STORY BEHIND THE PHOTO
SYRIA – DAMASCUS RAILWAY STATION
By Robert Kingsford-Smith
Figure 1 Steam Train Set To depart Damascus Syria 1976 – Robert Kingsford Smith
In January 1976 two Aussie rail fans parked their car outside the main railway station in Syria’s capital, Damascus, and walked through the main hall onto the platforms. They had planned only to gather information about when the trains ran and, suspecting that photography might be frowned upon, had hidden their cameras. The sight of a loco sizzling in front of the station’s magnificent façade, however, made their shutter fingers itch. They realised they would have to risk drawing attention to themselves by asking permission to take photographs.
Their caution was not misplaced. Three years previously, shortly after Syria’s most recent war with Israel, another couple of Australians had travelled through by train and had been warned against photography in no uncertain terms.
Fortunately, by 1976, the situation had eased. The two hopeful photographers entered the station master’s office and asked if anyone spoke English. Negative incomprehension was the reply. Remembering both his history and some fragments of school-boy French one then asked “parlez vous francais?” This time there were smiles all round, the station master asked how he could help. Permission to photograph was requested and readily granted although a further request to have this permission in writing was politely refused. So they had the freedom to use their cameras around the station, elsewhere they would have to take their chances.
The accompanying photo is one result of these negotiations. The loco, 2-6-0T No. 130.755, was built by SLM in Switzerland to the unusual gauge of 1050mm and is about to depart for Sergayah on the Lebanese border. The station was the Damascus terminus of the Hedjaz Railway built by the Ottoman Empire to carry pilgrims to Mecca. The line ceased to serve Mecca after Lawrence of Arabia famously attacked it in what is now Saudi Arabia.
The next instalment tells of our heroes passing an invasion force on the way to spectacular shot of this train on the way to Lebanon!