS
The first-floor display moves away from rolling stock towards infrastructure, particularly bridges and stations, and it contains a particularly interesting series of vintage models.
Railway bridges tend to be less in the public eye than locomotives or rolling stock, which have long had dedicated hobby groups associated with them in perhaps all countries. Generations of small boys and others have been brought up on train sets and have been affected by the feelings of nobility and strength that can emanate perhaps particularly from steam locomotives.
But there have always been fewer people interested in railway bridges, possibly in part because it is rare for these to achieve the kind of iconic architectural status sometimes accorded to road or passenger bridges, with examples such as the mediaeval fantasy of Tower Bridge in London or the Milau Viaduct road bridge in the south of France, designed by UK architect Norman Foster and opened in 2004, coming readily to mind.
However, some railway bridges at least have been accorded a place in the wider culture. There is the Forth Railway Bridge in Scotland onto which Richard Hannay jumps in UK film director Alfred Hitchcock’s 1939 version of John Buchan’s novel The 39 Steps, for example. In Egypt, perhaps only the Imbaba Railway Bridge, built between 1912 and 1924, has been accorded a similar iconic status as a local landmark, and there is a model of it in the museum’s exhibition.
However, as the exhibition of models also reveals, there are many other distinguished railway bridges that visitors to Egypt may well have missed. These include the 1894 Benha Railway Bridge in the Delta, built to replace an 1854 bridge that was the earliest railway bridge in the country and part of the original Cairo to Alexandria line, and the striking Nagaa Hammadi Railway Bridge in Upper Egypt on the Cairo to Luxor line.
Yet, it is the museum’s collection of vintage models of railway stations that is most likely to attract visitor attention on the first floor. In addition to a model of the main Cairo railway station in Ramses Square, built in 1893, this also contains detailed models of the Tanta (1933), Edfu (1928), Assiut (1928), Alexandria Sidi Gaber (1948), Cairo Saray Al-Qobba (1940), and Port Said (1955) stations, revealing a fascinating variety of architectural styles from the neo-Pharaonic (Edfu) to the neo-Islamic (Tanta) and what might be described as the modern international style (Assiut and Port Said).
The design of railway stations is a specialised area and one in which there has always been a desire to marry form to function and to express a measure of civic or national pride, often by employing forms previously associated with very different building types. Nineteenth-century European railway stations could easily look like Roman triumphal arches (the old Euston Station in London), Gothic fantasies (St Pancras Station, also in London), or Renaissance palaces (some stations in Paris). American ones could be reminiscent of the Roman Empire filtered through Hollywood film (the old Pennsylvania Station in New York).
In the case of Cairo, the main railway station in Ramses Square employs variations on the neo-Mameluke architectural style favoured for many public buildings at the time when it was built. However, it seems that it was only in Tanta in the Delta that a similar choice was made for stations outside the capital, employing if anything a purer Mameluke style than the main station in Cairo and complete with characteristic domes. Elsewhere more eclectic designs were chosen.
Emerging from the Railway Museum into the traffic of Ramses Square, one wonders whether it might be possible, as part of the museum’s renovation efforts, to find more to say about the importance of the railways in national history and national life. As well as being vital economically since the mid-19th-century, the railways in Egypt have long fed the imagination of writers and filmmakers alike.
Fascinated by the transformations that the railways were bringing to French life at the end of the 19th century, the country’s Impressionist painters, pre-eminently Monet and Manet, were also drawn to paint the capital’s railway stations and the ways in which this form of transport was speeding up time and shrinking distances across the country. In Egypt, the railways can emerge as a character in their own right in films, most obviously in late director Youssef Chahine’s Cairo Station (Bab Al-Hadid, 1958), and the same thing may be true of fiction in which railways have also played a role.
Notably strong on the foundation and early history of Egypt’s railways, the museum’s collection begins to thin out from the 1960s onwards. Perhaps particularly given the renaissance currently enjoyed by railway networks across the world, it would be nice to see the story brought up to date.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 31 January, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: A visit to the Railway Museum