More than 54,000 have toured Baha'i Terraces on Mount Carmel since June opening
HAIFA, Israel — More than 54,000 people have taken pre-reserved guided tours of the cascading garden terraces surrounding the Shrine of the Bab on Mount Carmel since they opened in June, indicating that the site may soon become one of the top tourist draws in Israel.
In addition, thousands more have visited the three sections of the gardens that are open to drop-in visitors. In all, more than 400,000 entries have been recorded since 4 June 2001, when the terraces were officially opened to the public, and at this rate the number of entries per year will add up to more than 1.5 million.
"The remarkable thing about the high volume of visitors is that it is coming at a time when tourism in Israel has dropped by 30 per cent in the last six months. In contrast, in Haifa we've seen only an 8 per cent drop," said Moshe Tsur, General Manager of the Haifa Tourist Board. "There is no doubt the Baha'i gardens have had a big role in saving Haifa's tourism industry."
The vast majority of the visitors are Israelis, coming to Haifa from other parts of the country. "This is 95 per cent domestic tourism," said Mr. Tsur. "The number of day visitors has tripled since the gardens opened. Many others are staying in local hotels with a package deal that includes a tour through the gardens."
There are no fees for entry into the gardens or for the guided tours, but Mr. Tsur estimates that other spending, such as on food, refreshments and transportation, has contributed millions of dollars to the local economy since the gardens opened.
The effect of this economic vitality is particularly visible in the evenings, after the gardens close and the dramatic nighttime illumination of the terraces and Shrine is turned on. Along Ben Gurion Avenue, which runs in a straight line from the base of the Terraces to the Haifa
port, sidewalk cafes and restaurants are now bustling, even on mid-week evenings, whereas just a few months ago the area was largely quiet after dark. The lighted terraces rise above the avenue, which runs through the historic German Templer Colony. The whole neighborhood, including
rows of red-tiled homes built by German settlers in the late 19th century, has recently been restored by the city of Haifa.
The Haifa Tourist Board is located in one of the Templer homes and runs the booking system for the guided tours of the Terraces. Five telephone operators work full time to take calls on the tour reservation lines.
"The lines are continually jammed, and people complain that they can't get through," said Mr. Tsur. "The demand for the tours is certainly not slowing. We have more than 70,000 people registered for the coming months, and we are almost fully booked through December."
Two different guided tours are offered: the first goes down the top nine terraces from the crest of the mountain to the Shrine mid-way down the slope, and the second tour goes from the Shrine down the lower nine terraces to the Entrance Plaza on Ben Gurion Avenue. There are 19 terraces altogether, extending one kilometer from the crest to the foot of Mount Carmel.
The Terraces and two adjacent administrative buildings were recently completed after 10 years of work at a cost of some $250 million in voluntary donations from the worldwide Baha'i community of five million believers. The terraces were built primarily as a path of approach for Baha'i pilgrims to the Shrine of the Bab, the second-most holy spot for Baha'is. The Terraces also offer a symbol of peace and hope to the world at large, and the guided tours come with a message: that harmony and co-existence are possible.
In groups of 40 to 50 at a time, tourists are led by Israeli guides who are recruited and trained by the Beit Hagefen Centre, an Arab-Jewish cultural center that is well known in Haifa for its programs to promote coexistence among all the ethnic groups in the city. Many of the guides are university students and they represent a great diversity of backgrounds: Christians, Druze, Jews, Muslims, Russian immigrants, and others.
Hila Naftali is a student at Haifa University who responded to an advertisement posted at the university last March to become a tour guide on the Terraces. She now guides up to four tours per day. During a pause between tours this week, she said she believes that the camaraderie fostered among the tour guides from many different backgrounds is one of the hidden effects of the terraces.
"I actually get to talk with a lot of people who I otherwise would not have a chance to meet," said Ms. Naftali. "One of my friends now is another guide, a Druze from the Golan. We have reached a completely different level of understanding, based on friendship rather than politics."
One of the supervisors of the tour guides, Gad Zorea, reiterated that having guides from many backgrounds working together adds to the appeal of the gardens.
"Haifa is a special, unique place in Israel. People know this city for the coexistence of Jews and Arabs, and also Christians, Druze and Baha'is," said Mr. Zorea. "The visitors can see our guides working together, and they remark on this."
"Israel is a difficult country. People are stressed and nervous because of the things that are happening," he said. "Our guides are the first people they encounter when they enter the gardens, and slowly we try to show them a different perspective, give them a glimpse of the way the Baha'is view the world -- in a way educate them that the world can be a better place."
About 35 guides have been recruited and have gone through an intensive three-day training session to become a guide on the terraces. The training program, which will be repeated periodically as new guides are recruited, included sessions with the architect of the terraces, Fariborz Sahba, and the caretaker of the Baha'i Holy Places, Jamsheed Ardjomandi.
Ms. Naftali said she was deeply touched during the training program, and that nearly all the guides share her sense that what they are doing is much more than a job.
"It was so meaningful when Mr. Ardjomandi described the significance of these Holy Places, when he told us of Baha'u'llah's dialogue with the mountain [in the Tablet of Carmel]," said Ms. Naftali. "After that I felt: this is a mission. I started caring more, doing more. These gardens
touch people's souls."
Two of the visits she had guided particularly stuck in her mind: a group of retarded adults and a group of young soldiers on leave from their duty in the Gaza.
"While I had to speak at a different level for the retarded adults, it was a joy, maybe because they feel things more deeply, more truthfully. The soldiers -- they were maybe 18 to 20 years old -- came in joking and daring each other to race to the bottom. But the minute they walked into the
gardens, they relaxed and seemed ready to listen."
The guided tours are giving many Israelis their first glimpse of a religious community that has maintained a remarkably low profile during its century-long presence on Mount Carmel. From the time in 1868 when the Founder of the Baha'i Faith was brought to the neighboring city of Acre as
a prisoner under the Ottoman Turks, the community has observed a strict policy of not seeking or accepting converts in the Holy Land, a policy that has continued to the present day. As a result, virtually the only Baha'is who live in Israel are the staff of the Baha'i World Centre, some 800 adherents from more than 75 countries who offer temporary volunteer service here.
On a recent afternoon, standing on the bridge over Hatzionut Street which links the upper terraces to the Shrine, one could see a tour group making its way down from the crest of the mountain, another group approaching the bridge from the upper terraces, and a third group approaching from a side gate to begin the lower terraces tour. The upper and lower terrace tours intersect on this broad, garden-covered bridge, which crosses one of Haifa's busiest thoroughfares. More than 20 tours, each lasting 45 minutes to an hour, begin or end here each day.
One of the visitors, pausing on the bridge with several family members, was Lynn Taubkin, a Haifa resident for 22 years.
"The gardens are a wonderful contribution to the city," said Ms. Taubkin. "If I may speak as a representative of the people of Haifa, I have never heard anything but positive remarks about the gardens. And knowing that it is all based on voluntary contributions and the work of volunteers adds to our appreciation."
"There is beauty here -- harmony, balance and symmetry -- and there is a spiritual element that even those of us who do not belong to the religion can pick up on," she said. "The gardens have a personality that seems to personify the religion."
Another visitor, Orit from Kadima, agreed that the explanation she had heard about the Baha'i Faith reinforced the impression given by the gardens.
"The impression of symmetry, order and neatness was intertwined with the presentation of the Baha'i religion. The harmonious, unifying principle is very pronounced in the gardens. It is beautiful and very inspiring," she said.
Reuven Gover, one of the tour guides, observed that visitors often remark on how carefully the gardens are maintained.
"They see the young Baha'is who come from all over the world to volunteer in the maintenance of the gardens, and their dedication and attention to detail. It is a wonderful example for Israelis to see something that is so beautifully kept and looked after," he said.
Another tour guide, Yohai Devir, gathered his group about him on the bridge, speaking through a small portable amplifier carried on his waist. He pointed to the imposing marble buildings to the left of the upper terraces and described their functions as the international administrative center of a world religion. Looking up at the terraces, he pointed out the three distinct zones of the gardens -- the formal central axis, surrounded on either side by informal gardens and drought-resistant ground covers, blending finally into the natural wooded cover of the mountain -- and described the high-tech water conservation methods used in the gardens.
Mr. Devir, a student of electrical engineering at Haifa's Technion University, then led the group down around the side of the Shrine of the Bab to a shady area where he told the story of the Bab -- His declaration of a new revelation from God in mid-19th century Iran, the dramatic impact of this declaration on Persian society, His execution by a firing squad in 1850, and how His remains had been hidden by His followers for nearly 60 years until they were brought for burial in a mausoleum on the slopes of Mount Carmel. He spoke of Baha'u'llah, the promised Messenger foretold by the Bab, who had arrived in the Holy Land in 1868 as a prisoner under the Ottoman authorities, had indicated the precise spot where the Bab's remains should be buried, and had chosen Mount Carmel as the future center of His Faith.
The group continued down through the informal gardens and crossed on to the central staircase of the terraces just below the Shrine. They paused again on the bridge over Abbas Street, four terraces above the base of the mountain. Here Mr. Devir described the basic principles of the Baha'i Faith, its international activities, and its focus on promoting the oneness of humanity and the elimination of all forms of prejudice.
The visitors, particularly the young people, then peppered him with questions: how do they cut the grass on these steep slopes? How much does it cost to maintain the gardens? What other gardens in the world can these compare with? Who is buried in the Shrine? Why is it here in Israel? What is the meaning of the calligraphic symbols on the Shrine?
One of the visitors, Susan Soto from Karmi'el, a village about 45 minutes north of Haifa, said she came on the tour because she had seen the gardens on television. "These gardens have become famous. They are beautiful and very impressive. Baha'is believe in good things. They believe in
one God, in peace. It's good for everyone," she said.
Another visitor was Inbal Shabtai, who had come with her parents from Ashdod, about a two-and- a-half hour drive from Haifa. "It's charming," she said. "Whatever attracts the eye, attracts the heart. It is very attractive. Here is a religion that accepts the equality of men and women. The beliefs are good for modern life."
As the group exited the gardens, four newlywed couples were having their wedding photos and video taken in the plaza surrounding the fountain at the base of the terraces, a practice which has become very common among newlyweds in Haifa.