|'Back to the future' - The Istanbul-Aqaba Express project
|By Dr Ercan Ozer, Special to The Star JORDAN (Star) - 4 October 1889 Istanbul, Sirkeci Train Station...
'The Orient Express' which steamed off in Paris and made stop-overs in Vienna, Budapest, Bucharest and Varna, was putting on its brakes as it approached its last stop in Europe. In the train, while writer E About was putting his last words in his memoirs of the trip that would later be published as a book, Times correspondent O de Blowitz who interviewed the Romanian King Carl in Bucharest was thinking how he would manage to have an interview with Turkish Sultan Abdulhamid II.
The Sirkeci Station in Istanbul was going through a momentous, historic and extraordinary day. It was a special point of time in the history of railway transportation and tourism because the famous “Orient Express” was about to complete its first trip to Istanbul. The excitement of the crowd of station officers, representatives of the Ottoman Court, members of the welcoming reception band, vendors, porters...which filled the platform reached its peak as the puffing locomotive of the Orient Express showed its round face at the corner of the station, and burst out with cheers and shouts when it finally made its stop. The musicians of the band were already trying to keep up with the frantic hand movements of the conductor when the doors of the cars opened and the compartment officers with their elegant uniforms and white gloves began to help the VIP passengers to step out of the train...
5 September 2002 Istanbul, Sirkeci Train Station...
The same scene, albeit more subdued, has been repeated after 113 years when the old historical train entered into the Sirkeci Train Station. The passengers of the Orient Express which left Paris on 30 August 2002 were in Istanbul after a five-day journey. They were received with red carpet treatment and the embracing tunes of the old Janissary band reflecting the eye-catching decor of the Ottoman era.
American, British, French, Dutch, Swedish, and Japanese VIP passengers who have paid 3000 British Pounds each for the trip were served Turkish coffee and 'Turkish delight' as they stepped on the platform.
Actually the passengers, who were offered different foods and drinks of the countries that they traveled, began to taste the appetizing samples of the world famous Turkish cuisine as soon as they entered Turkish soil at the Kapukule customs in Thrace where Turkish engineer took over, as the other local engineers did in every country the Orient Express passed through. One of the French passengers, Madame Claire Le Noir, would describe her trip in her own words: "It was the dream of my life."
The Orient Express was the theme for the poets who would write poems and the composers who would write many songs about it such as the one by Valery Larboud which starts:
"You, nice luxury train Impart upon me some of your excitement You have such a wonderful trip As you go through Europe Full of lights at night..."
Later Agatha Christie, Queen of Crime or as she preferred, the 'Duchess of Death' would write her famous novel Murder on the Orient Express that was made into a film in 1974. The Belgian detective, Hercule Poirot, played by Albert Finney in the screen adaptation of this novel would try to solve the star studded mystery where suspects acted by Ingrid Bergman, Sean Connery, John Gielgud, Rachel Roberts and Lauren Bacall and others tried to outsmart him.
When Agatha Christie disappeared a few days after her husband wanted a divorce and the news made the headlines, she was found to be staying in a hotel in Istanbul under an alias. Her disappearance and unaccounted days is still a mystery. The hotel was Pera Palas and built in 1892 by Georges Nagelmackers, the forefather of the Orient Express.
Another film classic made 42 years before the Agatha film was the Istanbul Train, a screen adaptation of the famous Graham Greene novel, which recounted the events of a three-day journey from Ostend to Istanbul on the Orient Express. It had characters like Carol Musker, a variety dancer who embarked on train to take part in a British show coming to Istanbul, businessman Myatt going after his double agent representative in Istanbul, gossip writer Madam Warren who went after sensational newsbreaks, and a make-believe tourist Dr Czinner.
The Orient Express was a luxury train that ran from Paris to Istanbul for 119 years. Developed by 27-year-old Belgian businessman and financier Georges Nagelmackers, owner of the Wagons Lit, the Orient Express was the brain child of his vision of luxury rail travel. Later his extravagantly furnished cars would become the symbol of glamour for European society. Europe's first transcontinental express train as it was, the Orient Express covered over 2740 km in its full trip. After 1919, its route extended from Calais and Paris to Lausanne and via the Simplon Pass to Milan, and to Venice, Zagreb and beyond. Its service was suspended during both world wars, but the train itself continued to share the pains and joys of its passengers during the world wars. Later its forgotten star faded-out after 1948. It was sold in 1977 in an auction, and its wheels and ear-piercing whistle left the rails. It was revived in 1982 to run between London and Venice as the 'Venice Simplon Orient Express.'
The legend of the Orient Express began on 4 October 1873 with its first trip to Varna Port in Bulgaria. Its passengers boarded a steamship in Varna and arrived in Istanbul via the Black Sea. The train consisted of one engine and one restaurant, two sleeping and one luggage cars. First direct connection to Istanbul was made in 1889. The first trip between Zurich and Athens took place in 1976. The Paris Istanbul trip via Milan, Trieste Belgrade was realized in 1981. It was followed by the Paris-Istanbul trip via Munich, Vienna, Budapest and Bucharest.
The centenary train made its Paris-Istanbul trip via the original route in 1983. It continued once every two weeks from Paris to Istanbul. The trip took 85 hours and 45 minutes with this 'thunderbolt train' as it was called then. It had 100 passenger capacity, the kitchen and two pulman cars, one bar and one bath car. The cars were made in 1928-29 by Grand European Express and decorated by noted Art Deco artists.
In its hay-day the Orient express was a combination of fiction and reality molded in a intriguing montage. It was a trip that turned dreams into reality for those looking for exotic aura in the oriental world with full comfort. The Orient Express was also the meeting place for famous personalities, kings, mayors, ministers and other celebrities. The report from the 'Legation de Belgique in Istanbul' dated 24 September 1895 would record that after spending 10 days in Tarabya, the Count of Flanders and Prince élber have departed Istanbul for Budapest with the Orient Express.
The Sultan had sent his Minister of Protocol Munir Pasha to meet them at the train station and received them on the next day. They were also invited to dinner at the Palace given in their honor. When they departed, on the same train was the Prince Louis de Battenberg who came from Alexandria and headed to Darmstad. The Orient Express had also accommodated dignitaries like the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, Churchill, and Atatérk.
The Golden Age of the railways ended long ago. Yet, there is a growing global trend, in parallel with the expanding environmental protection consciousness, to bring the environmental-friendly 'iron horse' back, energized with electricity or diesel power. Taking as the point of departure 'Orient should have its own express'. I have been cultivating the idea of a touristic express project from Istanbul to Aqaba covering Turkey, Syria and Jordan, making stop-overs in Damascus, Amman and Aqaba in a journey lasting 3-4 days. The Aqaba connection could be the end of the first leg or the beginning of the last leg of the journey.
If the passengers start their trip in Istanbul and end their railroad trip at Aqaba, they can spend quality time in Aqaba and continue via air or sea to Egypt, or other touristic destinations of their choice; or they can come to Aqaba from Egypt or other places via air or sea, spend some time in Aqaba and board the Istanbul-Aqaba express to Istanbul as the beginning of the last leg of their tour.
Interconnections can be made in Istanbul with the Paris-Istanbul trips of the Orient Express.
'Istanbul-Aqaba Express' project could contribute as a valuable input to the rejuvenation of the historical Hijaz railway route. This project, albeit touristic, can be instrumental in putting into action other trains on the same route for cargo transportation and pilgrimage purposes. If the route can be extended to Mecca, it can offer another mode of safe and comfortable journey to the holy places during the haj season and umra. It has been reported in the press that Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Turkey had meetings to have railway connections. Jordan, Syria and Saudi Arabia also had meetings to revive the famous Hijaz Railway.
Quite naturally, Jordan should be the initiator and the leader of the 'Istanbul-Aqaba Express' project bringing in and coordinating the representatives of the relevant Turkish and Syrian ministries and institutions. The financing of the project could come from internal and external sources including the Arab funds.
One problem would be related to the differences in the width of the gauges of the cars which can be rectified at the first stage with the gauge changing stations where the exchanges are made within 2 hours, till the work on having uniform gauges is completed. As the railway connection from Istanbul to Damascus is in order, Turkey can put its value added into the project by making the wagons and their decoration as well as taking part in the reconstruction of the railway and the operation of the express.
When I brought this project to the attention of the H. E. Taleb Rifai, the Minister of Tourism and Antiquities, it was well received. Encouraged with his favorable approach, I have contacted my Government and a Turkish representative has already been designated to take part in the meetings which would be organized by the Jordanian authorities to this end.
This is an economically feasible tourism project that may be complemented with cargo transportation and pilgrimage tours. The General Director of the Orient Express indicates that they organize 40 trips between Paris and Istanbul in a year and make $18 million in profit notwithstanding the expenses. With the far-sighted vision of bright and modern minds like Dr Taleb Rifai who has broadened and enriched the horizon of Jordan's tourism, there is no reason whatsoever that the project should not be translated into reality.
Wouldn’t you like to be on a prestigious train consisting of sleeping and restaurant cars kept to their original design, decoration and form, making you feel as if you are in a historical film set, invariably equipped with all the amenities, that would take its passengers into a 'time machine' offering them the 'dream of orient' with a comfortable and luxurious ride imbued with nostalgia and mysticism 'back to the future'...
6 May 2005 Aqaba Train Station...
The Turkish Ambassador, who was standing in line with the Syrian Ambassador at the place reserved for protocol along with other representatives of the diplomatic corps with the invitations on this occasion in their pockets, could not help but feel the pride in witnessing the realization of the project that his predecessor envisioned.
He began to clap his hands with the throngs packing the Aqaba Train Station as the modern engine of the Istanbul-Aqaba Express breasted the ceremonial ribbon like a long distance runner who proudly crossed the finish line first. The Britons, amongst the disembarking passengers carrying mostly American and European passports, immediately recognized the familiar sound of bagpipes of the Jordanian Military Band impressing the onlookers with the colorful uniforms and red checkered kefihyahs.
Later, while they were being driven to their hotels overlooking the Red Sea, the passengers of the Istanbul-Aqaba Express would recall the last words of the King who addressed them.
'...Therefore, it is a great pleasure for me to welcome you all to Aqaba, Jordan. You were the passengers of not only a touristic train but the envoys of a 'peace express'. After all, the iron legend will continue in the Orient with the 'Istanbul-Aqaba Express'. May it bring peace, prosperity and economic welfare to the region.'
The writer is the Turkish Ambassador in Amman.
Dr Ercan Ozer
Dr Ercan Ozer