By Rivka Borochov
In the land of Israel, not only do biblical stories unfold before your eyes, but exciting recent events witnessed at a 100-year-old train station are there to be discovered too. From a new project to renovate an abandoned train station near the Sea of Galilee emerge stories of Israel as it has grown into statehood.
The dilapidated Tzemach Station has seen regimes and allied forces come and go, but it never got a lot of press attention. Now its caretakers are aiming for it to become a main tourist hub for northern Israel and to house a center for the study of the land of Israel.
One of eight train stations built by the Turkish Ottoman Empire to carry Muslim pilgrims from Damascus to Mecca in what is Saudi Arabia today, the two-story main station was built with white bricks and a tiled roof, typical for buildings along the Hejaz railway route in the northern part of Israel, Syria and Jordan.
By the time of the establishment of the state in 1948, the train station and its track, often targets of sabotage, were no longer in use. The station served as an army base at one point, and even an animal pound, before its current stage of neglect.
Along with the remains of a large central building is a warehouse for storing transported goods, a 100-foot unloading platform, a shed for locomotives and a large steel water tower.
History in action
Over the years, the train station and the tracks leading to it helped open the Galilee region for development. For several decades it was the only regional mode of modern transportation.
While no one knows for sure, the station is estimated to have been built in 1905 at a strategic point that foes and enemies clashed over. A number of battles took place at the station between the world wars, one of which pitted Britain’s allied Australian forces against the Germans. The Australian cavalry succeeded in capturing the station in 1918, during the final weeks of World War I.
Next year, Australian descendants of veterans will be in Israel to commemorate those lost in the battle, with the dedication of a memorial at Tzemach Station.
Several organizations in Israel plan on supporting the conservation of the building, and with it bring a facelift to the whole region. The project is being funded by the Jordan Valley Regional Council, Kinneret College, Israel Railways and the Council for the Preservation of Buildings and Historic Sites.
A boost for the Sea of Galilee
Not only do the remains of the station serve as a reminder to historians about the rich history of the modern state, but they will be a testament to future generations who live in or make a pilgrimage to Israel.
Ze’ev Drory, an historian and managing director of Kinneret College, is eager to help revive the station so that students from the school’s Land of Israel studies program can enjoy it along with Israelis enrolled in the 1.5-year licensed tour guide course. The research that will be done there, he says, will be about “Israeli military and civilian life in the last 100 years of Zionism in Israel.”
The train station will get a $1 million restoration budget, and along with the restoration will come new student housing nearby to give those in need of financial aid a place to live. Kinneret (Sea of Galilee) College currently attracts 4,000 students a year.
The dilapidated station is getting a new lease on life.
Some 700,000 tourists visit the Sea of Galilee annually. Drory says that the renovation will give a boost to the entire region: “It will help. But it is only a part of what needs to be done,” he says.
It could also attract foreigners looking to study in Israel. “Last year we brought 50 students from Nigeria here for one year, and are now working with the University of Miami on a one-month archeology and history project,” he notes.
The train station project, to be complete by October 2012, rides on the success of the Tachana (“Station”) in the Manchia neighborhood of South Tel Aviv. The Tachana was an important point linking Christian, Jewish and Muslim pilgrims from the Jaffa Port to Jerusalem. The Tachana also enabled the transport of building materials from the Mediterranean Sea to Jerusalem.
The multi-building former station is now a colorful local attraction housing cafés, fashion shows, organic markets and environmental events.