Haifa is the only city in Israel that has the sea to the north not to the west. Across the bay is the city of Akko or Acre, as it is best known. Just after you can see the border with Lebanon, but you cannot cross between countries. On the right you can see the mountains of Galilee where the city of Nazareth is. I am standing at the top of the Bahá’í Gardens ready to start my tour.
The history of the Bahá’í religion
Religion did not begin in Israel but in Shiraz, Persia (now Iran). In 1844 a young merchant named Seyyed Ali Mohammad announced that he was the Báb, the door. That he was a prophet of a new religion with only one God. He would be the door for human beings to enter a new era of harmony and peace. In this era all religious wars would end. Full equity would be achieved before God and among all the people on the planet.
People liked the message of the Báb and he began with 18 disciples who had special status in the religion.
The government did not allow the body to be buried in the sacred land of Persia because they were afraid it would become a pilgrimage point. They grabbed the body and threw it out of the city of Tabriz. The first 18 disciples waited until it was dark to take the body and kept it in different places for almost 60 years before the Báb was buried.
From Báb to Bahá’u’lláh
The history of the Bahá’í religion did not end with the Báb, because before being executed, he told his followers that he accepted his death. Since his only mission on earth was to prepare mankind for the arrival of another prophet who was going to be greater than the Báb and who would make the philosophy of religion known worldwide.
In 1863 in the city of Tehran, today the capital of Iran, a man declared that he was the second prophet. This man was Mirza Husayn-‘Alí one of the most important followers of the Báb. He said his name was Bahá’u’lláh which means “glory of God” in Arabic. From here religion gets its name, because they are the glorious who share their light with the rest of humanity.
The government of Persia was furious that there was another prophet, but getting rid of Bahá’u’lláh was not so easy. The Báb was a humble man, while Bahá’u’lláh was the son of Persia’s chief minister who worked with the Shah. They decided to send the family into exile and sent them to the Ottoman Empire, as the Turks controlled the Middle East.
Bahá’u’lláh continued to add followers despite being in prison
He arrived in Baghdad and continued to preach, as the Ottomans were Suni Muslims, they also could not accept another prophet. He was put in prison, but after several weeks the prison guards became Bahia’i. From there he was transferred to a prison in Istanbul, Turkey and the same story.
Finally the Ottomans came up with a brilliant idea, what if they sent Bahá’u’lláh, his family and his followers to the worst place in the world? They were sent to the worst penal colony in the empire, a place where people were starving or had cholera, which was hot and humid. They thought that everyone would die and religion would die.
He was sent to Acre in Israel. The prison where they put him still exists and is a museum. As a curious fact our guide Michael told us that next to the prison is the best place to eat Humus called Humus Said. After 3 years he convinced the city of Acre to release him and bought a house that he called “the mansion of happiness.” He spent his last 12 years in this place and died at 75. His body is buried next to the house.
The site where it is buried is considered the most sacred place for the Baha’i. Just as the Jews pray looking at Jerusalem, the Muslims towards Mecca, all Baha’i have to look at Acre.
Why are Baha’i Gardens in Haifa and not in Acre?
When Bahá’u’lláh was in prison in Acre, he saw the other side of the bay and could see Haifa. Every day he saw a mountain called Carmel. In Hebrew it is Har HaKarmel which means “divine vineyard of the Lord” and is a very special place because that is where the prophet Elijah did all his miracles. It is a sacred mountain for all monotheistic religions.
Although he had house arrest, Bahá’u’lláh went four times to this mountain with his son, who was ordered to bring the body of the Bab from Persia and bury him there. In 1909, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá (the son), achieved his goal.
In 1989 they began to build the gardens. They started on the lower terraces and finished 12 years later, in 2001. The project cost an estimated $250 million which was raised by donations. The whole land measures almost one kilometer covering the whole side of the mountain with about 200,000 square meters. The land was bought very cheap during the Ottoman Empire before the city of Haifa existed.
In 2008, the Baha’i Gardens of Haifa were designated as World Heritage according to UNESCO.
Baha’i in Israel today
Israelites cannot be Baha’i. The Baha’i who are in Israel are volunteers and have to sign a contract that gives them 6 months up to 5 years of stay. It is estimated that there are approximately 700 volunteers and 30 work in the Baha’i Gardens in Haifa. The others work at the Baha’i center.
Bahá’u’lláh did not want the Baha’i to live in Israel because there are too many religions that considered this country as their sacred land. That’s why there were too many fights in the world and he didn’t want his followers to follow this path.
This religion has no church or synagogues. They pray anywhere in the world looking towards Acre. They do not lie and are pacifists. With 7.5 million followers, they are the fourth largest monotheistic religion in the world.
It is the only monotheistic religion that you cannot inherit. Children with Bahá’í parents are not Bahá’ís until they turn 15 and decide to follow the religion. They learn all religions and the child can choose which religion to follow. They believe that all religious books tell the same story.
What should we know before visiting the Bahá’í Gardens in Haifa?
Sanctuary: it opens in the mornings between 9 a.m. and 12 p.m.
Gardens: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Tours: are done from 10 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. in three languages: Hebrew, English and Russian. They last 50 minutes and have no cost. A guide will explain to you about the site and the Bahá’í religion. The tour in English is daily at 10 a.m. and 12 p.m. On Saturday the 10 a.m. tour is done at 1:30 p.m., while on Wednesdays there are no tours. Participants are admitted in order of arrival, so it is important to arrive a little earlier.
Location: 45 Yefe Nof Street about 100 meters to the left of the observation balcony at the highest point of the gardens. The tour ends at Hatzionut Avenue, which is the main entrance.
Clothing: as it is a sacred site, you should cover your shoulders and wear clothing that reaches your knees. Since you have to walk, it is also recommended to wear comfortable shoes or sneakers. You can wear a hat and use sun cream in the summer.
Photos: photos are allowed, except inside the sanctuary. Filming is not allowed.