May 5, 2001
Religion Journal: Bahais Prepare to Dedicate a Most Unusual Garden
By GUSTAV NIEBUHRAsk people to envision a work of monumental religious architecture, and most will probably think of some great structure with a lot of history. A medieval cathedral in Europe, an Aztec pyramid, a Mogul-era mosque, maybe the Dalai Lama's palace - any and all may come to mind.
But as long as faith lives, there will be ambitious new structures built to reflect its ideals.
What would seem to be the first such work of the 21st century will be dedicated on May 22, when Bahais from around the world gather in Israel to celebrate completion of an unusual garden. It is laid out as a series of 19 linked terraces, a kilometer in length, ascending the slope of Mount Carmel, in Haifa, at one of the faith's holiest shrines.
The project has been a decade in the making, at a cost of $250 million, paid by contributions from individual Bahais, whose monotheistic faith has roots in 19th-century Persia and world headquarters in Haifa. Of an estimated five million Bahais around the world, 130,000 live in the United States, with administrative headquarters and a major house of worship in suburban Chicago and a radio station in rural South Carolina.
In the Bible, Mount Carmel is where the prophet Elijah waged a successful contest against the priests of Baal, as told in the Book of First Kings. But for Bahais, the mountain has a contemporary significance, as the site of the Shrine of the Bab, containing the remains of one of the faith's two founders.
The Bab (Arabic for "the Gate") was born in Persia, where he declared himself a messenger of God. Before his execution by Persian authorities in 1850, he taught that there would soon appear a greater messenger, who would open a new period in history.
In 1863, a nobleman, a follower of the Bab, said he was the one prophesied. Known as Baha'u'llah (meaning "the Glory of God"), he taught a faith whose principles embrace spiritual and global unity: there is one God, all humans belong to a single race, men and women are equal, and all major religions are true expressions of God. Baha'u'llah's shrine is outside the Israeli city of Acre, near Haifa.
In a telephone interview from Israel, the terraces' architect, Fariborz Sahba, said the project was meant primarily to impart a religious message, one that would direct attention to the Shrine of the Bab and also convey an impression of unity.
"My aim," Mr. Sahba said, "was to create some spiritual feeling, not just some beautiful gardens, because there are beautiful gardens all over the world. The whole essence of the teaching of the Bab himself was bringing the world together, the unity of mankind."
The Bab spent his last years imprisoned in grim conditions. The terraces, with their gardens, are intended to offer a stark contrast to that memory, to put one in mind of "waves of light," emanating from the shrine itself, Mr. Sahba said.
In another interview, a Bahai spokesman, Douglas Samimi-Moore, said the faith continued to grow, especially in regions like India and western and southern Africa.
"It's not huge," Mr. Samimi-Moore said. "It's not like some evangelical movement. But it's steady growth."
A Relic Is Spared
A year ago three American religious denominations undertook a petition campaign to try to dissuade the authorities in Leiden, the Netherlands, from tearing down one of the last remaining relics related to the Pilgrims, who sought refuge in that city before sailing to America.
Now it appears their pleas have paid off.
The United Church of Christ, which worked together with the Unitarian-Universalist Association and the Conservative Congregational Christian Churches, reports that the Leiden official responsible for monuments has said the ruins of the Vrouwekerk - the Church of Our Lady - will not be demolished after all.
Andy Lang, spokesman for the 1.4-million- member denomination, which traces some of its roots to the Pilgrims, said its officials received word Thursday that the Leiden city government planned to maintain the old church's last remaining wall, which had been scheduled for demolition to make way for an urban renewal project.
Mr. Lang said the denomination's president, John Thomas, had responded to the news by saying the Vrouwekerk, through its association with the Pilgrims, was a "precious symbol" linked to the birth of the idea of religious liberty in America.
Mr. Lang added that denominational officials credited Jeremy Bangs, a former curator of Plimouth Plantation in Massachusetts, who lives in Leiden, with inspiring their efforts.
"For a long time it looked like a hopeless battle," Mr. Lang said. "And we got in there directly because of his work."
©Copyright 2001, The New York Times