New Bahai gardens offers an oasis of peace in Haifa

HAIFA — For just a while this week, Israelis enjoyed a forgotten pleasure — some favorable international attention.

Some 4,500 visitors from nearly 200 countries converged on Haifa to attend the opening ceremonies of the Baha'i Carmel Gardens located at the world headquarters of the Baha'i faith.

An estimated $250 million — contributed by 5 million Bahai worshippers worldwide — was invested to transform the slopes of the Baha'i center on Mount Carmel into 19 colorful, terraced gardens cascading down the length of the mountain.

"There is no other city in Israel that received such a gift, and we intend to cherish it all the way," Haifa Mayor Amram Mitzna said this week as he stood on Mount Carmel, overlooking Haifa Bay.

The Haifa Tourism Board expected a flood of tourists to fill the local hotels. Given the downturn in foreign tourism since the outbreak of Israeli-Palestinian violence last fall, however, most of the tourists will be Israeli.

Gone are the days when Mediterranean-style love boats anchored at Haifa's port as their passengers toured the Holy Land. But Mitzna, who refers to the gardens as the eighth wonder of the world, hopes the Baha'i gardens may help Haifa stake out a place on the world tourism map.

"Once the gates open, there will not be a tourist who will not come here to Haifa," he said.

It was a historic coincidence that made Haifa the world center of the Baha'i faith. Baha'i, the most recent of the world's monotheistic religions, was founded in Iran in 1844. Sayyed Ali Mohammad, the martyr who heralded the arrival of the Baha'i faith, challenged the fundamentals of Islam and presaged the coming of a new prophet.

Iranian clergymen in the mid-19th century regarded his message of total equality, a single human race and peace on earth as heresy. They persecuted Mohammad — known as the Bab — eventually was executed and was buried in Haifa.

A new prophet soon arrived — Baha'u'llah — who spent the latter years of his life in the Holy Land as a prisoner of the Ottoman Turks, and was buried in Akko.

The gold-domed Shrine of the Bab, which contains Mohammad's tomb, became the center of the new world religion — and also is the centerpiece of the Baha'i gardens. The most impressive part of the gardens was developed in the past 10 years — flowerbeds, fountains and rows of trees and shrubs that provide an oasis of tranquility in the heart of a country in dire need of some peace and quiet.

"These are not just beautiful gardens," said Fariburz Sahba, architect of the project. "Beautiful gardens you can find everywhere, but these are spiritual gardens."

Indeed, the idea behind the project is to allow visitors to take time out of a bustling life, walk through the gardens and have a spiritual experience.

The Baha'i insist that one need not become a member of the faith to enjoy the gardens' spirituality. In fact, one of the conditions for their ability to practice their faith freely in Israel is a commitment not to engage in any proselytizing.

There are Baha'i communities in 190 countries, but no organized community in Israel. If any Israeli Jews or Arabs have joined the religion, leaders of the world center are careful to keep their identities secret to avoid potential problems with the local religious establishments.

However, some Israelis have raised eyebrows over the fact that the heart of Mount Carmel has been turned over to a "foreign" religion. Mitzna rejects those complaints. "First of all, the Baha'is purchased this land at the turn of the previous century," Mitzna said. "Secondly," he asked, "would you rather have the site of ugly shikunim instead?" using the Hebrew term for the cheap public housing projects that mar the landscape in many parts of Israel. The Baha'i religion regards all monotheist faiths as equal.

"All believe in one God, so why stress the differences?" said Douglas Samimi-Mor, spokesman for the Baha'i World Center. "It is only a matter of what religion is relevant at what stage of history. It is like the differences between a third-grade arithmetic teacher and a mathematics professor at the university. They all teach the same, but on different levels."

Samimi-Mor is convinced that the inauguration of the gardens marks a new stage in world culture. The present may seem problematic, he says, but the attainment of world unity is only a matter of time.

Holla Tevakoli, a volunteer from Australia, said the opening of the gardens means "a new phase of development for our faith."

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