Tuesday, January 18, 2011

The Shrine of Baha'u'llah

entrance to the Shrine of Baha'u'llah

Although pilgrims to Haifa and Akka visit several locations hallowed by the footsteps of the Baha’u’llah, the pinnacle of a Baha’i pilgrimage is one’s visit to the Shrine of Baha’u’llah in Bahji. Forty minutes to an hour outside Akka, the Baha’i gardens at Bahji are characterized by symmetry and ornate flower beds, statues of peacocks and eagles, and nodding cypress trees. To approach the shrine, pilgrims walk down a path of smooth grey and white pebbles. Palestine Sunbirds, a metallic purple and green, call from either side of the path as they poke their decurved beaks into tube-shaped flowers. 

Palestine Sunbird

Dimmed lights and perfumed roses create an atmosphere of reverence once inside the shrine. One may sit on the rugs or in a side room to pray. Many pilgrims bring notebooks with specific prayers they want to say at the shrine or lists of friends and family members they wish to pray for.

The location of the Shrine of Baha’u’llah is the Qiblih, or Point of Adoration, to which Baha’is face during the obligatory prayers and other special prayers. To face the Qiblih in prayer and at the same time be so close to it was significant to me. When saying my obligatory prayer in Colorado, I face east but what I am facing seems so far away. Indeed, it is across an ocean. It was particularly special to be so near to the resting place of Baha’u’llah.

“Holy places are undoubtedly centres of the outpouring of Divine grace, because on entering the illumined sites associated with martyrs and holy souls, and by observing reverence, both physical and spiritual, one's heart is moved with great tenderness.”
(Baha'u'llah, Synopsis and Codification of the Kitab-i-Aqdas, p. 61)

The Mansion of Bahji, where Baha'u'llah lived for awhile, next to the Shrine of Baha'u'llah

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Mirza Mihdi and the Power of Sacrifice

Resting places of The Purest Branch and Navvab (Baha'u'llah's wife) in the Monument Gardens in Haifa, Israel

On January 5, the third day of pilgrimage, we were taken via bus to Akka. There we would see the barracks and prison cell where Baha’u’llah, and much of his family, was confined from 1868-1870. During Baha’u’llah’s time in this prison, pilgrims hoping ot attain Bah’u’llah’s presence were only able to catch distant glimpses of his figure or a wave of his hand from the prison window as they stood across one of the moats. Mirza Mihdi (The Purest Branch), Baha’u’llah’s son, was among the family members in the barracks. Mirza Mihdi often prayed on the roof of the barracks and during one such meditative walk, he was so absorbed in prayer that he fell through a skylight and landed on a crate below. Although Baha’u’llah offered to heal Mirza Mihdi, The Purest Branch instead “begged Baha’u’llah to accept his life as a ransom for the opening of the gates of the prison to the face of the many believers who were longing to come and enter the presence of their Lord.” Indeed, shortly after the death of twenty-two year old Mirza Mihdi, many of the restrictions in the barracks were lifted and after four months Baha’u’llah and His family were even allowed to leave the prison.

During our visit to the barracks we were able to visit this site and see the skylight. The skylight had been covered up at one point and the precise scene of the fall unknown. Eventually someone found old aerial photos and was able to identify the location of the skylight, which they then uncovered.

The death of The Purest Branch is particularly significant in that it is considered a sacrifice in exchange for the unity of the human race. Adib Taherzadeh writes in volume three of The Revelation of Baha’u’llah: “Being the sacrifice of Baha’u’llah Himself, the Purest Branch by offering his life as a ransom for the opening of the gates of the prison, released incalculable spiritual energies within human society, energies which in the fullness of time, according to Baha’u’llah, will bring about the unity of the human race” (213).

 The above retelling of the story was taken partially from my memory of our pilgrim guide’s words, and I filled in the details after reading Adib Taherzadeh’s chapter on “The Death of the Purest Branch” in The Revelation of Baha’u’llah, volume three.

Friday, January 14, 2011


Fountain at the base of the terraces, Ben Gurion street in the background

For some Baha’is, pilgrimage is a once in a lifetime opportunity. I am lucky to have had the chance to go in my younger years, and I hope to have the chance to visit again someday. During Baha’i pilgrimage, one visits various sites within Haifa and Akka (called Akko by the locals), Israel where Baha’u’llah and Abdu’l-Baha lived and visited. However, the principle purpose of a pilgrimage is to visit and pray in the shrines where the central figures are interred. This includes the Shrine of the Bab in Haifa, surrounded by 19 terraces and lush gardens, and the Shrine of Baha’u’llah in Bahji, just outside of Akka.

Thus, my pilgrimage to Haifa was not merely a trip, and certainly could not be classified as a tour. In my letter of invitation, sent to all pilgrims after they confirm the dates they would like to come on pilgrimage, the Department of Pilgrimage wrote: “We hope that your pilgrimage—a journey whose spiritual significance is so different from that of any other journey—will provide you with enduring confirmation and inspiration.” For me, this captures the spirit of pilgrimage.

rainbow from one of the terraces near the Shrine of the Bab
So…out of nine days of soulful adventure, what do I choose to write about? No overview could possibly capture the vast amount of stories told, the history learned and re-learned, or the friendships forged. Instead, I will write a series of posts over the next week addressing the stories and visits which I found most poignant.

But first, the story of my arrival at the Molada Guesthouse, 82 Hanassi Street. Across the street from the Dan Carmel, a hotel in a tall building with a fountain out front, is a downward-sloping driveway reaching back into an overgrown area with a small grove of pine trees. At the bottom of the driveway is a three-story, cream-colored building belonging to the Rutenberg Institute, which offers classes and courses but rents dorm rooms to visitors. On January 2nd,  at 6:30 PM, a sheirut (shared taxi) dropped me off in front of the Dan Carmel.  I rolled my carry-on luggage across the street and down the driveway, searching for a front office. The door to the guesthouse was locked and all the lights inside were off. I knocked on the door, gently at first. A one-eyed cat with a bloody nose snuck out from behind the bushes and began incessantly meowing and pawing at my shoes. I knocked a little harder.

Outside the door was a lockbox with a phone number, which I wrote down. After walking back up the driveway, I found an Israeli couple walking to their flat next to the guesthouse. They let me borrow their cell phone and even offered to let me stay in their flat should I be unable to enter the guesthouse that night. I was able to reach someone who volunteered at the guesthouse via cell phone and was given a code to open the lockbox, where I found my keys. 
After entering the guesthouse, I turned around and there sat another feline, the size of a bobcat, with leopard-like spots. It followed me up the stairs, promptly inviting itself into my room and stretching out on the bed. Thus began my adventure in the city of cats.

Later that night I met fellow pilgrim Liz Washington, whom I learned a lot from on this pilgrimage. She told me at the end of the pilgrimage, as we frantically tried to figure out what train would take us to the airport, to think of life as a workshop. There are things you have to learn at some point in your life, and even the things that make you uncomfortable or scare you will teach you important skills (like how to ride a train or get around when those around you don’t speak English and don’t understand you). Which reminds me of something I learned over the summer from someone at Bosch Baha’i School in California, where I served for a summer. To be terrified doesn’t mean you don’t have courage. In fact, it is at such points in our lives when we exercise the most courage. I was slightly terrified standing alone in the dark in a foreign country, unable to enter the guesthouse. But in retrospect, I would want it no other way. Mishaps or difficult situations are what we learn the most from.  

view of Haifa from upper terraces, Shrine of the Bab to the right (covered for reconstruction), the Mediterranean Sea