Bahai News - Reshaping 'God's holy mountain' to create a vision of peace and beauty for all humanity
Reshaping 'God’s holy mountain' to create a vision of
peace and beauty for all humanity
HIAFA, 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
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 Bahá'ís of the world, who
have sacrificially contributed some US $250 million to build it over the
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 Bahá'í 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
"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 Bahá'ís
have created a vision, literally, of what it means to understand the
Bahá'í 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 Báb, the second-most holy spot in the
world for Bahá'ís 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 Bahá'í Faith.
For Bahá'ís, 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
Bahá'í 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 Bahá'í 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 Bahá'ís
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 Bahá'í
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 Bahá'í 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
"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 Bahá'í 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 Bahá'ís, 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 Bahá'í 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 Báb and the interment of the
Báb'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 Báb, along with the other administrative buildings
on Mount Carmel, Bahá'ís 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 Bahá'í
International Community's Office of Public Information. "One of these
processes is the maturation of local and national Bahá'í
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."
Bahá'ís 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.
"Bahá'ís 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
Bahá'í holy places.
Since the 1950s, the golden dome and gleaming white marble superstructure of
the Shrine of the Báb, 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 Báb,
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 Bahá'í 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
"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
"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 Bahá'ís, the whole design is evocative and symbolic.
"When you ascend the terraces from the bottom, the Shrine of the Báb,
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
"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 Bahá'í writings and in
the Bible and other scriptures, that descend from Heaven," said Dr.
Suheil Bushrui, who has visited Haifa off and on since his childhood and who
currently holds the Bahá'í 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
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 Bahá'ís 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
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 Bahá'í sacred writings.
"The Bahá'í 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 Bahá'í
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 Bahá'í 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 Bahá'ís 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 Bahá'ís 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
"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 Bahá'í 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."
ACCOMPANY SIDE STORY:
The Bahá'í Faith and its connection to Israel
Founded in Iran, the Bahá’í 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 Bahá'ís 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 Báb,
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 Bahá'í 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 Bahá'ís.
In 1909, the Báb'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 Bahá'ís.
Over the years, Bahá'ís 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 Bahá'í community.
Today, more than 800 Bahá'ís serve as volunteers at the
Bahá'í World Center. They come from all over the world,
serving for specified periods of time, and are engaged solely in the care
of the Bahá'í Holy places and the internal administration of
the Bahá'í world community.
The city of Haifa and the government of Israel have welcomed the
Bahá'í 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 Báb offer "unforgettably stunning panorama"
for the "appreciation of all beauty lovers."
Source: The following story is from ONE COUNTRY, the newsletter of the
Bahá'í International Community, in Volume 12, Issue 2,
covering July-September 2000, which has just been printed.
Copyright 2000, the Bahá'í International Community.
Page last updated/revised 12232000
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