Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Israel's Railroad: The Story Concluded

In my previous post I mentioned my long-ago adventure with Israel's railroad. I have also told of this adventure, I believe, in my recently-published book, "Jerusalem Journal". But until the past week or so I have known very little about the railroad or how it came to be. Only in the past few weeks have I learned more.
The source of my additional information is another writer, the brilliant H.V. Morton, of whose works I have become an avid fan. Decades ago Morton visited what was then the British-ruled Palestine Mandate, now (essentially) Israel and Jordan. The result was one of his best-known travel books, "In The Steps Of The Master."
By coincidence, Morton entered the Palestine Mandate from Egypt--by that one section of the railroad that, when I visited many years later, was closed. Several days after being rowed across the Suez Canal to the rail head, he seems to have de-trained in Jerusalem at about the same spot that I did.
His work filled me in on the railroad's historical background. It had been built by the troops of the British general Lord Allenby, and was part of Allenby's successful campaign to defeat the German-allied Turks and take Jerusalem. Once you know this, you can look at the map and its route makes perfect sense. It tied together British-held Egypt and two important seaports--Haifa in the north and Jaffa halfway down the Mediterranean coast toward Egypt. This made it very efficient for channeling troops and materiel, and--at Jaffa--angling it all off by rail through the Judaean hills toward Jerusalem. There the soldiers would get off the trains pretty much where Morton and I did--in our respective decades, of course.
I am glad to pass on this additional information about Israel railroads, in part because it gives me yet another opportunity to call attention to H.V. Morton's work. The man was an exquisite writer, and if you can't afford a vacation this year pick up and read one or more of his books. At least from my point of view, vicarious experience is much better than none. And Morton will bring you as close to the real thing as words ever can.
Don't just take my word. Here is a very brief excerpt from "In The Steps Of The Master":
"...the railway to Jerusalem...follows an ancient route. It runs over the ageless caravan road to and from Egypt...It was a road that led everywhere: to Damascus in the north, to the desert city of Petra in the east, to Egypt in the south...And I remembered again that this was the way Joseph and Mary fled with a Child into Egypt."
I wish I could offer more; but it isn't mine to offer. All I can do is suggest that you sample it for yourself.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Travel Israel's Railways???

Does it come as a surprise to you to learn that a country as small as Israel even HAS railways? Well, I was once as surprised as you--especially since I am from a railroad family and came along at just about the end of the passenger railroad era. I did not, therefore, get to ride on trains much.To make up for the loss, I will jump on one whenever I can.
But I didn't know this was an option in Israel, until I was enlightened by a friend in Haifa. I had been there for a few days, interviewing Max and his wife Chava about Holocaust heroine Gisi Fleischmann, on whom I was writing a book.
As I was packing to return to Jerusalem, Max asked, "Why not take the train back?"
"Train!" I exclaimed, startled.
"Yes. It used to run from here all the way into Egypt. When the 1948 war ended we had hoped there would be peace, and we could once again go down there by train. But it never happened."
(Max was speaking years later, shortly after the Camp David Accord instituted a kind of cold peace between Israel and Egypt. That was in the late 70s, and I was in Israel about the time this agreement was being negotiated. But, as I've said, at the time of that trip I had no knowledge of the railroad. To this day do not know whether it has been reopened for its full length. I presume not, because the Camp David Accord never blossomed into a full peace. Egypt and Israel have remained in a state of not-war, which I suppose is better than war. But only slightly.
Anyway. I return to the point at which Max told me about the railroad from Haifa to Jerusalem. I quickly decided to "ride the rails" on this occasion, and the Livnis took me to the train station instead of the bus station.
I don't remember the locomotive, which any true fan of railroads would find reprehensible. But, despite the fact that I had relatives who drove first coal-driven, then diesel locomotives, my interest in trains has always been mostly in the places they connected and the people who rode them.
The passenger cars on this train I do remember--I remember them as clean, and narrow. The railroad may have been--and almost certainly was--an old-fashioned narrow gauge type, that had never been widened. There were only a few people aboard.
I traveled southward, gazing meditatively out on the Mediterranean Sea. After a short time, not more than an hour and a half or two if I recall, we arrived in what I thought was Tel Aviv. There we made some kind of connection. Did this involve changing trains, or just changing locomotives? It's too long ago to remember. All I know is that we were soon chugging through the Judaean Hills toward the city everyone calls Holy.
When we arrived at the Jerusalem station, I was pleased to realize that I was in my old neighborhood, so to speak, and could practically look into my own bedroom window. That was because the train came in very close to the famous Scottish Hospice (St. Andrew's) and to the British consulate. I had stayed at the Scottish Hospice on my previous trip, chronicled in my book "Jerusalem Journal". So I could gaze at the window and almost imagine myself waving back.
The origins and history of the little railroad have until recently been a puzzle to me; but I have recently learned more from another writer, far more famous than I. And that information I will share in my next post.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

"Imperium", by Robert Harris...

...or, "A Roman Reviewed"
Although centuries have passed since its fall, many of us cannot get the Roman Empire out of our heads. We remember resolute legions charging into battle, carrying the eagles of the great imperial city forward on what was then considered (at least by most Roman citizens) the triumphant surge of civilization. Thanks to a very great playwright named Shakespeare, and to some lesser and less well known scriptwriters, we remember great actors in great roles...Sir John Gielgud as Julius Caesar, Sir Alec Guinness as the Emperor Marcus Aurelius...
Why does memory linger? Because the Romans were like us in many ways, especially in their bedazzlement with power and their experiments with its use and its misuse.
In other words, their national--and imperial-- game was politics. Those who did not possess the skill required to ride the political wave were doomed to be swept under in its backwash. The Romans taught everybody who has come after them how the game is played; and everybody from Niccolo Machiavelli on would agree that not much has changed.
For this, I would add, I don't really blame the Romans. I believe the way we handle power is hardwired into our brains. Nobody really wants to throw the One Ring back into the fires of Mount Doom--to our great peril.
Robert Harris's "Imperium" is not a new book, simply one I consider worth sharing with readers. It's been out long enough that, if it interests you, you'll probably be able to arrange to borrow it at or through your public library--or buy it , new or used, online.
The book is about a Roman lawyer, orator, and statesman named Marcus Tullus Cicero, who used to be much more famous than he is. Part of his marketing problem no doubt has to do with the fact that his contemporaries included the much more flamboyant Julius Caesar, Mark Antony, and Augustus Caesar--part that Cicero, in the end, was among those swept under by the wave of power he had tried to ride.
Cicero was a gifted young man from the provinces, who arrived in Rome with the highest ideals and the highest ambition. His goal was to attain "imperium," one of the two consulships, the highest offices in the Roman state. This office he intended to exercise in the most principled way.
The story of what happened is narrated by his slave and secretary Tiro, said to be the inventor of a system of shorthand. The shorthand makes him seem to be almost magically gifted to Cicero's colleagues and enemies.
But Tiro's magic powers do not extend to an insightful telling of the tale of his master's moral decline; he is too loyal to see the import of what is happening. When Cicero's devoted relative Lucius, a man of the highest probity, commits suicide, this fact is mentioned to us by Tiro, but he does not tell Cicero about it. The secretary cannot or will not come to terms with Cicero's alteration in character, let alone its connection with Lucius's death.
It would be a good thing if our elected officials read more books that have to do with Roman history and politics. But would such reading encourage them to clean up the sinkhole of corruption that seems to be politics today? Or would they, like Tiro, be unable to come to terms with the facts as they are?