Bahai News - Baha'i Reshaping God's Holy Mountain into a Vision of Peace
Baha'i Reshaping God's Holy Mountain into a Vision of Peace
FEATURE: RESHAPING GOD'S HOLY MOUNTAIN INTO A VISION OF PEACE AND HARMONY
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Baha'i World News Service
HAIFA, Israel (BWNS) — 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
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
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
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.
[See page 15.]
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
"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
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."
The Baha'i Faith and 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
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
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."
FOR MORE INFORMATION, contact Nancy Ackerman or Jessica Dacey at
email@example.com OR Brad Pokorny at firstname.lastname@example.org or by telephone at
212-803-2544 OR VISIT
KEYWORDS: Bahai, gardens, Carmel
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