"People can sense the presence of God"
ACRE, Israel — Muslims to Mecca, Jews to Jerusalem, Christians to Bethlehem, Buddhists to Lumbini - and Baha'is to Acre.
The holiest spots on earth to Baha'is - the resting places of Baha'u'llah and the Bab, the founders of the Baha'i Faith and both considered Manifestations of God - attract thousands of pilgrims and visitors each year.
Now the sites, located in northern Israel, have been named to the UNESCO World Heritage list in recognition of their "outstanding universal value" to the common heritage of humanity.
By any measure, the sites are beautiful. Stunning formal gardens surround them - the Shrine of Baha'u'llah in the countryside near Acre, north of the city of Haifa, and the Shrine of the Bab, a golden-domed building on the slope of Mount Carmel in the heart of Haifa itself.
Pilgrims will tell you that the outward beauty is but a symbol, an expression of love for the Messengers of God who lie entombed there and a beacon of hope for the future of humanity.
"It's hard to put into words," said Gary Marx, on pilgrimage from his home in Michigan in the United States. "You can describe things physically, but it's really not about that. Pilgrimage is an experience that goes back to the dawn of mankind. It's a yearning to connect with spiritual reality ... and to connect with yourself."
Although the two shrines have specific meaning for Baha'is, their spiritual nature appeals to others as well.
"People who are not Baha'is come here and say it is like a piece of heaven falling from the sky," said Taraneh Rafati, who has served for the past 10 years as a pilgrim guide to the Baha'i holy sites.
"Whether you are a Muslim, Jew, Christian, Buddhist, in the holy texts, heaven is described. It is like this," she said, mentioning the peacefulness, the beauty. "You come and feel close to your Lord. It is free of charge, and it is for everyone."
Visitors, tourists, and pilgrims
Half a million people visited the shrine areas last year, many of them tourists wanting to see the gardens and get a close look particularly at the Shrine of the Bab, a famous landmark in Israel that looks out over the city of Haifa and Haifa Bay, and beyond that to the Mediterranean Sea.
More than 80,000 of those visitors entered the shrine itself, removing their shoes and walking silently into the room adjacent to the burial chamber of the Bab. Some just want a peek but many linger to read a prayer of Baha'u'llah that adorns one of the walls, or engage in their own meditation or prayer. Some are visibly moved.
"There was one group of Catholics, and they all went to their knees as soon as they entered," remembers one of the guides.
Baha'i pilgrims participate in a special nine-day program that includes visits to both shrines. Guides say that individuals have different reactions to the experience.
"The response is as varied as the people who come," said Marcia Lample, a pilgrim guide for the last five years.
Some people, for example, cannot immediately go in the shrine when they arrive. "They feel unworthy," she explained. For others, the sacred shrines are like a magnet, pulling them in.
"Some people go in and stay for hours. Some stay for four minutes. It doesn't matter. They stay as long as they need to stay," Mrs. Lample said.
The Shrine of Baha'u'llah
The Shrine of Baha'u'llah is the holiest spot on earth for Baha'is - the place they turn to each day in prayer.
"It's amazing inside," said Farzin Rasouli-Seisan, 26, on pilgrimage from Sydney, Australia. "You go in and it leads to a garden inside - there are flowers and a couple of trees, all under a skylight. There are a number of rooms, and one of them is Baha'u'llah's resting place. You can't go in that room, but there is a step where you can put your head down."
Mrs. Rafati says of being in the shrines: "It is not that we are worshipping the dust or worshipping a wall - it is the connection that the place has with our beloved. We do not go there to worship the flowers. We go to there to pour out our heart."
The shrine is also special because it is adjacent to the country house where Baha'u'llah lived the last years of His life. Pilgrims can go there and enter His room - the room where He passed away in 1892 - restored to the way it was when He was present. Some of His actual belongings can be viewed.
Baha'u'llah lived at the estate, called Bahji, the final years of His life, after authorities loosened the restrictions that had kept Him inside the prison city of Acre for years following His banishment from His native Iran.
The golden dome in Haifa
Before He passed away, Baha'u'llah was able to go several times to nearby Haifa, and He gave explicit instructions to establish the Shrine of the Bab on Mount Carmel.
The Bab - who in 1844 in Iran had announced that He was a Messenger of God who had come to foretell the imminent arrival of a second Messenger even greater than Himself, namely Baha'u'llah - had been executed in 1850 in the public square in Tabriz. His followers hid His remains for years, waiting for the time they could provide a proper burial.
Half a century later, the sacred remains were taken to Haifa and finally laid in their permanent resting place on Mount Carmel, in the Bible described as the "mountain of the Lord."
The golden dome that crowns the shrine was completed in 1953 along with an extension of earlier gardens at the site. In 2001, a series of beautiful garden terraces was completed, both above and below the shrine, stretching more than a kilometer up the side of Mount Carmel.
The experience of the pilgrim
Baha'is plan and save their money for years to be able to come to Acre and Haifa, Mrs. Lample said.
"They get a chance to pray in the place where the founder of their faith has walked, where He revealed the word of God, where He suffered for them and for the unity of the human race," she said. "And mostly they come to pray in the places which contain the precious remains of the central figures of their religion."
Roger and Cathy Hamrick, who live in North Carolina in the United States, came in June for their first pilgrimage.
"We have been married almost 30 years, and we have been wanting to come that whole time," Mrs. Hamrick said. "Going to the shrines is like the culmination of a spiritual journey of a lifetime. How can anything compare to putting your forehead on the sacred threshold?"
Pilgrimage also helps Baha'is see their faith in practice, Mr. Hamrick said. The main teaching of the Baha'i Faith is the unity of mankind under one God, and people who come to the Holy Land meet Baha'is from all around the world.
"There is such joy in experiencing the oneness of the human family," he said. "It is unlike anything I have ever done."
Mrs. Lample said that pilgrims also attend talks and programs about the development of the Baha'i Faith around the world, which helps them envision how their own community back home fits into the bigger picture.
Still, she said, the main purpose of pilgrimage is praying and meditating at the shrines, and it is almost always a special experience.
"People can find something," she said. "There is a spirit surrounding these places. It is palpable. People can sense the presence of God."