Reshaping "God's holy mountain" to create a vision of peace and beauty for all humanity
HAIFA, Israel — Many of the visitors who will soon wander the nearly completed gardens and terraces that extend almost a kilometer up the side of Mount Carmel are perhaps unlikely to notice what sort of stones lie at the bottom of the fountains.
But the fact that the color of the stones in a series of cascade pools almost perfectly matches the beige stonework of the surrounding ornaments reflects the enormous attention to detail surrounding the completion of a project that some say is destined to become a much visited wonder of the modern world.
In their shape and size, the stones are almost perfectly ovoid in contour and slightly larger than a human heart -- aspects which further harmonize with the style and scheme of the project, a succession of 19 majestic terraces and associated gardens that have virtually reshaped the north slope of what has been known since ancient times as the "Mountain of the Lord."
It took some eight months of searching to find the stones, a quest that took place in three countries and ended on a remote beach in Cyprus.
"I wanted stones that had the same color and natural characteristics of the other elements of this project," said Fariborz Sahba, the architect behind the project. "This is an example of the simple things that make the difference."
Yet the attention to such details is but one sign of the great importance given to this project by the Baha'is of the world, who have sacrificially contributed some US$250 million to build it over the last decade.
Scheduled to be opened to the world during public ceremonies in May 2001, the terraces and gardens are being offered to the world as a reflection of the Baha'i standard of beauty, peace and harmony. Those who have had an advance look say the project will undoubtedly take its place alongside the other great spiritual monuments constructed throughout history.
"You can go on a spiritual journey just looking at the gardens [on Mount Carmel], which are the equivalent of any great icon, great tantra, or any other of the great recognized works of religious art or architecture," said Martin Palmer, the author of several books on comparative religion, the most recent of which is entitled Sacred Gardens. "The Baha'is have created a vision, literally, of what it means to understand the Baha'i Faith in both its historic setting and its contemplative spiritual message."
Spiritual and Administrative Center
Collectively known as the Mount Carmel Projects, the effort involves not only the construction of the 19 garden terraces on Mount Carmel -- terraces that bracket the Shrine of the Bab, the second-most holy spot in the world for Baha'is after the Shrine of Baha'u'llah -- but the completion of two majestic new administrative buildings, which are also set high on the face of the mountainside.
These two buildings, known as the Center for the Study of the Texts and the International Teaching Center, have been built alongside the International Archives building, which houses relics, writings and artifacts associated with the lives of the Faith's central figures, and the Seat of the Universal House of Justice, the headquarters of the international governing body of the Baha'i Faith.
For Baha'is, the completion of the Mount Carmel Projects is the realization of a century-long dream to create a spiritual and administrative center, commensurate with the beauty of the Baha'i teachings, that will fully and fittingly represent the Faith's position as an independent world religion, now the second-most widespread geographically after Christianity.
"Architecture is a language, and these projects carry a message," said Albert Lincoln, Secretary General of the Baha'i International Community. "As a worldwide community, we believe we are the bearers of a very important message. And these gardens and new buildings offer an enduring testimony to the importance of this message -- which, in its most fundamental form, is that God has sent a new Revelation aimed at addressing the problems of the modern age and ushering in an era of peace and justice for all humanity."
Certainly, for the world at large, the completion of the Mount Carmel Projects offers a glimpse of the type of world that Baha'is are working for: one that expresses in its harmonious blend of architectural and horticultural styles the principle of unity in diversity, emphasizes in its beauty the precedence of spiritual values over materialism, and, in its open invitation to all, embraces all peoples and cultures.
"I think it is really becoming a landmark, not only in Haifa, but also one of the spots in Israel that is a must-see," said Mirko Stefanovic, Yugoslavia's ambassador to Israel, who has visited the Baha'i World Center many times. "It is something of an oasis in the desert. As everyone knows, the Middle East is a hectic place, full of contrasts and conflict. The Baha"i gardens are kind of like an island of tranquility and peace."
Ma'ariv, Israel's second-largest newspaper, reports that the project has earned the appellation "the eighth wonder of the world."
The Significance of Mount Carmel
As far back as 1600 BC, Mount Carmel was mentioned as a "holy mountain" in Egyptian records. In the Bible, it is the site of Elijah's confrontation with the worshippers of Baal. It was also sacred to the early Christians and is where the Carmelite Roman Catholic monastic order was founded in 1150.
"Mount Carmel and Elijah have a very important place in both the Christian and Jewish traditions," said Moshe Sharon, a professor of Middle East Studies who holds the Chair of Baha'i Studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. "Elijah is supposed to come before the Messiah, and there are hundreds of traditions and stories connected with Mount Carmel, which give it a unique place in more than one religious tradition."
For Baha'is, the mountain was given supreme significance when Baha'u'llah visited it in the early 1890s and revealed an important tablet designating Mount Carmel as the site of the Faith's spiritual and administrative center.
The development of the Baha'i World Center, as the complex of buildings, gardens and holy places here is officially known, has proceeded slowly over the last century. Significant events include the construction of the Shrine of the Bab and the interment of the Bab's sacred remains in its mausoleum in 1909; the completion of the golden-domed superstructure of the Shrine in 1953; the erection of the International Archives building in 1957; and the completion of the Seat of the Universal House of Justice in 1983.
With the construction of the gardens and terraces that now surround the Shrine of the Bab, along with the other administrative buildings on Mount Carmel, Baha'is believe a major goal of their Faith has been fulfilled.
"Our scriptures tell us that the very construction of these facilities for housing these institutions will coincide with several other processes in the world," said Douglas Samimi-Moore, director of the Baha"i International Community"s Office of Public Information. "One of these processes is the maturation of local and national Baha'i institutions. The other is the establishment of processes leading to political peace for humanity, and we feel this synchronicity is obvious if you look broadly at the way things are going in the world."
Baha'is believe the completion of the terraces and gardens and new administrative buildings on Mount Carmel offers a reflection of the spiritual principles that must be applied to world problems if humanity is to create a truly peaceful world.
"Baha'is have gone about building these structures from a spiritual motivation, stemming from an underlying belief in the benefits to the world at large that they think will come from them," said Mr. Samimi-Moore. "They believe these new structures will contribute to the unification of the planet."
Gardens and Terraces
Without doubt, the most striking feature of the new projects is the series of terraces and associated gardens that now run from the foot to the crest of Mount Carmel, entirely reshaping its countenance. In all, the gardens cover some 200,000 square meters of land. After May 2001, they will be open to people of all religious beliefs, background and nationalities, like other Baha'i holy places.
Since the 1950s, the golden dome and gleaming white marble superstructure of the Shrine of the Bab, located almost exactly halfway up the north slope of Mount Carmel, has been a familiar landmark in Haifa, Israel's third largest city.
The 19 terraces -- one on the same level as the Shrine of the Bab, nine extending above it and nine extending below it -- form a grand series of brackets, which accentuate the Shrine's position in the heart of the mountainside.
Architect Sahba compared the new structures to the setting for a precious jewel. "If a diamond is not set properly, its value does not show," said Mr. Sahba. "The terraces provide both physical and spiritual setting for the Shrine. Everything directs your eyes towards the Shrine."
The terraces are designed with a series of stairs running from the base of Mount Carmel almost to its summit. The staircase, made of beige-colored local stone, is flanked by two streams of running water, forming a man-made brook that gently cascades down the mountainside, pausing in shallow pools -- containing the ovoid stones mentioned above. Mr. Sahba said he had teams search in Israel, Italy and India, before finding stones in Cyprus that met his vision for that particular detail.
"It has not been our aim just to build beautiful architecture, or merely beautiful, landscaped gardens," said Mr. Sahba, who also designed the widely recognized lotus shaped Baha'i House of Worship in New Delhi, India. "There are so many beautiful gardens in the world. The whole aim was to create beautiful, spiritual gardens; gardens that touch the spirit, so that a visitor may pause and think, "This place is different, there is something special about it."
Mr. Sahba said he sought to express a sense of spirit through the interplay of light, water and color. "At night, it is as if waves of light are emanating from the Shrine, which is the center of illumination," Mr. Sahba said. "During the day these movements are created by sunlight filtering through the lines of cypress trees, and reflecting on the curved parallel surfaces of the emerald green lawns.
"Another element is water," he continued. "As you walk down the terraces, water accompanies you. The oasis of water attracts birds, and in harmony with the song of the birds creates the best camouflage for the noise of the city, gives the space the tranquility that one needs to be separated from the day to day reality of life."
The terraces, which feature decorative stone balustrades, fountains, benches and statues, are intensively cultivated. The gardens on each terrace feature plants and flowers indigenous to Israel.
"If one wants to imagine what the Hanging Gardens of Babylon must have looked like, come to Mount Carmel and you will see something more nearly than anything else on earth to what we understand they were like," said Mr. Palmer, who is also secretary general of the Alliance on Religion and Conservation.
The formality of the design of the gardens merges into the mountain's natural environment on either side of the central axis defined by the staircase.
"Nature is very ordered near the center of the path -- but the further you move away from it, it becomes more wild, more natural," said Mr. Palmer. "So you have this fascinating model of bringing order out of chaos. There is also a sense that the wilderness is a place where you can find God, so as you move away from the center, you find larger trees and bushes and you can lose yourself spiritually."
Many of the terraces are cut into the mountainside in such a way that, when one is standing on one, the other terraces -- as well as the buildings on either side -- cannot be seen. For the most part, the only visible reference points are the sky, the blue waters of the Bay of Haifa below, the surrounding gardens, and the Shrine itself.
"It is an amazing use of perspective," said Mr. Palmer. "Everything else is cut out. You don't see the streets above or below. You are in a sense caught up in the seventh heaven. It is as though you have left earth and been transported to paradise."
Mr. Palmer also noted that the gentle sound of the water gurgling down the two sides of the central staircase drowns out the sounds of the outside world.
"For me, this is symbolic," said Mr. Palmer, who is a Christian. "To quote from my Scriptures: you need to hear the 'still small quiet voice' of God, which is what Elijah himself heard on Mount Carmel. And with the trickling water, gently drowning out the urban hubbub all around, hearing that voice becomes possible."
For Baha'is, the whole design is evocative and symbolic.
"When you ascend the terraces from the bottom, the Shrine of the Bab, which is your goal, is always visible, right in your line of sight, at the center of your devotion," said Lasse Thoresen, a renowned Norwegian composer who has spent much time in the gardens as part of a commission to write a symphony for the opening ceremonies. "This is a beautiful kind of contemplative feature."
"At the same time, for me, the waters coming down from the top of the mountain symbolize the living water that is the grace of God, that is God's vitalizing energy, spoken of in the Baha'i writings and in the Bible and other scriptures, that descend from Heaven," said Dr. Thoresen.
Suheil Bushrui, who has visited Haifa off and on since his childhood and who currently holds the Baha'i Chair for World Peace at the University of Maryland, USA, said he believes the gardens and terraces offer a new model for sustainable development.
"These projects on Mount Carmel provide an example of man's shaping of the physical environment in accord with a religious teaching that emphasizes the importance of the natural world and upholds the value of beauty and the virtue of excellence," said Prof. Bushrui. "They show a glimmer of the extent to which material and spiritual elements can complement each other, to the mutual benefit of each, and with favorable consequences for the environment."
New Administrative Buildings
While the terraces are without doubt the most visible feature of the new developments on Mount Carmel, the completion of two new nearby administrative buildings are for Baha'is of equal significance, inasmuch as they signalize the formal emergence of two important institutions designed to assist the Universal House of Justice in providing guidance and governance for the rapidly growing worldwide Baha'i community.
Together with the Seat of the Universal House of Justice and the International Archives building, the International Teaching Center and the Center for the Study of the Texts form an arc on the face of the mountainside. As one faces the mountain, that arc sits slightly to the left of the axis defined by the central stairway of the terraces.
The Center for the Study of the Texts building will house an institution of scholars, whose role is to study the Baha'i sacred writings. "The Baha'i writings are extensive, encompassing more than 100,000 documents," said Mr. Samimi-Moore. "The Center stands to serve the needs of the Universal House of Justice by researching the sacred writings, historical documents and other related materials. It will also translate texts, prepare compilations, and draft commentaries as required."
The International Teaching Center building will house a body of appointed individuals who function collectively to assist the Universal House of Justice and also to provide guidance to the worldwide Baha'i community through a network of fellow "Counsellors" who reside around the world. "They promote the ideas of the Faith, which include unity and education," said architect Hossein Amanat, who designed the two new buildings, as well as the Seat of the Universal House of Justice.
Like the Seat of the Universal House of Justice, the two new buildings were designed in a classic Greek style that harmonizes with the design chosen roughly 50 years ago for the International Archives building.
"Originally, I thought there might be a kind of contemporary style which could fit into the environment there," said Mr. Amanat, who started designing the Seat of the Universal House of Justice in 1972 at age 30 after winning a design competition for a major monument and associated complex in his native Iran. He noted, however, that Shoghi Effendi, who headed the Baha'i Faith from 1921 to 1957, had chosen classic Greek style because it had proved enduringly beautiful through the ages.
"I saw how nicely the classic style fits into this surrounding of serene gardens," continued Mr. Amanat. "The reason is this: in our modern life, we are rushing everywhere. And there is no time for looking at the details of a classic building. But the classic style is meant for a society that is more relaxed, that is taking time to meditate and pray. Modern buildings evolved after the industrial revolution, which is when the material life took over from the spiritual. But we Baha'is think beauty is an important factor in design, because beauty is so important to the human soul."
Although both of the new buildings rise some three stories above ground level, much of their structure is tucked into the mountain slope. "The idea is that the buildings are pavilions adorning this garden," said Mr. Amanat. "They should not impose on it."
The total floor area of the two new buildings combined is some 35,000 square meters, reflecting their importance as administrative centers for the more than five million Baha'is around the world.
"Essentially, the people who will work in these buildings have the goal of serving a growing worldwide community," said Mr. Samimi-Moore.
The funds for the completion of the two new buildings, the terraces and all of the other structures on Mount Carmel came entirely from members of the Baha'i Faith.
"No money has come from outside," said Secretary General Lincoln. "And we are not a community that is rich. The funds for these projects have come from donations by thousands upon thousands of individuals, who have given sacrificially over many years.
"Three-quarters of the worldwide Baha'i population resides in the third world," added Dr. Lincoln. "It is not unusual to visit a mud hut in an African village and find a photograph of this project on the wall, along with a receipt for some small contribution."
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The Baha'i Faith and its Connection to Israel
Founded in Iran, the Baha'i Faith today has its spiritual and administrative center in Israel because of historic forces that led to the exile of its Founder, Baha'u'llah, to the city of Acre, located across the bay from Haifa.
After a series of banishments from His native Iran, Baha'u'llah, along with His family and a small group of followers, was sent in 1868 to Acre, then a bleak penal colony under Ottoman rule.
Although prisoners, the Baha'is eventually came to be regarded as a respected religious community in Acre. Over time, Baha'u'llah was granted limited freedom and, during a visit to Haifa in 1891, He designated Mount Carmel as the site for the world headquarters of His Faith. Baha'u'llah also directed that the remains of the Bab, the Faith's Herald and a Prophet in His own right, be buried on Mount Carmel.
With Baha'u'llah's passing and burial in the vicinity of Acre in 1892, the location of the spiritual center of the Baha'i Faith was likewise fixed. Baha'u'llah's burial place at Bahji, north of Haifa near the city of Acre, is the holiest place on earth for Baha'is.
In 1909, the Bab's remains were interred in a stone mausoleum on the side of Mount Carmel. In 1953, the golden-domed, white marble superstructure was erected over the mausoleum, completing the Shrine that is the second holiest place for Baha'is.
Over the years, Baha'is have built a series of gardens, encompassing other holy monuments, as well as other administrative buildings in the Haifa/Acre area. All are funded entirely by contributions from the worldwide Baha'i community.
Today, more than 800 Baha'is serve as volunteers at the Baha'i World Center. They come from all over the world, serving for specified periods of time, and are engaged solely in the care of the Baha'i Holy places and the internal administration of the Baha'i world community.
The city of Haifa and the government of Israel have welcomed the Baha'i presence and the new construction. The Mayor of Haifa, Amram Mitzna, recently wrote that the nearly completed Gardens and Terraces for the Shrine of the Bab offer "unforgettably stunning panorama" for the "appreciation of all beauty lovers."