Op-Ed by Jessica Horst
Every year, more than half a million visitors travel to relish in the magnificent beauty of one of Haifa’s most distinct tourist attractions, the Bahá'í Gardens. With 19 symmetrical terraces linked by a staircase scaling the northern slope of Mount Carmel, the Bahá'í Gardens is easily the most stunning site in the area. Carved into the mountainside, the Gardens frame panoramic views of the city, including the Galilee Hills and the Mediterranean Sea, presenting a surreal and breathtaking image of the landscape. Just taking the first steps into the Gardens’ paths is an indelible experience.
The Gardens are the Bahá'í faith’s holiest site, strategically designed to “represent the historical memory and contemporary heart of the worldwide Bahá'í community,” says Bahá'í official website. The Bahá'í faith is a monotheistic religion and views itself as the “continuation of the world’s greatest religions with a new message for a modern age.” While “the Bahá'í faith accepts the validity of all the other major world religions,” it is independent of them, and “its independent character is reflected in a unique world-view and community structure anchored in its own sacred scriptures, religious laws and calendar.” Bahá'ís believe that God is the creator of the universe and has guided mankind throughout history by sending messengers who have established the world’s major religions. These mortal manifestations of God include Abraham, Krishna, Zoroaster, Moses, Buddha, Jesus and Muhammad. The foundational belief is that all religions come from the same source and are part of an ongoing master plan of one universal God. For Bahá'ís, “the crucial need facing humanity is to find a unifying vision of the future of society and of the nature and purpose of life.”
In 1843, 24-year-old Siyyid ‘Ali-Muhammad announced himself as a messenger or Báb (“Gate”) of God during an intense period of messianic expectation in Iran. Challenging the thinking of his time, the Báb forbid violence and holy war, recognized women's equality, encouraged scientific progression, and believed in public education. Invoking scriptural prophecy, the Báb claimed to be the herald come to prepare the way for another messenger of God who would usher in the age of peace and justice promised in all religions. A majority of Iranian religious leaders, feeling threatened by his successful message, declared the Báb a heretic and initiated a period of persecution during which thousands of his followers were tortured and killed. After being arrested and isolated in a fortress prison for 3 years, the Báb was executed in a public square in Tabriz, Iran in July 1850. Iranian officials dumped his remains outside the city with guards to prevent a proper burial, but his followers managed to take back his body. After hiding his body for 50 years, the Báb’s followers finally moved him to Israel and gave him a proper burial under a simple stone structure on Mount Carmel, on which a monument was later built.
One of the Báb’s loyal followers, the Prophet-Founder Bahá’u’lláh (“Glory of God”), was born in 1817 as Mirza Hussein Ali into a noble, Iranian family and chose to pursue a life of social service instead of following in the footsteps of his father, a minister in the royal court. Since he was a key leader of the Báb’s movement, Bahá’u’lláh was subjected to torture after the Báb’s execution. During his imprisonment in 1852, Bahá’u’lláh also heard the divine calling. In 1853, Bahá’u’lláh and his family were exiled from their home in Iran. For 10 years, Bahá’u’lláh wandered the mountains of Kurdistan where he fulfilled the Báb’s prophecy by announcing his divine mission to the Báb’s followers and founded the Bahá'í faith. During Bahá’u’lláh’s nomadic life of exile, he brought the faith from place to place. Eventually confined to Akko during the Ottoman Period, Bahá’u’lláh wrote the “Most Holy Book,” Kitab-i-Aqdas, a compilation of the fundamental laws and principles of the Bahá'í faith. Similar to other religions, the Bahá'í laws govern personal life including daily prayer, annual fast, and prohibitions against activities that corrupt a person’s commitment to peace and harmony. Gambling, involvement in partisan politics, consumption of alcohol, and the nonmedical use of drugs are forbidden. The faith even mandates that Bahá'í followers have a job and see to the moral and academic education of their children. Attempting to assert his power as God’s prophet, Bahá’u’lláh wrote to both secular and religious leaders, urging them to make peace and rule their nations ethically, offering personal counsel and warning them of their downfall if they were to continue their at-the-time current paths.
Thanks to the broad appeal of the teachings, the faith spread across the world in less than 150 years, accumulating followers in 221 countries. The holy shrines of the faith are located in Israel, but as a result of instructions given by the head of the faith not to spread his teachings in the “Holy Land,” there are no Israeli Bahá'ís communities, and no converts are accepted. “The foundation of the Bahá'í faith is to live in harmony with your surroundings. In Israel, a controversial and widely religiously claimed land, the leader did not want to have a Bahá'í community congregate because of the tense political climate. In the 1930s and 40s, descendants of Bahá'í believers living in Israel were instructed by their leader to return to their home countries or settle elsewhere.
Now, the World Heritage site is open to the maintained by Bahá'í volunteers and open for both world travelers and Bahá'í pilgrims to visit the meditative Gardens. Featuring unique designs of plants, fountains and sculptures, each level of the Gardens offers its own experience. Throughout the Gardens, you can find about 450 plant species, most of them native to the region. The plants have mainly been chosen for their durability in the sun and capacity to survive on little water, as well as by design qualities such as color and size. While the layout of each terrace varies, each follows a shared model of symmetrical, graveled paths, well-groomed hedges, luscious flower beds, and natural shade.
Cascading down the mountainside, bordering the 1,700 steps, are twin streams of water accompanying the visitors on their walk through the terraces. On each terrace level, the streams join the various fountains and then resume their path down the next set of stairs.
The tranquil environment prepares Bahá'í pilgrims to visit the holy shrines in the Gardens. Since the Bahá'í followers worship God through prayer and meditation, the Gardens were designed with meditative properties in mind. The sounds of water trickling, broken ceramic pathways crunching, birds chirping and gravel trails softly shuffling are only a few of the sensations that calm and prepare a pilgrim’s mind.
Completed in 1953, the focal point of the Gardens is the golden-domed Shrine of Báb, the final resting place of Prophet Báb.Overlooking the Gardens and the sea, the dome glistens in the sun. Illuminated at night, the constant light bathing the dome is a spiritual solace for Báb’s unjust years in prison, a promise that the prophet will never be in darkness again.
During my tour of the Gardens, my tour guide pointed out that the Arab-style windows on the first floor coupled with the western-style windows on the second floor make the Shrine of Báb “an example of hope the Garden represents as the eastern and western cultures living together under one dome, one roof, one world.” Intended to represent the solidarity of the Bahá'í faith, the Shrine also faces Akko, the smaller section of the Bahá'í Gardens surrounding the mansion where Bahá'u'lláh resided during his final years and the site of his final resting place.
While the majority of the gardens is open to the public, within the Gardens are also two buildings only open to Bahá'í faith members: the Universal House of Justice--a domed neoclassical building framed with Corinthian columns, where Bahá'í spiritual and administrative affairs are conducted--and the Archives--a green-roofed building that mimics the Parthenon design. The Archives contain over 100 different translations of the Kitáb-i-Aqdas, the holy book of the Baha’i faith, and preserved copies of the script.
Combining styles of European architecture with traditional Middle Eastern designs, the Gardens are reminiscent of ancient times. The buildings are made with Italian stone and decorated with Portuguese, fire-glazed tiles. “Many wonder why the Gardens are decorated with neoclassical architecture and art, but there is no hidden reason,” explained my tour-guide simply -- “the designers believed this style represents a timeless standard of beauty.”
“Here, the impetus was not the creativity of a great artist, but rather the loving labor and sacrifice of many people from diverse origins and several generations, inspired by a common faith and an optimistic vision of our collective future,” explains the Bahá'í staff. The space is truly dedicated to unity and the expression of human spirit.
Every visitor experiences the Gardens in their own way, but all are captured by its unbelievable natural beauty. Amazed by the intricacies of the Gardens’ design, including the ambient noises, subtle design tactics, and diverse scenery, I left the Gardens feeling humbled by the power of nature. After my tour, I was inspired to learn more about the Bahá'í faith, and I’m more than impressed with the empathetic qualities of the faith and its devoted followers. If you happen to be in Haifa, I highly recommend a free guided tour of the Gardens. Otherwise, take a look at some of the incredible photography online or enjoy more reads on the Bahá'í faith.
For More Information
In July 2008, the Bahá'í Gardens was added to the UNESCO World Heritage list for their “outstanding universal value,” to the international community and to the followers for the Bahá'í faith. To learn more visit the Bahá'í Gardens webpage.
Free 45 minute tours of the Baha’i Gardens in Haifa, Israel are offered each day, except Wednesday, at 11:30 AM in Hebrew and 12 PM in English. Arrive half an hour ahead as tours are given first come, first served. Details on the Bahai Gardens in Akko can be found on their website. Men and women should be covered from shoulders to knees.
Jess is from New Holland, Pennsylvania and a senior in the Kogod School of Business. Jess is the co-founder of Student Israelity and is responsible for website management and design. As a program's assistant at the Center for Israel Studies, she has particularly developed her interest in Israel’s agricultural and sustainability practices. Now a Hasbara Fellow, Jess recently returned from a three-month stay in Israel.