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Friday, October 24, 2014

Haifa's World Class Baha'i Gardens

As I write this post, Steven and I are in our dorm room at the Abraham Hostel in Jerusalem about 7ish on Friday night, i.e. the holiest night for Jews, listening to a an ever increasing crowd of male Orthodox Jews dancing and singing Israeli songs at the top of their lungs right outside our window. They're attracting a crowd of onlookers who are now clapping  They started at sundown and show no signs of stopping anytime soon which is fine by me. I just LOVE these trips! Annie on 10/24

In my last post, I mentioned that this one would be devoted exclusively to Haifa's showpiece, its Baha'i Gardens which we vistited on the 20th. They're located on Mt Carmel, a holy site for Jews, Christians, Muslims and of course the Baha'i, the world’s youngest religion. We had an Israeli Jewish guide for the 45 minute tour; when I asked him why there wasn’t a Baha'i guide, he said that their religion forbade any proselytizing and that conducting tours would be considered a form of that. The city of Akko, which we saw just across the Mediterranean from Haifa, is the holiest site for Baha'i followers and the Baha'i Gardens and the Shrine are also considered holy sites. 

Our guide explained that there are 5-6 million Baha'i's in 200 countries and that the Gardens were completed in 2001 at a cost of $250 million dollars and cost from $2-3 million in annual upkeep.The most striking feature of the gardens that form the centerpiece of Haifa is the Shrine of the Bab whose brilliantly gilded dome dominates and illuminates the city’s skyline. The building, made of Italian stone and rising to a height of 128 feet, glistens with 12,000 gilded tiles imported from the Netherlands. Non Baha’i’s are not allowed to enter the shrine which is the mausoleum for the Bab, the founder, who was martyred by Persian authorities. Haifa is the world center for the Baha’i faith which was founded in the 19th C. in Iran and holds as its central belief the unity of mankind.

Until our guide explained, I never knew that every Baha'i has to make a pilgrimage once during his or her lifetime to the religious sights in the city of Akko and the Shrine at the Baha'i Gardens in Haifa. The pilgrimage consists of walking up the 1040 steps to the top to gain ‘spiritual elevation,’ stopping en route to get in the proper frame of mind through prayer and meditation. Once at the top, our guide explained, the Baha'i's then turn around and descend to the bottom to complete that part of the pilgrimage. 
 That’s the city of Akko across the Mediterranean from Haifa.

 The gardens, one of Israel’s 11 UNESCO World Heritage sites, are comprised of 19 stunningly landscaped circular terraces that extend for ½ mile down the hillside. The terraces are a harmony of color and form with pale pink and gray stone flights of stairs and carved urns overflowing with red geraniums which are a perfect contrast to the emerald green grass and floral borders.

When you walk down the incredibly steep terraces, you can’t help but think how the grass ever gets mowed. So I asked the guide who explained it takes 3 people working in tandem to mow the terraces: 1 person mowing, 1 person holding a rope to the lawnmower and the last person holding a rope to the person mowing!

 The Baha’i World Justice Center; there are no priests or the equivalent in the Baha’i religion, our guide stated, but there are 9 parliamentarians who are elected for a 5 year term who make the political and religious decisions for the Baha’i’s.

 There are no religious symbols in the Baha’i faith, our guide told us; the sculptures are purely ornamental.

The tour ended with a lovely view of the Shrine which was still only in the middle of the terraces but everyone had to exit the Gardens at this point. I loved seeing the fantastic cactus garden at the end of the tour; it brought back memories of our visiting the Sonora Desert Museum outside of Tucson, Arizona, the only other place I’ve seen so many other varieties of cacti. If you ever forgot so much of Israel was a desert, the garden reminded you of that fact right away.

I dedicate this post to Bob and Marti in our hometown of Littleton, Colorado who inspired us to visit Haifa. I hope I have done your your faith and beloved Baha’i Gardens justice in my descriptions and photos. Please feel free, Marti, to post any corrections as you see fit. Annie