Belemedik: A hidden travel story

 

 

Once a buzzing railway town, Belemedik now lies almost abandoned in the lap of the Taurus mountains – a well-kept secret, known only to the nearby countryfolk, the wild boar and the hiking fraternity. Last month, a group of passengers arrived at the overgrown station to mark the restoration of the town’s crumbling cemetery - and to re-live a moving chapter of the Baghdad Railway saga.

 

 

For centuries Europeans have journeyed through Turkey, en route for the great cities of the East. Merchants, pilgrims, conquerors, travellers, and painters, all have left us with impressions of the Anatolia they saw. There were those too who came to stay, including famous scholars, and officials tasked with weighty matters of state. But for the people who built and lived in Belemedik the reason for coming was rather different. They were ordinary railway workers and soldiers, who were born and brought up in Germany.

 

This article is a small tribute to the 5,000 labourers who were sent to build the Taurus Mountains section of the Berlin to Baghdad railway, and to the soldiers who had the duty of guarding the track and its construction.

 

Railways and high politics

 

The date is the early 1900s… In those years, Emperor Wilhelm II was dreaming of making Germany a colonial and world power, and this included enthusiastically placing himself on the centre stage of Middle Eastern history. He made a triumphal entry into Jerusalem on his “peaceful crusade,” and he restored the tomb of Saladin in Damascus. In Istanbul one can visit the German fountain, one of Wilhelm’s many gifts to Sultan Abulhamit. Alongside the kaiser’s view of the past was his determination, through the Baghdad to Berlin railway, to assure Germany a determining role in the future of the region.

 

Whatever the sultan really thought, he concurred with Wilhelm’s grand rhetoric to some extent. He declared that he and the kaiser were of one mind, and that an accord between the nations would bring great happiness. Together, Wilhelm II and the Ottoman sultan came to an agreement over the construction of a great railway line from Istanbul Haydarpaşa to Baghdad.

 

While “Siemens” and “Deutsche Bank” organized the financing and logistical support, “Philipp Holzmann” assumed the construction of the project.

 

Suspicious powers

 

You can be sure that reconciling the nations, and joining Istanbul with the sacred lands of Islam – a branch of the Berlin to Baghdad railway ran south to the Hijaz – were not the only issues on the sultan’s mind. Another aim was to facilitate the movement of the army to the further-flung parts of the Ottoman Empire. The wish of the Babıali (Sublime Porte) to hold together a fragmenting empire can be seen as the real reason for the building of the railway. This was one reason for the selection of a southerly route, passing through Konya and the Taurus Mountains, rather than through North Anatolia and Ankara.

 

France, Britain and Russia viewed the progress of the railway with suspicion. It is interesting to read the report sent by the German Ambassador in St. Petersburg on 27th February 1900: “Our railway construction in Anatolia is dealing a blow to the self-confidence of the Russians. The continuation of the railway to Baghdad, in the absence of any competition, is the kind of triumph which has allowed German diplomacy, in one leap, to take its position alongside the world powers.”

 

A village for the workers

 

In 1907 the Philipp Holzmann company began construction on a section of the Berlin-Baghdad train line which passed 70 kilometres north of Adana. The most difficult phase of the project was crossing the Belemedik plateau, which involved 22 tunnels along a 12-kilometre stretch near the Taurus Mountains, and the 200-metre long Varda Bridge. Because of the time involved in taking the line through this region, a large construction site and shanty town was built at Belemedik, in the Pozantı district of the province of Adana. The town was designed to meet all the needs of the company’s employees, and provides a snapshot of how people lived in those days.

 

In time, the labourers’ village gained the appearance of a regular provincial town. At its peak records show that, with the labourers, and the many locals who provided services, the population of the settlement was nearly 35,000. A hospital built to the standards of the day, a church, a mosque, a cinema, and even a brothel were all built there. There was the threat of banditry in areas near the Taurus Mountains, and the construction site and railway were protected by a detachment of the German army.

 

Death and marriage

 

Work on the railway was long and hard. In the eight years of construction in the area 41 people lost their lives, and were buried in a special cemetery by the town, known to the locals as the German Cemetery.

 

One local woman, said to be 104, has an interesting tale about the time when the German workmen were in the area. She tells of how a twenty-kilometre long tunnel was driven through the rocks. Two German engineers, a man and a woman, had the task of working from opposite ends of the tunnel. When the two sides of the tunnel joined, in the middle of the mountain, the engineers met and decided to marry.

 

The Belemedik site was closed at the end of the First World War. In the turmoil of the War of Liberation which followed, the area was abandoned and forgotten. Although there are a few villages in the remote valleys nearby, nowadays only one family lives in the town. The area is still best reached by train, from Adana.

 

Visiting Belemedik today

 

Trekkers are attracted to the wonderfully beautiful Belemedik plateau, which is divided by the Çakıt River, at the foothills of the Taurus Mountains. Beside the river are characteristic houses built of wood and stone. The area is rich in wildlife, including chevrotains (mouse deer), wild boar, and many kinds of birds of prey. One favourite route for walkers is to begin at Karakılıç, a village in Karaisalı province, and proceed to Darıçukuru, Köşk, Damlama, Ekecik, Belemedik, and on to Bürücek. The route is a distance of about 50 kilometres, along an asphalt or gravel road.

 

Belemedik is the natural place to spend the night. Its campsite lies amid the green fields beside the Çakıt River. One can spend the evening walking through the old railway station, and the stone ruins of the rail company houses, and feel that one is taken 100 years back in time.

 

Monument restored

 

On September 30 a ceremony was held at the German Cemetery. The graves had been in a state of neglect, but it has now been reopened and restored as a historical monument with the help of the German embassy. The work of restoration was undertaken by the German company Pratiker (Metro AG).

 

 

(DIPLOMAT  -  October 2005  -  Ankara)