Beauty born of faith
August 31) - You may think that you have seen the Baha'i Gardens in Haifa - but unless you've seen them recently, you are in for a wonderful surprise.
To begin with, you should have a look at the gardens from downtown Haifa, at the foot of Sderot Ben-Gurion. The wide avenue, with its handsome stone buildings on either side, forms a sort of introduction to the terraces themselves; these stretch all the way up Mount Carmel, forming a swath of green punctuated by patches of color.
The terraces, developed over the past 10 years at a reported cost of some $250 million - paid for entirely by contributions from members of the Baha'i faith - are a testimony to the deep dedication of its followers to the beautification of their world center and one of their major shrines.
Baha'i, a religion which emerged in mid-19th century Persia, is today a world faith with more than five million adherents.
Among the principles of its belief is that religious truth is not absolute but relative, that revelation is continuous and progressive, that all great religions are divine in origin, and that they represent stages in the spiritual evolution of human society, which will eventually emerge into a universal civilization.
Beliefs include the complete unity and equality of all races, classes, creeds, and nations, and belief in the total equality of men and women.
The Baha'i connection to Haifa is a result of the fact that Baha'u'llah, founder of the Baha'i religion, was exiled from his native Persia and incarcerated by the Ottoman authorities in Acre, where he made his home. Baha'is, who regard Baha'u'llah as the most recent in a line of messengers of God that includes Abraham, Moses, Krishna, Buddha, Zoroaster, Jesus, and Mohammed, consider his shrine, which is also surrounded by gardens and located north of Acre, as the most sacred spot in the world.
The Haifa shrine is the resting place of the remains of Siyyid Ali-Mohammed, whom Baha'is revere as the Bab, the forerunner of Baha'u'llah. The Bab was executed in Persia and his remains were later brought to Haifa, where they were buried at a spot indicated by Baha'u'llah in a building which is now topped by a golden dome.
THE BAHAI World Center in Haifa is staffed by some 700 volunteers from around the world. There is no local Baha'i community. Although they are eager to share their message with anyone who expresses an interest - and theirs is among the fastest growing religions in the world - Baha'is are forbidden to engage in aggressive proselytizing.
This principle, combined with the fact that their shrine contains no religious symbolism or images of any kind, might account for the fact that the gardens and shrine are a very popular place to visit for Israelis, religious as well as secular.
On a weekday a short time ago, they were so packed that the volunteers who welcomed the visitors could barely cope. The volunteers explained that the shrine was a holy place, asked the visitors to remove their shoes as a sign of respect, and asked them to remain quiet, turn off cellular telephones, and refrain from photography inside the building.
Asked if the volunteers ever had trouble with unruly visitors, Ann Wong, director of public relations for the Baha'i World Center, admitted that sometimes it was hard to make people understand why they had to be quiet. But she added that most of those who came to the shrine were respectful.
"I think that when people see beauty and harmony they have respect," said Wong.
The shrine, with Persian carpets, urns, lamps and a large crystal chandelier, does indeed evoke a feeling of quiet and respect. On the wall is a prayer which relates to the concept of beauty as a religious commitment. The creation of beauty as an expression of reverence is almost breathtaking.
The formal gardens, with their carefully manicured shrubs, profusion of flowers, and elegant trees, would be outstanding anywhere in the world; but in Israel, where desert conditions combine with a general indifference to aesthetic values, they are so exceptional as to be unreal.
There is not a leaf out of place, much less a bit of scrap paper. One could not even imagine an empty soda bottle lying about in this environment. A staff of 200 is employed full-time to care for the gardens in Haifa, as well as those that surround the shrine in Acre.
WHAT IS new is that these gardens have now been extended to 19 terraces, a kilometer of greenery, from high up on Mount Carmel to the bottom, with the same care extended throughout the site. The project, Wong said, took over 10 years, with the Baha'i World Center slowly buying up the property and developing it. The number 19, she said, is symbolic in the Baha'i faith of completeness, perfection, and unity.
According to another source, the project involved not only the purchase of undeveloped land but buying large buildings, apartment by apartment, in order to tear them down to make way for the terraces.
The terraces are mostly green, with lawns so steep they must be cut by a team of three gardeners: two to pull the lawnmower up, while the third pushes it. In some spots, there are walls of ivy, while both lawns and ivy are offset by rows of flowers.
The flowers themselves are changed by color according to season. A system of fountains and water channels runs down the entire length of the terraces, which are lit up at night.
Where the paths are not paved, they are lined with pieces of burnt red broken roof tiles, which also serve to camouflage drainage channels. In the center, running up the length of the mountain, are a series of stone stairways, with elegantly carved stone balustrades.
Wong noted that in planning the terraces the Baha'i designers consulted Israeli irrigation experts so as to use water as sparingly as possible. The watering of all the terraces is controlled by computer.
In their center, just above the shrine, is a large stone bridge which goes over Rehov Hatzionut. The bridge itself forms one of the terraces, and when you stand on it you can hardly notice that there is a busy thoroughfare underneath. At the top, a wide tunnel leads under Rehov Yefe Nof.
WHAT MAKES the project even more stunning is the fact that Sderot Ben-Gurion, the old German Colony of Haifa, has been redeveloped to coordinate with it.
Daphna Greenstein, who designed this project together with Gil Har-Gil, explained that the axis of the avenue was actually shifted slightly to accomplish this coordination. Like similar areas in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, the German Colony in Haifa was established by Templers in the mid-19th century. Sderot Ben-Gurion was its main street.
The original houses, now fronted by large paved pedestrian spaces and magnolia trees, are quickly turning into an area attracting visitors from Haifa and further afield with many restaurants and cafes. In between are informal gardens with olive and citrus trees, and pergolas with jasmine.
In May, when the entire length of terraces is opened, it will be possible to walk down all 19 of them and continue down to the German Colony. At present, only the terraces immediately adjacent to the shrine and the top two terraces adjoining Rehov Yefe Nof are open to the public.
The gardens are open daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m and the shrine is open from 9 a.m. to noon. There is no admission fee, but visitors should keep in mind that modest dress is required, especially for the shrine - a rule that could mean some visitors, men as well as women, might be turned away if they are wearing shorts.
©Copyright 2000, Jerusalem Post