Holy place restored and open to pilgrims

November 24, 2004
Entrance to the restored cell of Baha'u'llah. (2004)

ACRE, Israel — In the late 1860s, Baha'i pilgrims walked hundreds of kilometers from Persia through treacherous deserts to this ancient Mediterranean city in what is now northern Israel.

Their goal was to visit Baha'u'llah, the Founder of their Faith, Who was being held in a prison citadel after His banishment to Acre by the Ottoman authorities.

A victim of patently false charges, Baha'u'llah was incarcerated there with His family and some of His followers on 31 August 1868.

Many of the pilgrims who sought His presence were refused entry to the walled city of Acre let alone to its citadel. Instead, they waited at the outskirts of the city hoping for even a glimpse of Him.

Standing at the outer moat of the citadel, they rejoiced when they saw Baha'u'llah wave to them through a window on the floor in which He was incarcerated.

Merely to gaze, however briefly, upon that majestic prophetic figure, was for those pilgrims the most important moment of their lives.

Today, thousands of Baha'i pilgrims enter the very cell that Baha'u'llah occupied, now a holy place for prayer and meditation.

For the past decade, however, visits to this holy place were suspended because of the need for extensive restoration and conservation work.

Restoration work under way in Baha'u'llah's cell. Slideshow
19 images

Restoration work under way in Baha'u'llah's cell.

After 15 years of negotiations, research, and planning, the restoration work began in 2003 and finished about a year later, in June 2004. Approved by government authorities keen to preserve the heritage of the site, the project was supervised and financed by the Baha'i World Centre.

With the new pilgrimage season (October-July) under way, Baha'is from all over the world visit the cell as part of a nine-day pilgrimage, the main purpose of which is to pray and meditate in the Shrine of Baha'u'llah just outside Acre, and in the Shrine of the Bab in Haifa.

As well as being a place of prayer and contemplation, the cell is a solemn reminder in stone that the imprisonment of Baha'u'llah holds a parallel to the injustices and sacrilegious cruelties inflicted on earlier Manifestations of God, the Holy Ones Who founded the world's great religions.

The cell and its environs were where He revealed some of His best-known works, including a proclamation of His divine mission to political and religious leaders.

It was there, too, that Baha'u'llah met with Badi, a young hero of the Faith who was later martyred when he traveled to Persia to present a message from Baha'u'llah to the Shah (Nasiri'd-Din Shah).

From the moment of His imprisonment in Acre, this was a place of great suffering for Baha'u'llah. In June 1870, His agonies intensified when His 22-year-old son, Mirza Mihdi, fell through an unguarded skylight on to a crate below, receiving fatal injuries. A grieving Baha'u'llah revealed a prayer in which He offered up His son to God "that Thy servants may be quickened, and all that dwell on earth be united."

Shortly after that tragic death, the Ottoman authorities decided the citadel was needed to house troops. Accordingly, in November 1870, after two years, two months and five days in the citadel, Baha'u'llah, His family, and followers were moved to house arrest within the walls of Acre.

Protection of a holy place

The citadel has since remained under the control of successive civil administrations.

By the early 1990s, however, deterioration of the citadel had advanced to the point that the government of Israel decided conservation work was vital to preserve the entire structure. The site is also important to the state of Israel because of the imprisonment there of groups of Jewish activists during the years of the British Mandate.

The secretary-general of the Baha'i International Community, Albert Lincoln, said detailed negotiations with the Israeli authorities were conducted about the restoration and use of the upper floor of the northwest tower, the location of Baha'u'llah's cell and associated rooms.

"Ultimately, agreement was reached on a creative compromise under which the interior of the upper floor of the northwest tower would be restored to the situation that existed in 1920, and the exterior of the building to its condition in 1947," Mr. Lincoln said.

The time frames allow the interior of the site to resemble its appearance during the time of Baha'u'llah and the exterior to be as it was when the Jewish activists were imprisoned there, he said.


Before the restoration project began the Baha'i World Centre commissioned a study of the building site by the Architectural Heritage Center at the Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa, the Technion, and consulted with a local authority on Ottoman architecture to ensure the historical integrity of the planned restoration.

Research determined that the Ottoman citadel had been built in stages during the 18th and 19th centuries and that the northwest tower is located on top of the remains of the Hospitaller quarter of the Knights Order of St. John, a crusader structure. In the Ottoman era the citadel housed the residences of locals rulers but later was used mainly as a military barracks.

The upper floor of the northwest tower of the complex where Baha'u'llah and His family were incarcerated was probably built about 1797, according to the Technion researchers. Architectural details, including some decorative panels, indicate that the rooms were intended for somebody of high rank, such as a military commander.

However, at the time Baha'u'llah was confined there, the place was dilapidated. The roof had been constructed of wooden beams and rafters covered with rubble and low quality mortar. Dust and grit from the rubble rained through the rotten ceiling timbers into the rooms below. The living quarters were initially dirty and the water contaminated.

Researchers, looking for descriptions of the cell and the living arrangements during the time of Baha'u'llah's incarceration, consulted contemporary reports, photographs, and accounts by Western Baha'i pilgrims who visited in the early years of the 20th century, as well as later historical records.

Baha'u'llah's room in the southwest corner of the building was part of an apartment comprising six other rooms where members of His household stayed.

The outer section of this area included a verandah (above which was the skylight), a kitchen, latrines, a mezzanine, and a biruni -- a room Baha'u'llah used for receiving visitors. The eastern side faced the courtyard with three open arches bounded by pairs of columns serving as balcony openings (now filled in). Other Baha'is lived elsewhere in the citadel.

Later changes

Researchers believe that there were no significant changes to the upper floor until the 1920s, when the British undertook major renovations, replacing the roof and much of the paving.

More alterations were made in 1947 during a period when the British, who were using the citadel as a prison, made part of the upper floor into the prison infirmary.

In 1947, after an escape of prisoners elsewhere in the citadel, the British authorities changed the original frames of the doorways in the upper floor from stone arches to perpendicular concrete beams, and replaced the wooden doors and partitions with steel grilles.

Plans and photograph

In preparing the restoration project, Baha'i experts consulted plans of the upper floor that had been made by the British administration before it undertook the alterations in the 1920s. The plans, found in local archives, documented how the floor was likely to have looked in the time of Baha'u'llah.

The solution to one important question came from another source. The British had replaced the roof from which Baha'u'llah's son, Mirza Mihdi, fell to his death. The location of the skylight was not indicated in the plans found in the archives and thus its exact historical location was uncertain.

The problem was solved in the 1990s with the retrieval from German aerial photographic archives in Munich of an aerial photograph taken of the citadel in 1917. The original roof, in which the skylight is clearly visible, was still in place when that photograph was taken.

As part of the structural reinforcement of the building carried out by the Israeli authorities before the start of the Baha'i restoration project, a new concrete roof was cast. It incorporated the historic skylight at the location indicated by the 1917 aerial photograph.

Restoration project

The restoration project, planned under the supervision of the Universal House of Justice, began in 2003.

Traditional materials were used to obtain as authentic a restoration as possible. For example, white plaster of the type used in the 19th century was applied in the many places where the original had peeled off.

"The idea was that we didn't want to make the project look too new, but at the same time not look artificially old," said Orang Yazdani, a Baha'i specialist in conservation architecture, who managed the project.

"It will look closer to what it was like in Baha'u'llah's time in five years -- as it gets older it will look more like that time," Mr. Yazdani said.

The restoration work involved installing new ceilings made of katrani timber, the dense and heavy wood used by the Ottoman builders.

The doorways were restored to the shape of an arch, and wooden doors in the original style were installed. Damage done by steel bars introduced by the British was remedied.

In the cell of Baha'u'llah, six lighting and storage niches that had been sealed off were re-opened. The floor was restored to its original type.

In Baha'u'llah's cell the windows now have horizontal bars as shown in early 20th century photographs. In the other windows the grid pattern used during the British mandate has been retained.

There was yet another challenge, Mr. Yazdani said.

"How do you deal with modern needs and requirements--especially safety -- in an historical building without it looking too out of place?"

The solution involved using copper lanterns, discreet spot lighting, and smoke alarms tucked away. However, the cell of Baha'u'llah was exempted from such facilities owing to its sacred status.

With the restoration complete, Baha'i pilgrims will now have a more accurate understanding of the circumstances surrounding Baha'u'llah's imprisonment in a place where, despite such maltreatment, He was nonetheless able to further His Faith and teachings.