With a dramatic flourish, Baha'is unveil majestic garden terraces on Mount Carmel

May 22, 2001
Violinist Bijan Khadem-Missagh was one of the soloists for the "Terraces of Light" oratorio.

HAIFA, Israel — In an expressive and emotionally powerful ceremony featuring a symphony orchestra, a 70-voice choir, a specially built 4,000-seat amphitheater, and the setting sun, Baha'is from more than 180 countries and their guests celebrated today the inauguration of a majestic series of garden terraces on the face of Mount Carmel.

For Baha'is here, and for co-religionists around the world who watched via satellite and internet webcast, it was a momentous event, marking the completion of a complex of buildings and gardens on what throughout history has been called "the Mountain of the Lord."

The Universal House of Justice, in a statement read during the ceremony, offered the project, the celebration surrounding it, and the golden-domed Shrine it glorifies, as sources of hope against the "turmoil and crises of our time."

"That our Earth has contracted into a neighborhood, no one can seriously deny," said the statement of the Faith's international governing body, which oversaw the construction of the project. "The world is being made new. Death pangs are yielding to birth pangs. The pain shall pass when members of the human race act upon the common recognition of their essential oneness.

"There is a light at the end of this tunnel of change, beckoning humanity to the goal destined for it according to the testimonies recorded in all the Holy Books. The Shrine of the Bab stands as a symbol of the efficacy of that age-old promise, a sign of its urgency.

"It is, as well, a monument to the triumph of love over hate," continued the statement. "The gardens that surround that structure, in their rich variety of colors and plants, are a reminder that the human race can live harmoniously in all its diversity."

The temporary amphitheater here, erected over the last week at the base of Mount Carmel, was packed with more than 3,000 Baha'is, more than 650 dignitaries from Israel and international embassies, and at least 100 representatives of the news media from around the world.

The Terraces of the Shrine of the Bab illuminated at the climax of the “Terraces of Light” oratorio. Slideshow
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The Terraces of the Shrine of the Bab illuminated at the climax of the “Terraces of Light” oratorio.

The dignitaries present for the ceremony included several Israeli Government ministers and deputy ministers, three Israeli Supreme Court justices, and more than 30 ambassadors to Israel from around the world. Members of the Israeli Knesset and local officials, including the Mayors of Haifa and Acre, were also present, as were local and regional religious leaders.

The ceremony featured two orchestral works composed especially for the occasion. Towards the end of the second composition, and just as dusk was falling, the lights on the 19 newly constructed terraces, which extend nearly a kilometer up the north face of Mount Carmel, were gradually turned on, illuminating the mountainside in a dramatic climax.

"For the Baha'is gathered here, this was a profound act, an inauguration ceremony for a set of sacred gardens and new administrative buildings that mark the completion of our world center, an event we have worked towards for years," said Douglas Samimi-Moore, Director of the Office of Public Information of the Baha'i International Community.

"This in a sense represents the coming of age of the Baha'i world community, which is emerging around the planet with the aim of helping to reshape and revitalize the social and spiritual life of humanity," said Mr. Samimi-Moore.

The focus of the terraces, and today's celebration, is the Shrine of the Bab, a golden-domed, white marble structure that is the second-most holy place to Baha'is in the world. It is the final resting place of the Bab, the Herald of the Baha'i Faith, who was born in Iran in 1819 and executed in 1850 at the order of religious authorities, who were challenged by His claim to prophethood and the rapid growth of His followers.

Much of the program today celebrated the ultimate triumph of the Bab and His message, in that there are now some five million Baha'is around the world, forming a community capable of financing and constructing the US$250 million complex of terraces, gardens and two major new buildings that have virtually reshaped the north face of Mount Carmel.

"Today we commemorate a sacred history of unexampled love, supreme sacrifice and divine vision," said Matthew Weinberg, Director of Research for the Baha'i International Community's Office of Public Information, in a speech to participants before the ceremony. "It is a narrative prefigured in the pronouncements of the great Seers of the past.

"As we stand awestruck at the majestic structures and the 'tapestry of beauty' now defining the face of God's Holy Mountain, and ponder the mysterious processes responsible for the remarkable transformation of this once barren domain, the words of Isaiah echo on all sides: '...Carmel and Sharon, they shall see the glory of the Lord, and the splendor of our God,' " said Mr. Weinberg.

Both of the orchestral works composed for today's inauguration are deeply connected to this theme. The first piece of music in the program was "O Queen of Carmel!," a cantata in three movements, written by Tolib Shahidi, a composer from Tajikistan. The second piece, "Terraces of Light," was composed by Lasse Thoresen, who is one of Norway's best known classical composers.

Mr. Shahidi's piece is based on a eulogy by Shoghi Effendi, who led the Baha'i Faith from 1921 to 1957, to "the Queen of Carmel," as Baha'is sometimes refer to the Shrine of the Bab. Lyrical and melodic, it made for a serene opening work.

Mr. Thoresen's composition is an oratorio in five movements, corresponding to the five paragraphs and essential themes found in the stirring Tablet of Carmel, a key piece of Baha'i scripture, which was written by Baha'u'llah about the role that Mount Carmel plays in religious history and as the world center of His Cause. Its modern rhythms and complex intensity were stirring.

Both pieces were performed by the Israel Northern Symphony Haifa, under the direction of Stanley Sperber, with support from three Canadian soloists -- mezzo-soprano Patricia Green, tenor Stuart Howe and baritone Brett Polegato. Also featured were Austrian violinists Bijan Khadem-Missagh, his son Vahid and daughter Martha, and the Transylvania State Philharmonic Choir of Cluj, Romania.

The interplay of human voices and the orchestra, in an outdoor setting at the foot of Mount Carmel, with the audience facing upward toward the beautifully illuminated Shrine of the Bab, was a moving experience for many of the participants, most of whom had been selected by their national Baha'i governing bodies to represent their country at this event.

The musical climax of "Terraces of Light" was timed to occur just after the sun had set, and as the music reached its crescendo. The 19 terraces were lit up one-by-one in a brilliant flourish that will be remembered by participants for a lifetime.

"It was stunning," said Nancy Oloro, a delegate from Zambia. "I felt myself in a different world. In the Baha'i writings, it is said that music gives wings to the soul. And I felt that."

The terraces themselves were also designed to glorify the Shrine of the Bab, said architect Fariborz Sahba, who designed them and oversaw their construction.

"In principle, whatever we have done on this mountain aims to provide an approach to the Shrine, to complement it and pay tribute to it," said Mr. Sabha, who also designed the world renowned Baha'i House of Worship in New Delhi, India. "Our intention has not been merely to build just a beautiful garden. Beautiful gardens are everywhere. But these gardens are spiritual gardens."

He explained that they were designed principally with Baha'i pilgrims in mind, so that as they walked up the terraces towards the Shrine, believers could detach themselves from the outside world and focus on their own relationship with the Creator.

"Baha'is have made a tremendous sacrifice to build these monuments," Mr. Sahba said, explaining that donations for their construction came entirely from Baha'is, "dollar by dollar."

On 4 June, the terraces will be opened to the public. Because of the overwhelming interest in the terraces, a computer reservation system is being set up to take requests for guided tours, which will be offered at no cost.

"This extraordinary work of art that we are seeing on the mountain is a visible expression of inspiration that comes only from the Creator," said Albert Lincoln, Secretary General of the Baha'i International Community. "It is the same spirit of faith that built the great cathedrals of Europe and the great mosques, monasteries and religious monuments of the East.

"We think the world should consider the great vitality of this force and consider setting aside some of the negative stereotypes which have in this modern era come to characterize religion," said Dr. Lincoln. "In other words, we see these terraces and this event as an opportunity to see the positive force of faith at work."