Inaugurated in 1930 by the Belgian Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits (CIWL), the Taurus Express formed an extension of its sister line, the legendary Orient Express.
Together, these two trains connected the boulevards of Paris with the bazaars of Cairo and Baghdad in as little as one week.
The decade preceding the inception of the Taurus Express brought seismic geopolitical shifts to West Asia. In 1922, the formerly inexorable Ottoman Empire collapsed, and Palestine and Iraq came under British control. Subsequently, France acquired Syria and Lebanon.
At this time, CIWL was already working to expand its Orient Express luxury rail service beyond Istanbul, using regional routes developed by Turkish Railways (TCDD), Northern Syria & Cilician Railways, Palestine Railways, and Iraqi State Railways, and Egyptian National Railways.
By the time the Taurus Express commenced operations in 1930, the Orient Express had been connecting Istanbul with Paris thrice weekly for over 40 years.
Its regular autobus, motorcar, and ferry extensions spanned as far west as Bordeaux and London, and as far north as Amsterdam and Berlin. Meanwhile, its alternate southerly line ran to Athens via Belgrade several times each week.
With the completion of the Taurus line, Orient Express passengers arriving in Istanbul after the three-day journey from Paris could spend up to four additional days onboard a CIWL luxury train.
From Aleppo, travelers on the Taurus Express could venture either east towards ancient Babylon, or south through the mythic heart of the Levant. By 1942, the line connected Istanbul to both Cairo and Baghdad by direct rail twice each week.
Syria (from Turkey)
Orient Express passengers arriving from Paris disembarked at the famed Sirkeci Station in Istanbul. To cross from Eastern Thrace into Asia Minor, they boarded a CIWL-commissioned ferry to Haydarpaşa Station, on the opposite bank of the Bosphorus Strait.
The voyage over the Bosphorous was a wonder in and of itself. Bridging two continents without ever exiting Istanbul, it offered breathtaking views of the city's minaret-studded skyline.
Four times a week, the Taurus Express departed Haydarpaşa Station at 9:40 am, traversing southeast through along the verdant Gulf of Izmit on the edge of the Marmara Sea.
After passing through Eskişehir in the early evening, the train called at Ankara, the Turkish capital, around 10:40 pm. From there, it continued overnight across the Anatolian Plateau.
Around mid-morning on the second day, the train ascended into the magnificent heights of its namesake: the fabulous Taurus Mountain range.
Here, passengers saw an engineering triumph to rival any other in the era: nearly ten miles of manmade tunnels, narrow concrete bridges, and sheer limestone gorges winding south-easterly towards the coast.
After emerging from the mountains, the Taurus Express called at the border town of Adana around 1:50 pm. From there, it set off south through French-occupied Syria.
Around 10:10 pm on the second day, the Taurus Express arrived in Aleppo, a city famed for its lively market squares and magnificent stone-wrought Citadel.
Here, travelers could lodge at the world-renowned Baron Hotel, established around 1870 by the Armenian-Syrian Mazloumian family.
Elegant and charming, it once welcomed guests as illustrious as Agatha Christie (whose 1934 Murder on the Orient Express actually begins on the Taurus Express in Aleppo), Lawrence of Arabia (who never paid his bar tab), and King Faisal I of Syria (who declared national independence from the hotel's balcony in 1920).
Naturally, though, few travelers who had experienced the Taurus Express were content to spend only a single day on board.
Accordingly, CIWL offered passengers two possible onward journeys from Aleppo—one to Baghdad, the other to Cairo—both occurring twice each week.
Option 1: Lebanon, Palestine, and Egypt (from Syria)
Departing Aleppo at 11:00 pm on the second evening of its journey from Istanbul, the Taurus Express took a southerly route across the plains of Syria, through the industrial city of Homs, and onwards to present-day Lebanon.
Around 8:10 am on the third morning, the train called at Tripoli Station. From here, until the late 1930s, CIWL-chartered Rolls-Royce autobuses shuttled Taurus Express passengers down the Mediterranean coast to Palestine, where sleeper rail services resumed towards Egypt.
CIWL later replaced this connection with a continuation of its direct rail from Istanbul, which joined with existent lines developed by Palestine Railways in the port city of Haifa.
From Haifa's harbor, passengers could continue on the Taurus line onto Egypt; or, they could transfer onto the Hejaz Railway, which carried them through Transjordan to Medina, some 300 miles from Mecca.
Located on the temperate southern shore of the Bay of Acre, Haifa was an especially popular stop at the zenith of the Taurus Express.
Regional violence in the late 1940s would reduce its Palestinian population from 62,000 to less than 3,000 in four years; but for the first half of the century, it was renowned for its peaceful interfaith community of Palestinian Muslims, Palestinian Christians, European and Moroccan Jews, and Persian followers of Baháʼísm.
From Haifa, the Taurus Express brought passengers on a full day's journey through the heart of historic Palestine: one of the most ancient and breathtaking regions in the world.
After passing the Roman ruins of Caesarea, the train traversed over the Plain of Sharon: a vast expanse of legendary beauty, flecked with villages and lined with olive groves.
At Tukalrem, passengers caught exquisite views of Mounts Ebal and Gerizim, the twin biblical summits flanking the valley of Nablus, where Abraham is said to have first pitched his tent.
Next, the train called at Lydda, less than 50 miles from the Palestinian capital of Jerusalem. By mid-afternoon, it arrived in Gaza, one of the five ancient cities of the Philistines in the Old Testament and, until 1948, a flourishing center of maritime commerce on the trade route between Egypt and Syria.
After crossing the frontier into Egypt, the Taurus Express set off across the Sinai Desert, arriving at Kantara's eastern bank by about 5:30pm.
Just as Istanbul spans opposite shores of the Bosphorous to join Eastern Europe with Asia, Kantara straddles Asia and Africa. The Suez Canal, a key international waterway, divides the city near its center.
Following the reconstruction of the El Ferdan Railway Bridge in 1942, the ferry connection was eliminated. Thereafter, the Taurus Express ran direct through Kantara and its neighboring city of Ismalia, arriving at Ramses Station in Cairo at 10:30pm, at the end of its third day in transit.
In part as a result of these efforts, by the time the Taurus Express commenced operations in Cairo, Egypt was already a popular haven for wealthy and adventurous tourists.
Astride the banks of the Nile, the city of Cairo teemed with contemporary life—while just beyond its urban limits, "Somewhere in the sands of the desert," lay the half-buried remains of an ancient and fabulous past.
The enchanting effect was that of a city still awash with the glory of one of the mightiest and most advanced of all human civilizations—a splendid bygone empire of griffins and pharaohs, sarcophagi and sphinxes—fittingly crowned by the Great Pyramid of Giza: the sole surviving Wonder of the Ancient World.
Option 2: Iraq and Iran (from Syria)
Alternately, on its second night of travel from Istanbul, the Taurus Express departed Aleppo at 10:40 pm, crossing the Euphrates River near Jerablus and heading east across the Syrian plains.
On the outskirts of Aleppo, the French-operated routes once belonging to Northern Syria & Cilician Railways gave way to the Bagdadbahn, or Berlin-Baghdad Railway: an incomplete German-Ottoman railway endeavor from before World War I.
Around 10:35 am the following morning, the Taurus Express arrived at Tel Kothcek (present-day Al-Yaarubiyah) on the Syrian border with Iraq.
Until 1940, Tel Kotchek was the final stop on the Bagdadbahn: the subsequent journey through the desert to Mosul was carried out by a fleet of CIWL-operated motorcars the next day. From Mosul, the Iraq Express transported passengers the remainder of the way to Baghdad.
Once the Bagdadbahn was extended, however, the Taurus Express began calling at Mosul and Kirkuk in succession. Traveling from Kirkuk, it arrived at Baghdad's Central Station in the late evening on its third day of travel from Istanbul.
The train's first direct run between Istanbul and Baghdad occurred on July 17, 1940.
Rather like Cairo, twentieth-century Baghdad recalled, in its beauty and romance, the gilded Arabia of earlier myth: a dreamlike city of rocs, djinn, and flying carpets where, for a thousand and one nights, the silver-tongued Scheherazade told stories to survive.
In its innovative spirit and archeologic import, however, the city was more recognizable as a place of historic and material fact: a vastly ancient political and cultural capital in the heart of old Mesopotamia, housing the ruins of the once-mighty empires of Babylonia and Akkad, where many of humanity's most profound advancements in astronomy, mathematics, and literature occurred.
India, Pakistan, or Iran (from Iraq)
Although Baghdad was advertised as its eastern terminus, the Taurus Express followed an Iraqi State Railways route that actually extended as far as the Shatt Al-Arab.
Accordingly, after an extended stop for servicing in Baghdad, the Taurus Express ventured east for an additional 14 hours on its fourth day out of Istanbul, arriving at 7:30 am in Basra on the Persian Gulf. From this Iraqi port city, featured famously in The Arabian Nights, travelers could take the British India Steam Navigation Company's passenger ship to Karachi and Bombay (present-day Mumbai).
Alternately, Taurus Express passengers wishing to visit Persia (which, in 1935, was sort of renamed 'Iran') faced a pleasant trip from Kirkuk, where comfortable CIWL motorcars were reserved for this purpose.
The motorcars departed at 7:45 pm and journeyed southeast through the night, reaching Khanaqin, a Kurdish border city, around 4:30 am the following morning. From there, they proceeded northeast towards the Caspian Sea.
By 7:00 pm, Taurus Express passengers arrived in the Persian capital of Tehran. Cosmopolitan and full of life, the city embodied the innovation, independence, and hospitality of its populace.
One of the most progressive countries in the region for much of the twentieth century, Iran constitutionalized its monarchy as early as 1906. Thereafter, it retained a Shah as its symbolic head of state, but until 1953, its leadership was determined through democratic parliamentary elections.
Travelers to Tehran in the twentieth century encountered the spectacular crossroads of West Asia and the Southern Caucus: a spirited center of architecture, diplomacy, commerce, music, and art, whose ornate palaces and splendid mosques stunned even those travelers newly arriving from Istanbul or Baghdad.
Here, several ancient and immensely powerful empires had yielded over time to an astonishingly diverse sociopolitical culture that, while predominantly Persian, took on many unique characteristics from its local Kurdish, Armenian, Georgian, Assyrian, Arabic, Jewish, and Circassian communities.
The Fate of the Taurus Express
From the late 1940s on, various sections of the Taurus Express's original route were disrupted, truncated, or discontinued outright, for reasons both political and practical. Still, the train continued to operate variations of its iconic Istanbul-to-Baghdad service until 2003, when the United States invasion of Iraq prompted the indefinite removal of Baghdad from its route.
Since 2003, the Taurus Express has run a greatly reduced daily service between the Turkish cities of Konya and Adana. Besides retaining its famous name on the timetables, it is indistinguishable from any other TCDD domestic train.
Nevertheless, for a shining moment in modern history, the railways joining Paris to Baghdad and Cairo were neither encumbered nor imperiled.
In that era, travelers from all walks of life—ambassadors and poets; archeologists and luxury tourists; romantics, nomads, and innumerable others—only needed to step onboard the Orient-Taurus Express at Haydarpaşa to experience the richly storied wonders of this ancient and illustrious region.