On Mount Carmel, newly completed garden terraces are officially opened
In a ceremony broadcast live around the world by satellite and Internet webcast, some 3,000 Baha'is from 180 countries celebrate as a majestic symbol of "unity and peace" is offered to the world.
HAIFA, Israel - Like many of the several thousand Baha'is who came from around the world in May to the inauguration of a series of majestic garden terraces on Mount Carmel, Alemitu Chuffa could hardly believe her eyes when she saw them for the first time.
Others had similar reactions upon seeing the terraces, which extend nearly a kilometer up the mountainside, are divided into 19 levels, and feature numerous stone stairways, marble fountains and iron ornaments, as well as an extensive selection of plants and flowers.
Salomeea Romanescu of Romania compared them to "paradise on earth."
"The sound of the water is like a divine song," said the 37-year-old educator from Bucharest. "Combined with the fragrance of the flowers and the harmony of the colors, all these sensations, they give you a feeling of plenitude and peace.
"I was wanting all my life to feel such a feeling of peace and harmony and I am very happy now to be able to come here and experience it," she added.
Indeed, Baha'is view the terraces - which, along with two new administrative buildings, were built over the last 10 years at a cost of some US$250 million in donations - as a gift of peace to the world at large - and the fulfillment of religious prophesy.
On 22 May 2001, the terraces were officially inaugurated with a stirring evening program, which featured the world premiere of two symphonic works composed especially for the occasion and the reading of a statement from the Universal House of Justice, the international governing body of the Baha'i Faith.
The next morning, in a continuation of the inauguration ceremonies, the 2,400 Baha'is from around the world, along with some 600 staff members at the Baha'i World Centre here, streamed up the side of what throughout history has been called "the Mountain of the Lord."
Coming from more than 180 countries, the procession led many observers to recall the prophesy of Isaiah, which speaks of "all the nations" flowing to the "mountain of the Lord's house" and the dawning of a new age of peace.
Both events were broadcast around the world via satellite and Internet webcast. As well, the opening of the terraces was covered in numerous newspaper, television and radio news accounts worldwide. News organizations reporting on the event included the Associated Press, Agence France Presse, the BBC, CBC, China TV, CNN, the DPA German News Agency, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Le Monde, the New York Times, Reuters, and UPI.
"The completion of these structures on Mount Carmel and the ceremonies surrounding them represent a message of hope to the world, a message which is all the more dramatic because of the backdrop of violence and hatred in the Middle East," said Albert Lincoln, Secretary General of the Baha'i International Community, in an interview about the significance of the event.
"This extraordinary work of art that we are seeing on the mountain is a visible expression of inspiration that comes only from the Creator," Dr. Lincoln continued. "It is the same spirit of faith that built the great cathedrals of Europe and the great mosques, monasteries and religious monuments of the East.
"We think the world should consider the great vitality of this force and consider setting aside some of the negative stereotypes which have in this modern era come to characterize religion," said Dr. Lincoln. "In other words, we see these terraces and this event as an opportunity to see the positive force of faith at work."
Shrine is the focus
The focus of the terraces is the Shrine of the Bab, a golden-domed, white marble structure that is to Baha'is one of the most holy places in the world. It is the final resting place of the Bab, the Herald of the Baha'i Faith, who was born in Iran in 1819 and executed in 1850 at the order of religious authorities, who were challenged by His claim to prophethood and the rapid growth in the number of His followers.
Much of the week-long program in May celebrated the ultimate triumph of the Bab and His message, inasmuch as the Baha'i Faith is today a worldwide community of more than 5 million people and is recognized as the second-most widespread independent world religion after Christianity.
In its statement, read 22 May, the Universal House of Justice offered the terraces, the celebration surrounding them, and the Shrine they glorify, as a source of hope against the "turmoil and crises of our time."
"That our Earth has contracted into a neighborhood, no one can seriously deny," said the statement. "The world is being made new. Death pangs are yielding to birth pangs. The pain shall pass when members of the human race act upon the common recognition of their essential oneness.
"There is a light at the end of this tunnel of change, beckoning humanity to the goal destined for it according to the testimonies recorded in all the Holy Books. The Shrine of the Bab stands as a symbol of the efficacy of that age-old promise, a sign of its urgency.
"It is, as well, a monument to the triumph of love over hate," continued the statement. "The gardens that surround that structure, in their rich variety of colors and plants, are a reminder that the human race can live harmoniously in all its diversity." [Link to full statement.]
Many participants, indeed, felt that their coming together for such a celebration reflected the possibilities for peace, in that they came from so many nations and cultures and yet were joined in a common cause.
Their diversity was evident as delegates made their way up Mount Carmel on 23 May, slowly walking up the terraces' central stairway in a spirit of devotion. Many wore traditional native costumes and the procession was a showcase of the human garden, resplendent in all its races and colors.
"The idea that more than 3,000 people can come together to do this, it is an example that can show the way the world can be, without any problems or prejudice," said Galina Iefremova, a 23-year-old teacher from Belarus, who became a Baha'i in 1993. "All over the world, people are waiting for this."
"I thought of where it says, 'And it shall come to pass in the last days, that the mountain of the Lord's house shall be established in the top of the mountains, and shall be exalted above the hills; and all nations shall flow unto it,' " she said, reciting the passage from memory.
"And when I saw all those people from all these nations, climbing up Mount Carmel, I felt that was the fulfillment of that prophesy," said Ms. Serrano. "It is a privilege without words to be part of that."
As far back as 1600 BC, Mount Carmel was mentioned as a "holy mountain" in Egyptian records. In the Bible, it is the site of Elijah's confrontation with the idol worshippers of Baal. It was also sacred to the early Christians and is where the Carmelite Roman Catholic monastic order was founded in 1150.
For Baha'is, the mountain was given supreme significance when Baha'u'llah visited it in the early 1890s and revealed the Tablet of Carmel, which designated Mount Carmel as the site of the Faith's religious and administrative center.
The development of the Baha'i World Centre, as the complex of buildings, gardens and holy places here is officially known, has proceeded slowly over the last century. The Shrine of the Bab was built in 1909 and its gold-domed superstructure completed in 1953. In 1957, an International Archives building, which houses various historic relics and artifacts, was built. In 1983, the Seat of the Universal House of Justice was completed.
With the completion of the new garden terraces and two other administrative buildings, Baha'is believe a major prophesy of their Faith has been fulfilled.
"The significance of this event is that it represents a kind of culmination of the development of the Baha'i World Centre on this mountain," said Penny Walker, a member of the International Teaching Centre, a key Baha'i institution in Haifa.
"At the same time, we see that the Baha'i Faith is established in every country and territory of the world, bringing together an incredible cross-section of the human race, who are all committed to bringing people everywhere into one human family," said Dr. Walker.
The garden terraces were designed to create a "spiritual atmosphere" that will not only showcase the Shrine of the Bab, but also bring to the mind of a visitor the themes of unity in diversity, harmony and peace, said architect Fariborz Sahba, who designed them and oversaw their construction.
The 19 new terraces - one on the same level as the Shrine of the Bab, nine extending above it and nine extending below it - form a grand series of brackets, which accentuate the Shrine's position in the heart of the mountainside.
"If a diamond is not set properly, its value does not show," said Mr. Sahba. "The Terraces provide both a physical and a spiritual setting for the Shrine. Everything directs your eyes towards the Shrine."
A series of stairways runs up through the terraces from the base of Mount Carmel almost to its peak. The staircase, made of beige stone, is flanked by two streams of running water, forming a man-made brook that gently cascades down the mountainside, flowing through shallow pools at each level.
"In principle, whatever we have done on this mountain aims to provide an approach to the Shrine, to complement it and pay tribute to it," said Mr. Sahba, who also designed the world renowned Baha'i House of Worship in New Delhi, India. "Our intention has not been merely to build just a beautiful garden. Beautiful gardens are everywhere. But these gardens are spiritual gardens."
He explained that they were designed principally with Baha'i pilgrims in mind, so that as they walk up the terraces towards the Shrine, believers can detach themselves from the outside world and focus on their own relationship with the Creator.
"Baha'is have made a tremendous sacrifice to build these monuments," Mr. Sahba said, explaining that donations for their construction came entirely from Baha'is, "dollar by dollar."
New administrative buildings
While the opening of the terraces was the focus of the public ceremonies on 22 and 23 May, the completion of two new buildings, also located on the side of Mount Carmel, was as much a part of the significance of the event for Baha'is.
On 25 May, for example, Baha'is assembled outside the two new buildings, the International Teaching Centre and the Centre for the Study of the Texts, in a prayerful observance to mark their completion. Along with the previously completed Seat of the Universal House of Justice and International Archives building, the structures are set along an arc-shaped path on the face of Mount Carmel, slightly to the east of the terraces.
The Center for the Study of the Texts houses scholars and researchers whose role is to study the vast body of the Baha'i sacred writings, translate them, prepare compilations, and draft commentaries on their relationship to current world problems.
The International Teaching Center building houses a body of appointed individuals that assists the Universal House of Justice and provides guidance and encouragement to the worldwide Baha'i community on its growth and development.
Both the architect who designed the new buildings, Hossein Amanat, and Fariborz Sahba, were given warm appreciation in an evening program Wednesday, 23 May, the highlight of which was the showing of a new 38-minute video documentary on the roughly 15-year-long planning and construction process for the new structures.
Titled "Not Even a Lamp," the documentary details the immense challenges faced in working on the slope of Mount Carmel. The architects had to work carefully so as not to disturb neighbors, the surrounding gardens and buildings, or the Shrine of the Bab.
Mr. Amanat said the buildings were designed to last for 500 years: "Every detail, when implemented, was done with a great amount of research as to what kinds of materials we should use, what technology we should use, so that these buildings will last as long as possible."
"This was not an ordinary project," Mr. Amanat told the gathering. "This was a kind of sacred task for us. We really looked on it as a prayer."
World premiere of new works
The importance Baha'is give to the completion of the terraces and new buildings was underscored in the decision by the Universal House of Justice to commission two orchestral works for the inauguration - and then to engage a symphony orchestra and a 70-voice choir to perform them.
For nearly two weeks, one of Haifa's main intersections, where Ben Gurion Avenue meets the base of Mount Carmel, was blocked off while a temporary 4,000-seat amphitheater was built for the concert.
On 22 May, more than 650 dignitaries from Israel and its diplomatic corps, along with roughly 100 representatives of the international news media, joined the 3,000 Baha'is gathered for the occasion in the amphitheater for the opening concert.
The dignitaries included several Israeli Government ministers and deputy ministers, three Israeli Supreme Court justices, and more than 30 ambassadors to Israel from around the world. Members of the Israeli Knesset and local officials, including the Mayors of Haifa and Acre, were also present, as were local and regional religious leaders.
The first piece of music in the program was "O Queen of Carmel!," a symphonic composition in three movements, written by Tolibkhon Shakahidi, a composer from Tajikistan. The second piece, "Terraces of Light," was composed by Lasse Thoresen, one of Norway's best known classical composers.
Mr. Shakahidi's piece is based on a eulogy by Shoghi Effendi, who led the Baha'i Faith from 1921 to 1957, to "the Queen of Carmel," as Baha'is sometimes refer to the Shrine of the Bab. Lyrical and melodic, it made for a serene opening work.
Prof. Thoresen's composition is an oratorio in five movements, corresponding to the five paragraphs and essential themes found in the stirring Tablet of Carmel, a key piece of Baha'i scripture, which was written by Baha'u'llah about the role that Mount Carmel plays in religious history and as the world center of His Cause. Its modern rhythms and complex intensity were stirring.
"The Tablet of Carmel is essentially an ecstatic text," said Prof. Thoresen. "It tells of an event where God has chosen this mountain as His throne. And the themes of my composition have to do with the establishment of a spiritual, global center, which is happening vertically, between heaven and earth, and, second, a movement from that center out to all countries."
Both pieces were performed by the Israel Northern Symphony, Haifa, under the direction of Stanley Sperber, and featured three Canadian soloists - mezzo-soprano Patricia Green, tenor Stuart Howe and baritone Brett Polegato. Also featured were Austrian violinists Bijan Khadem-Missagh, his son Vahid and daughter Martha, and the Transylvania State Philharmonic Choir of Cluj, Romania.
The interplay of human voices and the orchestra, in an outdoor setting at the foot of Mount Carmel, with the audience facing upward toward the beautifully illuminated Shrine of the Bab, was a moving experience for many of the participants, most of whom had been selected by their national Baha'i governing bodies to represent their country at this event.
The musical climax of "Terraces of Light" was timed to occur just after the sun had set. As the music reached its crescendo, the 19 terraces were lit up one by one in a brilliant flourish that will be remembered by participants for a lifetime.
"It was stunning," said Nancy Oloro, a delegate from Zambia. "I felt myself in a different world. In the Baha'i writings, it is said that music gives wings to the soul. And I felt that."
The following is a statement of the Universal House Justice, the international governing body of the Baha'i Faith, as read 22 May 2001 "On the occasion of the official opening of the Terraces of the Shrine of the Bab."
With joyful and thankful hearts, we welcome all who have come from near and far to join us on this auspicious occasion for the Baha'is of the world. We acknowledge with deep appreciation the presence of so many distinguished guests.
A century and a half have passed since that unspeakable tragedy in the northwest of Persia when the Bab faced the volley fired at Him from the rifles of 750 soldiers. The soldiers had followed the orders of the highest authorities in the land. The Bab's mangled body was then thrown on the side of a moat outside the city, abandoned to what His cold-blooded persecutors thought would be a dishonorable fate. They had hoped thus to put an end to the growing influence of His teachings on masses of people throughout the country. These masses had accepted, in the face of intense persecution, the Bab's claim to prophethood, and their lives were being transformed spiritually and morally as He prepared them for what He said was the dawn of a new age in which a world civilization would be born and flourish. The expectations that stirred countless hearts were heightened even more sublimely by the Bab's announcement that One greater than He would soon arise, One who would reveal the unparalleled character of the promised world civilization that would signify the coming of age of the entire human race.
We are met not to lament the tragedy of the Bab's martyrdom and the persecutions that followed; rather have we come to celebrate the culmination and acknowledge the meaning of an unprecedented project that had its beginning over a century ago. It was then that Baha'u'llah, Whom the Ottoman authorities had banished to Acre to serve out His days in confinement, visited Mount Carmel and selected the spot where the remains of His Herald would be interred. We humbly trust that the wondrous result achieved by the completion of the nineteen terraced gardens, at the heart of which rises the Shrine of the Bab, is a fitting fulfillment of the vision initiated by Baha'u'llah.
The sufferings sustained by the Bab so as to arouse humanity to the responsibilities of its coming age of maturity were themselves indications of the intensity of the struggle necessary for the world's people to pass through the age of humanity's collective adolescence. Paradoxical as it may seem, this is a source of hope. The turmoil and crises of our time underlie a momentous transition in human affairs. Simultaneous processes of disintegration and integration have clearly been accelerating throughout the planet since the Bab appeared in Persia. That our Earth has contracted into a neighborhood, no one can seriously deny. The world is being made new. Death pangs are yielding to birth pangs. The pain shall pass when members of the human race act upon the common recognition of their essential oneness. There is a light at the end of this tunnel of change beckoning humanity to the goal destined for it according to the testimonies recorded in all the Holy Books.
The Shrine of the Bab stands as a symbol of the efficacy of that age-old promise, a sign of its urgency. It is, as well, a monument to the triumph of love over hate. The gardens which surround that structure, in their rich variety of colors and plants, are a reminder that the human race can live harmoniously in all its diversity. The light that shines from the central edifice is as a beacon of hope to the countless multitudes who yearn for a life that satisfies the soul as well as the body.
This inextinguishable hope stems from words such as these from the Pen of Baha'u'llah: "This is the Day in which God's most excellent favors have been poured out upon men, the Day in which His most mighty grace has been infused into all created things." May all who strive, often against great odds, to uphold principles of justice and concord be encouraged by these assurances.
In reflecting on the years of effort invested in this daunting project, we are moved to express to the people of Haifa the warmth of the feeling in our hearts. Their city will for all time be extolled by the Baha'is everywhere as the place in which the mortal remains of the youthful Prophet-Herald of their Faith finally found refuge, and this after half a century of having to be secretly moved for protection from one place to another in His native land. The patience and cordiality shown towards the Baha'is throughout the most difficult years of the construction work exemplify the spirit of goodwill in which so much of the world stands so greatly in need. Haifa is providentially situated on Mount Carmel, with its immortal associations with saintly visionaries, whose concern throughout the ages was largely focused on the promise of peace. May Haifa achieve wide renown not just as a place of natural beauty but more especially as the city of peace.
Let the word go forth, then, from this sacred spot, from this Mountain of the Lord, that the unity and peace of the world are not only possible but inevitable. Their time has come.