In Acre, the restoration of a holy place sheds light on the region's heritage

In Brief: 
  • The renovation of a Bahá’í holy place in Acre, Israel, includes the partial restoration of an ancient flour mill
  • The site, which was graced by the presence of Bahá’u’lláh in the 1870s, now also reflects the region’s industrial heritage
  • The project has also restored the Ridvan garden to an island setting, with water now flowing all around

ACRE, Israel — After more than three years of restoration and conservation work, a Bahá’í sacred site is offering a glimpse into the industrial and spiritual heritage of this part of the Holy Land.

From the Roman era into the early 20th century, mills on this site — some two kilometers southeast of the old city of Acre — produced the flour to feed the area’s population.

“This was a very significant agricultural hinterland for the city,” said Albert Lincoln, Secretary General of the Bahá’í International Community. “The mills were part of what was probably one of the region’s largest industrial complexes. They were first documented in 1799 by the French delegation surveying the area in connection with Napoleon’s intended conquest.”

But for Bahá’ís, this place has spiritual significance, said Mr. Lincoln. “It’s one of the most beautiful holy places associated with the presence of Bahá’u’lláh here during the late 19th century.”

In 1875 — eight years after Bahá’u’lláh’s incarceration within the walls of the prison city of Acre — His son ‘Abdul-Bahá rented an island formed by two water canals, diverted from the Na’mayn river to power the flour mills. On this island, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá created an exquisite garden for His father Who, by then, had suffered more than two decades of imprisonment and exile. Bahá’u’lláh called the garden “Ridvan” — meaning “paradise.”

A swamp drainage scheme to curb malaria and increase arable farmland in the 1930s and 1940s deprived the garden of its unique island setting. But now, with the completion late last year of a project to restore those canals, the Ridvan Garden is an island once again.

A “verdant isle”

After ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s acquisition of the island, pilgrims from Iran and neighboring countries brought shrubs, trees and flowering plants to populate the flower beds. During their long overland journeys, some of the travelers watered the plants at the expense of their own thirst.

As restrictions on His movements were gradually relaxed, Bahá’u’lláh made His first visits to the garden. He went there often, sometimes staying overnight in a modest house on the island.

“He referred to it as ‘Our Verdant Isle’ and wrote some beautiful things in which he describes Himself actually sitting in the garden at the time when it had water around it,” said Mr. Lincoln.

“In one passage, Bahá’u’lláh said that He was here in the garden enjoying ‘its streams flowing, and its trees luxuriant, and the sunlight playing in their midst.’ The whole narrative that goes with it is an outdoors narrative — it’s sun, wind, water — all these factors,” Mr. Lincoln said.

The spot also became known outside of the Bahá’í community. Laurence Oliphant, a British writer who visited in 1883, remarked, “Coming upon it suddenly it is like a scene in fairy land...The stream is fringed with weeping willows, and the spot, with its wealth of water, its thick shade, and air fragrant with jasmine and orange blossoms, forms an ideal retreat from the heats of summer.”

Using historic photographs and descriptions, an international team of architects and engineers has restored the Ridvan garden to a state that captures the spirit of its original character. The team was assisted by the Israel Antiquity Authority, which provided a conservation survey of the entire site and carried out part of the work.

“Our task was to investigate and find as much historical evidence as we could about how it looked, so we could bring the island back to life,” said Khosrow Rezai, a representative of the design team who oversaw the project.

The two canals now flow, although at a reduced rate, on either side of the garden at their original locations. They lead to the flour mills — some of which have also been restored. “We found an aquifer 40 meters underground and are using it to feed the canals,” said Mr. Rezai.

With the re-creation of the garden’s original setting, pilgrims can now experience the feeling of a spiritual retreat. “We have tried to convey, to the extent possible, the tranquillity of the garden prepared by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá as a place where Bahá’u’lláh could find rest,” said Mr. Rezai. “Being able to see the water gives you an amazing feeling. You cross it, you smell it, you hear it. Hopefully it transmits the sense of happiness and joy that Bahá’u’lláh felt.”

On the southern horizon from the site, Mount Carmel rises up, the location of the Shrine of the Bab and its monumental garden terraces. They — along with the Shrine of Bahá’u’lláh and its environs north of the Ridvan garden — were named UNESCO World Heritage sites in 2008.

“With its conservation — and the partial restoration of the flour mills — the whole site says something about the historical roots of the Bahá’í Faith in this land and how they are intertwined with the history of the region,” said Mr. Lincoln.