Bahai News - A hill in Haifa

A hill in Haifa

The Mount Carmel Terraces aim to calm troubled waters in Israel

By Ashiyan Rahmani

If you were to hear that a monument has just been completed in Israel that is expected to bring in thousands of visitors each year, hailed as a new "wonder of the world," you would be forgiven for thinking it was a publicity stunt by the tourism department of a war-torn country. Yet if international media reports are to be believed, that is exactly what the Mt. Carmel Terraces, in Haifa, are set to become.

Stretching 1 km up the face of Mt. Carmel, the terraces are an extensive network of balcony gardens with a gold-domed shrine, The Shrine of the Bab, at its centre, the second most holy spot in the world for Bahais, a spiritual belief founded in the 19th century on the principle of the oneness of humankind and promoting world peace.

Mountain of Vines
Israel's credentials as a religious centre, and home to many of the world's spiritual movements, are well recorded. With almost 4000 years of recorded history in Jerusalem alone, it is a sacred place for Jews, Christians, and Muslims alike. But less is known about the religious history in the countryside surrounding Haifa, one of Israel's main ports on the Mediterranean Sea and the chief city of northern Israel.

The city of Haifa itself sits at the base of Mt. Carmel, with the new residential and cultural district overlooking the bay actually on the slopes. Lower down lies the industrial section of town, connected to the port, and around that, beaches.

Mt. Carmel, meaning 'vineyard' (kerem in Hebrew), echoes with stories of victories, defeats and miracles that stretch back to the several thousand years and are everywhere in the scenery. Cro-Magnon skeletons have been found in caves, Pythagoras is said to have stopped off here on his way to Egypt, and Jesus likewise on his return. Crusaders made pilgrimages here in 1150CE and developed it commercially, and Lebanese settlers (Druze) established themselves here in the 16th century.

More recently, in 1891, the founder of the Bahai faith, Baha'u'llah pitched a tent at the base of the mountain, beginning the historic significance of Carmel for Bahais.

The Bab (meaning 'The Gate,' heralded the coming of Baha'u'llah. Credited with identifying the site where the Shrine of the Bab now stands in 1891, Baha'u'llah is buried directly across the bay from Mt. Carmel. Now, the Shrine, designed by Canadian architect William Sutherland Maxwell, stands as the centre-piece of the newly completed terraces.

The nineteen terraces take the form of nine concentric circles, radiating outwards from the Shrine, said to balance harmony, symmetry, and order. According to Terrace architect and Project manager Fariborz Sahba, they were designed to create an appropriate setting and approach for the Shrine of the Bab, gem-like in the centre of the Terraces. Sahba, who took over the project in 1987, was also the architect behind the famous Lotus Temple in New Delhi.

The terraces, a set of extensive balcony gardens with soft flowing rivulets, pools and fountains, balustrades and eagles, flowerbeds and trees were designed as a contemplative space for pilgrims, visitors and residents of Haifa. The sweep of the gardens, with the gold roof of the Shrine at their center, create a spectacular view at night.

Walking around the gardens exudes a feeling of serenity and calm, although this is not your average public park, tourists are not going to be able to bring out the barbeque and start playing volleyball. Instead, they will be encouraged to enjoy the peaceful nature of the gardens, and engage in quiet and pure reflection in the natural setting.

Oasis in Time
Sacred history, ancient and continuing, are hosted by Israeli's diverse natural setting, sometimes harsh, sometimes lush, always beautiful. The Dead Sea, actually 400m below sea level, is far from dead. Bordering Jordan on the eastern side of Israel, it's a short car ride from Haifa. The water is 7-times saltier than ocean water, allowing you to read a book while you bob around. The health and beauty benefits of burying yourself in the mineral-soaked mud is a great draw for locals and tourists, even though the caked bathers look somewhat odd.

With a truly stunning view of the Dead Sea, as well as the surrounding Ein Gedi Oasis, Moab Mountains and Masada Fortress, an awe-inspiring mountain fortress visited by cable car, the Judean Desert is probably one of the most scenic spots in the Middle East.

Known among divers as one of the best places in the world, there is the extraordinary experience of diving the ruins of Herod's city, in Caesarea. Located halfway between Tel Aviv and Haifa, both of which also boast some of the best beaches on the Mediterranean, as well as world-class dining, theatre, museums and music.

Travelling to Israel does require care, and you should consult with the Israeli embassy on where to go/not to go based on security considerations of the time. At the present time, though, tourists shouldn't be discouraged from visiting entirely.

As Douglas Samimi Moore, a spokesman for the Terrace project said about the Mt. Carmel Terraces: "We are confident in the peaceful future of humanity. The power to unite is one that the world desperately needs.

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