Sunday, September 14, 2008

Baha'i Shrine and Gardens in Haifa

In northwestern Israel, on the shores of the Mediterranean Sea, lies the city of Haifa, the third-largest city in modern Israel (after Jerusalem and Tel Aviv) and an extremely important port (my ship, the John F. Kennedy, anchored outside of Haifa's harbor during my visit to Israel in 1983; we rode small ship's boats from the carrier to the docks, a ride of about 30 minutes). Extending from the sea up the slopes of Mount Carmel, Haifa is historically important because it was the home of the prophet Elijah, and the cave where he lived and taught is a popular shrine to this day. On Mount Carmel, the Carmelite Order of Roman Catholic monks was founded in the 12th century (during the Crusades). And in the 21st century, Haifa and Mount Carmel became the headquarters of the Baha'i faith and the home to the Baha'i Shrine and Gardens.

The Baha'i faith first emerged during the 19th century, in Persia. Followers of Baha'i believe in the unity of all religions. As part of their faith, they hold that God has sent messengers to teach humankind the meaning of peace: Krishna, Buddha, Abraham, Zoroaster, Moses, Jesus, and Mohammed were all such messengers, and though the details of their teachings may have differed, their message was substantially the same.

In 1844 Siyyid 'Ali-Muhammad, known as the Bab (the "Gate"), founded the Babi Faith in Persia (modern-day Iran), to prepare humanity for the arrival of a new teacher who would lead the world into an age of universal peace.

In 1863 Mirza Husayn-'Ali, known as Baha'u'llah (the "Glory of God"), announced that he was the messenger whom the Bab had foretold, and he founded the Baha'i Faith. A Turk, Baha'u'llah was exiled to Acre in 1868, where he wrote and taught and died (he lived from 1817 to 1892) and is buried.

Just before his death, during a visit to Haifa in 1890 or 1891, Baha'u'llah indicated the place on Mount Carmel where the remains of the Bab should be entombed. The Bab had been martyred in Persia, and his followers eventually smuggled him into the Holy Land, in 1909.

The Shrine of the Bab is a lovely gilded domed building in the center of the Baha'i Gardens; completed in 1953, it is a blending of western and eastern architectural styles (Roman columns, Greek capitals, and Asian arches), to emphasize the Baha'i belief in worldwide religious unity.

Farther up the hill is the Baha'i International Archives, modeled after the Parthenon, and the Baha'i Universal House of Justice, with 58 marble columns and hanging gardens.

Guardian of the Faith Shoghi Effendi originally designed the splendid gardens. A recent redesign of the landscaping, under the supervision of Fariborz Sahba, was begun in 1990 and completed in 2001 and has made the gardens one of the world's most important horticultural attractions. The gardens extend up Mount Carmel for a distance of more than 1 kilometer.

Our group was permitted to visit only the topmost terrace of the Baha'i Gardens (there are 19 terraces), and we were not allowed entrance to any of the buildings. Nevertheless, the view from the top of Mount Carmel was breathtaking, and the gardens are just spectacular.

Though located in the center of a bustling modern city, the Baha'i Gardens are amazingly quiet, and it is a wonderfully peaceful location for meditation or prayer or simply a moment of relaxation.

Baha'u'llah most important teaching is "the earth is but one country, and mankind its citizens." He set forth principles for a world civilization, urging people everywhere to abandon all prejudice, establish equality between the sexes, eliminate extreme poverty and wealth, provide universal education, set up collective security among nations, understand that religion and reason are in harmony, and recognize that the world's great religions have a common source and are essentially one. He felt that each person is responsible to search independently for truth.
The Baha'i community actively supports the United Nations and thousands of social and economic programs worldwide.

The most fitting words are those of BAHÁ'U'LLÁH: "Nature in its essence is the embodiment of My Name, the Maker, the Creator."
I wish we had had more time to spend in the Baha'i Shrine and Gardens, but it was a beautiful visit that left lasting memories and a desire to learn more about the Baha'i.

For more information and inside photos of the Baha'i Shrine and Gardens, visit