Golden anniversary of the Queen of Carmel

October 12, 2003
The Shrine of the Bab at night.

HAIFA, Israel — When Shoghi Effendi, then the Head of the Baha'i Faith, announced the completion of the superstructure of the Shrine of the Bab 50 years ago this month, he used poetic words to indicate the significance of the occasion.

He described the completed Shrine in a cablegram as the "Queen of Carmel enthroned (on) God's Mountain, crowned (in) glowing gold, robed (in) shimmering white, girdled (in) emerald green, enchanting every eye from air, sea, plain (and) hill."

The Shrine on Mount Carmel, Haifa, Israel, is the burial place of the Bab, the Martyr-Prophet of the Baha'i Faith, the Forerunner of Baha'u'llah, the Faith's Founder. For Baha'is, it is a place of pilgrimage and the holiest spot on earth after the Shrine of Baha'u'llah.

The beauty of the Shrine, illuminated at night, is now enhanced by 19 garden terraces that stretch one kilometer from the base of Mount Carmel to its summit. The terraces, which were opened in May 2001, have attracted more than 1.5 million visitors.

The announcement by Shoghi Effendi in October 1953 of the completion of the Shrine's superstructure came five years after the beginning of a US$750,000 construction project paid for by Baha'is around the world.

The completion of the project was, in fact, the triumphant consummation of a process begun more than 60 years earlier by Baha'u'llah to provide a fitting resting place for His Forerunner.

In 1891, Baha'u'llah had indicated to His eldest son and appointed successor, 'Abdu'l-Baha, the precise spot on Mount Carmel where the Shrine of the Bab should be built.

The dome and drum of the Shrine of the Bab take shape over the completed octagon and colonnade, 1952. Slideshow
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The dome and drum of the Shrine of the Bab take shape over the completed octagon and colonnade, 1952.

'Abdu'l-Baha carefully carried out His Father's instructions. He overcame many difficulties to build a massive six-room mausoleum of local stone. Then, in 1909, He solemnly placed the sacred remains of the Bab in an alabaster sarcophagus within the vault of the edifice, which he called "the Throne of God".

Between 1928 and 1929 Shoghi Effendi added three rooms to the building.

In 1942, he commissioned one of Canada's leading architects, William Sutherland Maxwell -- his father-in-law, who was then living in Haifa -- to design the arcade and the superstructure, which was to embellish and preserve the stone building.

For two years, Mr. Maxwell consecrated himself to his task.

Shoghi Effendi provided overall guidance, including in the use of Western and Eastern styles, but left the artistic details to Mr. Maxwell.

On 23 May 1944, 100 years after the Bab declared his Mission, Shoghi Effendi unveiled in Haifa a 60 cm (two feet) model of the superstructure. When built, it would rise 40 meters above ground level.

Crowning the majestic design, as anticipated by 'Abdu'l-Baha, was a dome, which was set on an 18-windowed drum. That, in turn, was mounted on an octagon, a feature suggested by Shoghi Effendi. A stately arcade, in fulfillment of the vision of 'Abdu'l-Baha, surrounded the stone edifice.

Shoghi Effendi, who spoke of the work of Mr. Maxwell with delight and admiration, said the project to build the structure transcended in sacredness any collective undertaking in the course of the history of the Faith so far.

Construction began at the time of the establishment of the state of Israel, and as the world was struggling to recover from a devastating war. Building materials were in extremely short supply in the country, as were skilled stone masons.

Shoghi Effendi asked Sicilian Baha'i, Ugo Giachery, to acquire the required materials in Italy. Much of that country had been laid waste by the Second World War, and there too it was difficult to obtain the vast quantities of construction items necessary.

Skilled artisans, however, were looking for work. Dr. Giachery engaged them to cut, carve, and polish Chiampo stone and Rose Baveno granite in accordance with Mr. Maxwell's designs. They produced 28 columns, eight pilasters and 28 arches -- as well as other pieces.

Using his skills in planning, administration, and as a government liaison, Dr. Giachery ensured that ships transported the columns, panels, capitals, arches and other items for the Shrine from Italy to Haifa.

Overcoming electricity shortages, export restrictions, storms at sea, a fire on board ship, a cordon of warships, and even the dropping of 61 cases of stone into Haifa harbor, Dr. Giachery fulfilled Shoghi Effendi's requests to the letter.

He was to be accorded the honor of being named a Hand of the Cause, and one of the Shrine's doors was called after him.

The superstructure was said to be at the time the largest prefabricated building to move from Europe to any point in the world.

The first contracts were signed in 1948, and the first threshold stone laid in 1949.

Such was the beauty of the completed arcade with its colonnade of rosy pink granite and its Oriental-style arches of soft, creamy stone that many local people thought the structure was finished in June 1950, long before the octagon and dome were erected.

The emerald green and scarlet mosaics on the balustrade above, the fire-gilded bronze symbol of the Greatest name, the Baha'i ringstone symbol at the four corners, and the multitude of intricate decorations and motifs elsewhere were hailed as pure artistry.

The original plan of Shoghi Effendi had been to halt at this stage until conditions improved, but he changed his mind.

The next stage was to build a platform to support the proposed octagon, drum and gilded dome, which would combine to weigh more than 1,000 tons.

Huge interlocked beams in the shape of an eight-pointed star -- cast in one day -- were placed about 30 cm above the roof level of the stone building.

That star was supported by eight steel-reinforced concrete piers, which reached down to bedrock. The piers penetrated the thick masonry of the Shrine, a difficult task successfully implemented without damaging the essential structure or impinging on the Tombs.

The octagon rose from the center of the large platform. It was surmounted by eight elegant, golden-tipped pinnacles, which anchored wrought-iron railings suggesting a lotus blossom opening.

"Great happiness, many congratulations and much laughter" accompanied the completion of the installation of the railings, wrote Dr. Giachery in his book of recollections entitled "Shoghi Effendi".

"The whole edifice displays a great variety of architectural and artistic gems, products of the inventiveness and refined taste of Mr. Maxwell," he wrote.

In 1952, Leroy Ioas, a Baha'i who had been closely associated with the construction of the beautiful Baha'i House of Worship in Wilmette, arrived from the United States. He was to become an able lieutenant of Shoghi Effendi in the construction process.

Mr. Ioas employed his considerable administrative skills and practical mind to supervise the building of the drum and dome, a task done without the availability of sophisticated machinery. He too was to be named a Hand of the Cause. Shoghi Effendi called the door on the octagon after him.

The drum, a perfect cylinder, was completed in March 1952. Rising 11 meters, it rests on a circular steel-reinforced-concrete ring on the top of the octagon.

In accordance with an idea of Shoghi Effendi's, it has 18 stained-glass lancet windows, representing the first disciples of the Bab.

On 25 March 1952, while the drum he had designed was being built, Mr. Maxwell died in Montreal, Canada. It was three months after he had been appointed a Hand of the Cause.

In a message expressing his intense grief at the passing of his friend and colleague, Shoghi Effendi announced that the southern door of the Bab's tomb would be named after him.

The building of the brim, and then the dome, called for all the ingenuity of the engineer of the project, Professor H. Neumann of Haifa's Technion University.

No heavy stone could be used because the weight-bearing capacity of the concrete stilts was limited.

A solution was found for the brim using two slabs of stone anchored together and to the dome. Next, Professor Neumann used a recently-devised method for the dome in which cement, mixed with fine sand and water was sprayed upon a mold.

Meanwhile, 12,000 fish-scale tiles -- of 50 different shapes and sizes -- were being made in Holland by employing an innovative process involving fire-glazing over gold leaf.

On 29 April 1953, Shoghi Effendi climbed the scaffolding and placed behind one of the tiles a small box containing plaster from the Mah-Ku prison cell, which once confined the Bab in Persia.

The lantern and finial were placed on top of the dome, and the tiling was finished.

The graceful structure was completed, the golden dome its crowning beauty.

Shoghi Effendi announced the conclusion of the project in a joyous cablegram to a Baha'i conference being held in New Delhi, India from 7 to 15 October 1953.

His message came as a triumphant climax to the Holy Year marking the centenary of the birth of the Mission of Baha'u'llah, and at the early stages of the successful Ten Year Plan to spread the Baha'i teachings throughout the world.