Baha'i pilgrimage: "People can sense the presence of God"
HAIFA, Israel - In its decision to inscribe the two major Bahá'í holy places on the UN World Heritage list, the World Heritage Committee focused in large part on their significance as a place of pilgrimage.
"The Holy shrine of Bahá'u'lláh and the Holy shrine of the Báb, as the most holy places of the Bahá'í Faith, and visited by thousands of pilgrims each year from around the world, provide an exceptional testimony to, and are powerful communicators of, the strong cultural tradition of Bahá'í pilgrimage," wrote the Committee.
By any measure, the sites are beautiful. Stunning formal gardens surround them - the Shrine of Bahá'u'lláh in the countryside near Acre, north of the city of Haifa, and the Shrine of the Báb, a golden-domed building on the slope of Mount Carmel in the heart of Haifa itself.
Pilgrims say the outward beauty is but a symbol, an expression of love for the Messengers of God who lie entombed there and a beacon of hope for the future of humanity.
"It's hard to put into words," said Gary Marx, on pilgrimage from the United States. "You can describe things physically, but it's really not about that. Pilgrimage is an experience that goes back to the dawn of mankind. It's a yearning to connect with spiritual reality ... and to connect with yourself."
Although the two shrines have specific meaning for Bahá'ís, their spiritual nature appeals to others as well.
"People who are not Bahá'ís come here and say it is like a piece of heaven falling from the sky," said Taraneh Rafati, who has served for the past 10 years as a pilgrim guide to the Bahá'í holy sites.
"Whether you are a Muslim, Jew, Christian, Buddhist, in the holy texts, heaven is described. It is like this," she said of the peacefulness, the beauty. "You come and feel close to your Lord. It is free of charge, and it is for everyone."
Half a million people visited the shrine areas last year, most of them tourists wanting to see the gardens and get a close look particularly at the Shrine of the Báb, a famous landmark in Israel that looks out over the city of Haifa and Haifa Bay, and beyond that to the Mediterranean Sea.
More than 80,000 of those visitors entered the shrine itself, removing their shoes and walking silently into the room adjacent to the burial chamber of the Báb. Some just want a peek but many linger to read a prayer of Bahá'u'lláh that adorns one of the walls, or engage in their own meditation or prayer. Some are visibly moved.
"The response is as varied as the people who come," said Marcia Lample, a pilgrim guide for the last five years. "There is a spirit surrounding these places. It is palpable. People can sense the presence of God."
19th century beginnings
Bahá'í pilgrimage to Acre began shortly after 1868, when Bahá'u'lláh arrived at the ancient walled city as a prisoner of the Ottoman Empire. He had been banished from His native Iran 15 years earlier, and lived successively in Baghdad, Istanbul, and Edirne before being sent to Acre, which was then a remote outpost of the Ottoman Empire used as a place of exile.
Devoted followers from Iran determined His whereabouts and would travel on foot for months just to catch a glimpse of Him. Not allowed inside the city walls, the pilgrims would stand outside and look toward the citadel, hoping Bahá'u'lláh would come to a window on the second floor where He was confined, even for a minute, so they could see Him wave His hand.
Later, when authorities allowed Bahá'u'lláh to live outside the barracks, pilgrims could sometimes enter His presence to show their devotion and listen to His explanations of the new revelation from God.
Sometimes He would reveal sacred verses - a prayer or other communication - for the pilgrims to take back to Iran or elsewhere to Bahá'ís thirsty for contact with the leader they considered the mouthpiece of God for this age.
After His passing, pilgrims still came - to pray at His resting place and to pay their respects to His son, ‘Abdu'l-Bahá, whom Bahá'u'lláh had appointed to succeed Him as head of the Bahá'í community, and later to Shoghi Effendi, the Guardian of the Bahá'í Faith.
As the religion spread around the world, the believers came from farther away, including the first group of Western pilgrims, mainly Americans, who arrived in 1898. They were allowed a special visit to the tomb, and a member of the group, May Bolles, later wrote this:
"As we gazed upon the veiled door our souls stirred within us as though seeking release, and had we not been upheld by the mercy of God we could not have endured the poignancy of joy and sorrow and love and yearning that shook the foundations of our beings."
The Shrine of Bahá'u'lláh
The Shrine of Bahá'u'lláh is the holiest spot on earth for Bahá'ís - the place they turn to each day in prayer.
"It's amazing inside," said Farzin Rasouli-Seisan, 26, on pilgrimage from Sydney, Australia. "You go in and it leads to a garden inside - there are flowers and a couple of trees, all under a skylight. There are a number of rooms, and one of them is Bahá'u'lláh's resting place. You can't go in that room, but there is a step where you can put your head down."
Mrs. Rafati says of being in the shrines: "It is not that we are worshipping the dust or worshipping a wall - it is the connection that the place has with our beloved. We do not go there to worship the flowers. We go to there to pour out our heart."
The shrine is also special because it is adjacent to the country house where Bahá'u'lláh lived the last years of His life. Pilgrims can go there and enter His room - the room where He passed away in 1892 - restored to the way it was when He was present. Some of His actual belongings can be viewed.
Bahá'u'lláh lived at the estate, called Bahji, the final years of His life, after authorities loosened the restrictions that had kept Him inside the prison city of Acre for years following His banishment from His native Iran.
The golden dome in Haifa
Before He passed away, Bahá'u'lláh was able to go several times to nearby Haifa, and He gave explicit instructions to establish the Shrine of the Báb on Mount Carmel.
The Báb - who in 1844 in Iran had announced that He was a Messenger of God who had come to foretell the imminent arrival of a second Messenger even greater than Himself, namely Bahá'u'lláh - had been executed in 1850 in the public square in Tabriz. His followers hid His remains for years, waiting for the time they could provide a proper burial.
Half a century later, the sacred remains were taken to Haifa and finally laid in their permanent resting place on Mount Carmel, in the Bible described as the "mountain of the Lord."
The golden dome that crowns the shrine was completed in 1953 along with an extension of earlier gardens at the site. In 2001, a series of beautiful garden terraces was completed, both above and below the shrine, stretching more than a kilometer up the side of Mount Carmel.
The experience of the pilgrim
Bahá'ís plan and save their money for years to be able to come to Acre and Haifa, Mrs. Lample said.
"They get a chance to pray in the place where the founder of their faith has walked, where He revealed the word of God, where He suffered for them and for the unity of the human race," she said. "And mostly they come to pray in the places which contain the precious remains of the central figures of their religion."
Roger and Cathy Hamrick, who live in North Carolina in the United States, came in June for their first pilgrimage.
"We have been married almost 30 years, and we have been wanting to come that whole time," Mrs. Hamrick said. "Going to the shrines is like the culmination of a spiritual journey of a lifetime. How can anything compare to putting your forehead on the sacred threshold?"
Pilgrimage also helps Bahá'ís see their faith in practice, Mr. Hamrick said. The main teaching of the Bahá'í Faith is the unity of mankind under one God, and people who come to the Holy Land meet Bahá'ís from all around the world. "There is such joy in experiencing the oneness of the human family," he said. "It is unlike anything I have ever done."