The Orient Express

Witness to Germany's Expansionist Urges

Seventy years ago, a luxury train connected what is present-day Istanbul with the Middle East. The famous rail line, which was frequently used by Agatha Christie, was the creation of German engineers. Klaus Hillenbrand recently traveled by train from Istanbul to Aleppo

The Orient Express today, working its way through the desert (photo: www.lernidee.de)
The Kaiser exhibited a particular interest in the Orient Express, which fit in with his pursuit of Germany's "place in the sun," the endeavor to expand the empire to include the Middle East

​​Early every Thursday morning, the Toros Express awaits passengers on track 7 of the Haydarpasa Train Station on the Asian side of Istanbul. Twelve of the thirteen carriages have been freshly washed and their deep blue surfaces shine in the morning sun. After a 27-hour journey, they are scheduled to arrive in the Turkish city of Gaziantep the next day.

The thirteenth and last carriage, marked with the number 6, has been untouched by water and shows deep traces of rust on its exterior, painted white and blue once long ago in the distant past. It is the only section of the train traveling directly to the Syrian city of Aleppo, as indicated by a metal sign hanging next to the open carriage door. According to the schedule, we should arrive on Friday at 2:34 p.m.

Upon boarding one sees the inscription "Waggonbau Görlitz, 1983." The sleeping car conductor offers passengers a pleasant welcome and helps stow away the numerous pieces of luggage. There are still ten minutes before departure.

When Agatha Christie regularly traveled to visit her husband, the archeologist Max Mallowan, who then led excavations in Syria and Iraq, the Taurus Express provided the last leg of a luxurious trip from Europe to the Middle East.

Travel required time

The journey began only after crossing the channel and arrival in Paris, which was the actual starting point of the famous Orient Express. It offered passengers only first and second-class carriages and a supplemental fare was charged.

Back then, travel still meant investing a considerable amount of time, something hard to imagine in the age of the jet plane. An hour to Paris, three to Rome, eight to New York – no destination is too far when measured against the time spent for the journey.

Focus has long since shifted from the act of traveling to an exclusive concern with arriving at a destination. Transportation has become a tiresome, yet predictable means to an end. The only surprise left in store for passengers is the increasingly cramped seating arrangements on the plane.

From Europe to Asia via the ferry

Nowadays, travelers have to organize the journey to Haydarpasa Train Station on the Asian side of the Bosporus themselves. Accompanied by the early morning fog, the ferry leaves its mooring south of the old city on the Golden Horn. Twenty minutes later, after a passage through the calm waters of the straits and sailing alongside the shadowy outlines of ships, one sees the monumental railway station next to the port shimmering in the sun.

For her first journey to the orient in 1928, Agatha Christie made use of the Thomas Cook travel bureau and had no regrets. "I was happy to have my travel guide along with me, as the Haydarpasa Train Station was akin to a madhouse. The people were screaming, shouting and gesticulating in order to draw the attention of the customs officials."

Today, the carefully restored train station is almost completely deserted. The Turkish state railway has massively fallen behind more rapid bus services.

Slower than taking the bus

The bus requires only twenty hours to complete the route to Syria. Long-distance rail travel has become an anachronism. We, however, want to travel and once again experience distance – something must exist between point A and point B – although, even way back when, traveling was hardly ever undertaken merely for its own sake.

Our goal is Aleppo, the thousand-year-old trading city located between the Mediterranean and Mesopotamia. Or maybe the journey is the goal. Perhaps this rusty carriage number 6 – our provisional home – offers better accommodations than any Middle Eastern hotel.

There are only five minutes left before departure. The baggage is temporarily stowed away, and it slowly becomes apparent that the Toros Express is lacking an important carriage. Contrary to all expectations, there is no restaurant car. The few passengers make a dash to the kiosk for provisions. Bread, cheese, crackers, cookies, and water are snapped up. Then, at exactly 8:55, we experience a slight jolt and the train leaves Istanbul. It begins to pick up speed at a promising snail's pace.

Witness to Germany's expansionist urges

This is not only a journey on the trail of the British author Agatha Christie. The railway itself bears witness to German capital and the country's past expansionist urges. It is no coincidence that the façade and towers of Haydarpasa station, opened in 1909, are reminiscent of stately Wilhelminian buildings in Berlin. The Anatolian and Baghdad railways were constructed under the direction of German specialists. The train station was built by the Philipp Holzmann company, and financing was provided by the Deutsche Bank.

The Kaiser exhibited a particular interest in the construction project, which fit in with his pursuit of Germany's "place in the sun," the endeavor to expand the empire to include the Middle East. Georg von Siemens, spokesman for the board of the Deutsche Bank from 1870 to 1900, skeptically observed this commitment over a long period of time.

The "prevailing political circumstances do not make it advisable to engage any long-term undertakings, even when profitability appears to be a certainty," he wrote in 1887.

The bank was unable to oppose political pressure, however, and regarded a German railway to Baghdad as a political instrument to ensure German imperial interests against those of England and France, countries which were already active in the region. The Anatolian Railway Company was founded in 1889 in order to expedite construction.

The Toros Express dawdles along. By the time we reach Izmit, we are behind schedule by a negligible total of twenty minutes. There, the young conductor makes good on his promise and turns the almost empty carriage made up of two double compartments into a large four person suite with freshly made double couchettes, benches, and even two folding washing facilities.

The construction of the Anatolian railway began in 1889, and, by the following year, the first section was already completed. The Ottoman Sultan had to pledge the entire grain earnings of those provinces traversed by the rail line. This was meant to guarantee that the minimum contractual revenues would be raised even when there wasn't enough freight traffic or too few passengers on the trains. The almost bankrupt Ottoman Empire thereby bore practically all of the financial risks for the railway to the orient.

German architecture in Anatolia

Our train leaves the coast and continues through narrow valleys and gorges with luxuriant vegetation. Bridges and short tunnels follow one after another. The pleasant landscape is reminiscent of the European Mittelgebirge low mountain range. Many of the small railway stations along the route of our so-called "express" slow train also recall their counterparts in Germany. Without a doubt, what we are seeing is early 20th century German architecture that had been transplanted to Turkey.

Even the stone lavatories with their tile-covered roofs alongside the main buildings give the impression that they belong to the Swabian railway. In the route's early days, the railway stations were also staffed by Germans. Nowadays, Turkish public service employees stand to attention when the train stops in Arifiye, Pamukova, and Bayirköy.

In Eskisehir, where the route branches off to Ankara, the Toros Express arrives almost an hour late. There is a long wait at the station as the engine is changed.

The first luxury train in Asia Minor

In 1928, the year that Agatha Christie, not her literary character Poirot, set off to the orient for the first time, the Taurus Express was not yet even in existence. Christie had to make do with regional trains.

It was only two years later, in 1930, that the Taurus Express rolled on to the tracks as the first luxury train in Asia Minor. The adventurous section between Konya and Adana through the Taurus (Toros) mountain range had been completed twelve years earlier.

Financial difficulties and technical problems caused delays in the construction of the railway to Baghdad. In 1914, the Baedeker guide was already warning passengers of the then completed sections that "there are no lavatories on the train."

What we would today regard as a rather slow pace was then greeted as unbelievable progress. Instead of traveling for weeks on horseback, the journey could be completed in a matter of a few days – even when at first the trains ran only during daylight hours.

The single-track section winds through gorges, tunnels, and over viaducts to reach a height of 1467 meters. It closely follows the age-old trading route near the Cilician Gate, where Alexander the Great, ancient Greeks, and Romans had all marched past. This is also the site where, in June 1190, Emperor Friedrich Barbarossa met a watery death on his way to Palestine during the Crusades.

Early the next morning, the train speeds through the wide plain of Adana. Orange plantations can be seen to the left and right. It is quickly becoming warmer. We are now four hours behind schedule.

With the end of the First World War, the game was over not only for Kaiser Wilhelm, but it also meant an end to the ambitious plans for German control of the orient. In 1928, the Turkish portion of the Baghdad railway became the state property of Ankara. The purchase price was set at 440 million Swiss Franks, payable in installments until the year 2002. Turkey, however, suspended payments in 1944. The Anatolian Railway Company was left with expenses totaling 35 million Franks.

Eight days from London to Baghdad

After the end of the war, the south east of the Ottoman Empire came under the control of Britain (Iraq and Palestine) and France (Syria). Air travel had yet to pose any serious competition. The Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits could therefore expect nothing but success for its luxury train from Istanbul to the Middle East.

On a 1931 poster, the company promised a "safe, quick, and economical" journey from "London to Baghdad in eight days with the Simplon Orient Express & the Taurus Express." This was sensational.

The current day Toros Express traverses the fertile lowlands of Adana, passing by villages, highways, and a hill crowned by the ruins of the Toprak Kalesie crusader fortress.

The conductor has run out of coffee and the passengers have equally run out of conversation material. The journey continues through the thickly wooded Amanus Mountains. It offers a magnificent landscape for those who still want to see yet another magnificent landscape. The train slowly crawls through tunnel after tunnel. It is now midday and we should actually be nearing Aleppo in Syria by now. The passengers in carriage number six are unanimous in the opinion that this slow tempo has been taken to extremes.

We have since cleared the mountains and have reached an almost barren plateau. We finally arrive at Fevzipasa station. This is a train junction and a number of carriages are uncoupled for a further journey in the direction of Gaziantep. Our rusty carriage, now coupled to an endless row of freight cars, continues towards Syria on the old Baghdad line. Only a few kilometers away lies Islahiye.

A route with gaps

An uninterrupted rail connection from Istanbul to Baghdad was only first completed in 1940. The total journey lasted four days in the new, steel sleeper cars. Cairo, on the other hand, never enjoyed a direct train route from Europe.

During the Second World War, British troops completed construction of the missing section between Beirut in Lebanon and Haifa in Palestine. Yet, even before the rails were laid, a tunnel near the present-day border between Lebanon and Israel was blown up by members of the Jewish Haganah during the struggle for Israeli independence.

Since the end of the war, the border between the two states has remained hermetically sealed. There has been no need for a luxury train here. Even the old, luxurious Taurus Express retired from service during the Second World War. It fell victim, as one would expect, to the acceleration in travel offered by the airplane.

Arrival in Aleppo

Turkish soldiers, who have to stand in the aisle of our sleeper car, accompany the train for the final kilometers to the Syrian border. The Express now moves at a crawl.

Fences and watchtowers suddenly appear in this barren steppe landscape. Shortly thereafter, the Toros Express arrives in the Syrian city of Maydan Ikbis. Travel time – approaching thirty hours. Once again, a German station house with a shingle roof. Passports are collected. The long-distance passengers are privileged and allowed to remain seated in the train.

It takes about an hour until the train once again sets off. It is getting dark. The gravel bed under the old rails of the Baghdad line is almost nonexistent, and, as a result, the Toros Express sways right and left with every curve like a ship in rough seas. Our course is set for Aleppo.

At six-thirty, we can see lights approaching all around. By seven-thirty, the train, which now only consists of a single carriage and two engines, squeals in to the main station of Aleppo. Travel time – 34 hours and 30 minutes covering a distance of almost 1500 kilometers. Still, that is half-an-hour less than it took in 1939.

And yet, despite everything, we weren't even asked to show our tickets once for the entire trip.

Klaus Hillenbrand

© TAZ/Qantara.de 2005

Translation from German: John Bergeron

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