Last weekend I made the journey to Haifa- a city located in the beautiful hills of Mount Carmel, a little less than two hours north of Tel Aviv.
Our main purpose of going was to tour through the Baha’i Gardens. It was a much-anticipated trip for me because I had wanted to go for a while, since I saw some gorgeous photographs of it a few months ago.
I’m not going to lie here, I did not have much of an idea of what ‘Baha’i’ was before I got there… other than the fact that Dwight from The Office is part of the ‘Baha’i’ faith. I just thought I was going to walk through some pretty gardens, enjoy the scenery, take some snapshots, and smell the flowers. Maybe even enjoy a picnic with some fresh squeezed lemonade…
But, alas, I was wrong. I was wrong in so many ways.
When we got to the Gardens, we decided to take an English speaking tour so I could finally learn what this huge beautiful area was all about.
I was not the only one who was curious about these Gardens. There were about 120 people there who also wanted this tour (plus it was free), so they split us into two groups of 60 each. The first 60 people went off with a tour guide equipped with a map and a microphone.
The remaining 60 (including me, Yosi, Noa, and Gilli) were left with a soft-spoken tour guide with a thick accent and no microphone. (Did I mention the tour was free?)
Anyway, The Baha’i Gardens are built on a steep slope on Mount Carmel, and we started the tour at the very top, slowly making our way down by way of stairs.
The Gardens are made up of many tiers, like a big wedding cake covered in a lush blanket of green grass, as if each strand was cut to the very same length. There are red and purple flowerbeds that are meticulously tended to- you will not see one dry petal. There are tranquil fountains placed equally among each tier, where water flows peacefully and slowly down the sides of the stairs.
Palm trees stand like statues from inside of the grassy squares, which are surrounded by such perfectly shaped shrubbery; it really feels like you are in a symmetrical wonderland.
While you are walking down the steep stairs, it is also easy to forget that right across from your face is an incredible panoramic view of the Mediterranean Sea with the Hills of Galilee in the distance.
To start off our tour, we began to walk down the stairs and our tour guide quietly introduced herself to us, and made it very clear that no one is allowed to wander off by him/herself. (Except for the little kid who needed to use the bathroom as soon as we started walking.)
We are also not allowed to walk on the grass, which, trust me, makes you want to roll around in it even more. And we also have to cover our shoulders and keep our voices down.
I didn’t quite understand why it was all so serious, and I was frustrated, because first of all, there goes my picnic idea, and second of all, I could barely hear anything the guide was saying.
My much-anticipated trip to the Baha’i Gardens started to seem a little lame, and my best option was looking like a game of Cut The Rope on my iPhone. But the guide then began to talk about something I have heard only very little about- the Baha’i faith.
Aha, I knew there was something religious going on here. Like that shrine I am standing right next to… and that golden dome behind me… they must have some spiritual significance, right? Oh, and the fact that I have to be quiet and cover my shoulders, that must have something to do with that too.
It occurred to me then that this is not just a pretty garden, it is not even the creative results of some great artists who really really like stairs (there are nineteen flights that extend as they go up!) but The Gardens are a place of spiritual pilgrimage and holy worship. They are kept so incredibly clean and perfect by the labor and hard work from the Baha’i people themselves. Haifa also the home to their Prophet Bahaullahs Shrine, in Bahji (north of Haifa) and Bab is buried in the Shrine on Mount Carmel.
Now, aren’t you curious about the Baha’i faith and what these Gardens are doing here in Haifa anyways? As it has nothing to do with Judaism whatsoever? And because it really is really random?
Well, in short, the Baha’i faith is the most contemporary religion, and a quite beautiful, open-minded one to say the least.
Baha’is believe that there is one God.
They believe in the same God that spoke to all the big guys like Abraham, Moses, Buddha, Krishna, Jesus, and Muhammad. As far as my memory goes from the tour, they had this prophet figure named Bahaullah who came from Iran in the 1800’s who preached equality between women and men, and an emphasis on family and nature. The Baha’is believe humanity is one family. And among many other things, they strongly believe that all prejudice must be overcome, and that science and religion go together in harmony.
The followers of the faith also believe that any work done in service to God is a form of worshipping God, as too through prayer and meditation.
So, as the tour guide told us, the point of the Baha’i Gardens is this: By working hard to build and cater to these Gardens, and then praying and meditating in the tranquil nature that they have created for themselves, they will ultimately be able to connect to God.
Now, this is the part of the tour when things got weird.
The tour guide then went on to ask us, “How many Baha’is do you think live in Israel?”
There were scattered answers among the group.
“Seven-hundred?!” … “Two-hundred-thousand??” … “Nine-hundred and fifty???” … “Eighty-five?”
Then, the cranky nine-year-old boy sitting slouched in the shade, muttered under his breath, “Seven.” And then rolled his eyes.
“Yes!” The tour guide said. “Something around three to seven Baha’is live here in Israel.”
Our tour guide then told us that the Baha’is are actually not even allowed to live in Israel at all, and the few that do have very special permission…
Oh, okay. I guess that makes sense?
Wait… no it doesn’t.
After some research, and from what I remember during the tour, the reason that the Baha’i people are not allowed to live in Israel is because they do not want to get caught up in, or influenced by, the religious and political controversies that so often arise here.
Bahaullah wrote many books and apparently in one of his teachings he clarified that Baha’is could only come to the Gardens, or live in Israel, if invited by their Center of the World Community.
Then why? You must obviously be asking yourself, are the Gardens here in Haifa, Israel? Why is it that their largest and most beautiful place of worship, where their very own prophet is buried, is located in an area where they are not even allowed to live in?
The reason as to why the Baha’i Gardens are in Haifa is still a bit unclear to me, and I have received different answers.
The one that makes the most sense is that Bahaullah was exiled to Akko in 1868 by the then Ottoman empire and was a prisoner until his death. So that is why their spiritual and administrative center is in Israel now. Some say that God told the prophet Bahaullah to build them there, so he did. Some people think that it is behind the idea that Christ would get around to returning to Mount Carmel sometime in the near future. Some think that they just wanted to be in the ‘Holy Land’ for the main purpose of it being holy. Yosi thinks it is because of cheap real estate. We can all have our ideas I guess.
When the tour ended I felt so much more informed, and maybe even a bit more confused. My anticipated trip to the Baha’i Gardens was ultimately a success, all of this information was completely unexpected and nothing less than fascinating, and my desire to roll around in some perfectly cut grass has been increasing daily.