Haifa was a bit of a mystical place for me growing up. My dad spent quite a bit of time traveling here for work, but like the rest of Israel, is somewhere that felt so foreign, I would never get the chance to go see it.
The third-largest city in Israel, there’s 5,000 years of history for the city. I couldn’t even begin to cover it, but I will focus on the story of one religion that defines the city with its imperious 19-terrace garden up the northern slope of Mount Carmel.
To catch the free tour of these gardens, we had to mosey our way up to the top of Mount Carmel. While Claire and Manuel took the train up, my parents and I opted for the much more strenuous task of endless stairs. It was a great way to get the blood moving, and luckily, it helped us stumble upon the golden-domed Shrine of the Bab.
While ornate on the outside, this beautiful building was modestly understated on the inside compared to the ornate gardens right outside its doors. After removing our shoes, we walked into one of the four entrances, where a modest idol stood. After a quick glance in the room, we shuffled out to continue exploring the beauty of the gardens.
To get a full picture of the gardens, you should opt for the free tour, because it’s the only way you can walk through most of the gardens. Predictably, the tour was packed with tourists. We ended up with a jaded tour guide that cracked a few cringe-worthy jokes. But hey, who am I to complain about a free tour?!
The history of the Bahá’í faith
The Bahá’í faith has a fascinating history. In 1844 a Persian merchant quietly proclaimed to be the prophet of a new religion. God came to him in a dream and said a new era would begin through him, one of harmony and peace. It’s no surprise he said this quietly because it was a very controversial thing to say in an Islamic country. Mohammad was said to be the last of all prophets.
Referring to himself as the Bab, meaning the gate, his teaching spread rapidly throughout Persia. Seen as a threat to Islam, thousands of his followers were killed. A mere six years after his proclamation, he was executed in a public square. After surviving this treatment two years after the Bab’s death, one of his followers declared he was the promised one “Baha Alla” and his followers became known as Bahá’ís
Baha Allah taught that there is one God called by various names. He proclaimed the oneness of humanity and stressed the need to remove prejudice of any kind. Every human being possesses a human soul and is responsible for his or her own spiritual development through prayer, search for truth, and service to others.
As his teachings spread, Persian authorities tried to suppress him by exiling him to Istanbul, then to Addar, and then to perpetual imprisonment to Akko, the harshest prison colony in the Ottoman Empire and just north of Haifa.
While in Akko, he wrote many of his important works, explaining the laws and principles of his religion. Despite the prison’s horrendous conditions, his positivity for the world never left his teachings.
“It is not for him to pride himself to loveth his own country, but rather who him who loveth the whole world. The earth is but one country, and mankind its citizens.”
Impressed by his teachings, local authorities relaxed the conditions of his imprisonment, and he moved a short distance north where he spent the last twelve years of his life. After visiting Haifa, Baha Allah set Haifa as the faith’s administrative capital and the permanent resting place for the Bab.
In 1909, Baha Allah’s son placed the Bab’s remains in the garden on Mount Carmel. Eighteen majestic terraces were completed in 2001 to adorn and beautify this holy place. These gardens remain a spiritual focus for Bahá’í visitors.
Unity and love: an explanation of what it means to be Bahá’í
To be Bahá’í simply means to love all the world, to love humanity and to serve it, and to work for universal peace and universal brotherhood.
Bahá’í followers believe universal peace is essential and achievable in this time. Peace is not simply the end of war and conflict, but the establishment of a just, prosperous, and sustainable global society.
Bahá’ís work together to give practical expression to the values and principles of their faith. Bahá’ís are known for their contributions in the areas of climate change, education, and the improvement of the status of women.
- Unity sweeps away prejudice and becomes a source of creative power.
- Knowledge is central to human progress and something everyone can take an active part in sharing.
- Harmony of science and religion, which play complementary roles in the development of knowledge.
- Equality of men and women and a strong belief that women play a central role in social transformation.
- Efficacy of consultation, meaning a process of problem-solving and collective decision making promotes unity and justice.
Bahá’ís around the world
Around 700 Bahá’ís live in Israel now. Around the globe, there are over 2,000 communities in 235 countries. I know someone across the world practicing this faith, one of my professors in graduate school.
They believe that Israel is God’s country and that we’re all the same but different based on our backgrounds, perspectives, and culture. They believe that God will continue to send his messengers and therefore more religions will come.
Bahá’ís eat what they want and pray when and where they want. They do not have a dedicated place of prayer. However, alcohol and drugs are forbidden. They study the “holiest book” written by Baha Allah.
Impressions of Haifa
This tour gave us fascinating insight into this faith. It didn’t have a pushy self-serving agenda, but a faith that’s just trying to do good for the world. I resonated quite a bit with their message, and it stuck with me for the next few weeks.
But onwards we must always go, on our neverending journey as tourists in a new city.
We took advantage of being close to the top of the hill and managed to find a hipster fast-casual restaurant that served the best hummus I’ve had to date. Haifa is a very international city, and Manuel and I weren’t ready to be done for the day.
After finding a sweets shop that was still open, our mission became navigating our way through the windy residential streets to find this supposed wine garden. After creeping in one too many people’s yards, we abandoned our mission and walked the long way home, enjoying the views from above the city.
I also didn’t want to forget my attempted beach-side run on our last morning before our flight home that afternoon. I’ll cherish the memories I made in that beautiful city. It left a permanent imprint on my heart.