Circles of adoration
For the past three weeks, I have taken up residency on the side of a mountain. Such a statement might evoke in the mind the image of a mendicant curled up on makeshift bedding in a cave, set amidst a barren rockface devoid of vegetation bar a scattering of scrubby thickets. You might envisage him crouching over a self-made fire, warming his hands or heating up a tin can of water to wash his face or assuage a galling thirst.
Well, while not wishing to disappoint, I must admit that the reality may not be quite so poetic or self-mortifying – but it is a whole lot better.
The mountain in question – Mount Carmel in Haifa, Israel – is one of the most spectacular spots on the surface of the planet. At night the mountainside is ablaze with lights from top to bottom. The view from its crest looks out across the Mediterranean, around a crescent bay, taking in the ancient crusader port of Akko, the borders of Lebanon and off in the distance, the peaks of the Golan Heights. And in the heart of Mount Carmel, visible from all sides, a luminous gem shines out as a beacon of hope in a troubled region. The golden-domed Shrine of the Báb is set amidst luscious, verdant gardens cascading down the mountainside in the form of nineteen spectacular terraces, vivid with colour, birdsong and unsurpassed beauty.
Situated behind the Shrine of the Báb, there is one particular feature of this garden that particularly moves me when I visit it. It is a circle of towering, ancient cypress trees, standing sentinel-like in a spot where once, more than a century ago, the founder of the Bahá’í Faith, Bahá’u'lláh, sat with His son ‘Abdu’l-Bahá and indicated where He wished the remains of His forerunner, the Báb, to be interred. The Báb had been executed in Persia in 1850 and His earthly remains had been secreted away in His homeland for close on half a century. With “infinite tears and at tremendous cost”, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá – while still a prisoner of the Ottoman empire until 1908 – managed to direct the Bahá’ís in Persia to deliver their precious charge into His safekeeping.
Receiving the remains, acquiring the land and rearing that edifice were among the greatest challenges and achievements of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s life.
“One night,” He recalled “I was so hemmed in by My anxieties that I had no other recourse than to recite and repeat over and over again a prayer of the Báb which I had in My possession, the recital of which greatly calmed Me. The next morning the owner of the plot himself came to Me, apologized and begged Me to purchase his property.”
On the day of the first Naw-Rúz He celebrated after His release from captivity – 21 March 1909 – ‘Abdu’l-Bahá had a marble sarcophagus transported to the vault He had prepared for it. In the evening, “by the light of a single lamp, He laid within it, with His own hands—in the presence of believers from the East and from the West and in circumstances at once solemn and moving—the wooden casket containing the sacred remains of the Báb and His companion,” wrote Shoghi Effendi.
“When all was finished, and the earthly remains of the Martyr-Prophet of Shíráz were, at long last, safely deposited for their everlasting rest in the bosom of God’s holy mountain, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Who had cast aside His turban, removed His shoes and thrown off His cloak, bent low over the still open sarcophagus, His silver hair waving about His head and His face transfigured and luminous, rested His forehead on the border of the wooden casket, and, sobbing aloud, wept with such a weeping that all those who were present wept with Him. That night He could not sleep, so overwhelmed was He with emotion.”
Last Saturday, I was privileged to join some 1000 Bahá’ís – pilgrims, visitors, guests and staff of the Bahá’í World Centre – gathered on that same mountainside and, in an act of solemn reflection, circumambulate the Shrine of the Báb, 100 years to the day since ‘Abdu’l-Bahá had completed that singular act which, wrote Shoghi Effendi, “indeed deserves to rank as one of the outstanding events in the first Bahá’í century.”
How transformed is this rocky mountainside since the night when ‘Abdu’l-Bahá brought the Báb’s remains to their final resting place, close to that circle of cypresses, in a mausoleum befitting a Messenger from God Who had declared His mission on the very night of the very same year that ‘Abdu’l-Bahá Himself was born.
Last year alone, the Terraces of the Shrine of the Báb attracted some 640,000 visitors and their beauty is being universally acclaimed. Last Monday, in Jerusalem, a special reception was held to celebrate the addition of the Bahá’í shrines and gardens to the UNESCO World Heritage list. Commenting on the achievement, Israel’s Interior Minister Meir Sheetrit, said that the shrines reflect peace, beauty and tolerance. He said it was not only an honour for Israel to have the Bahá’í Holy Places within its borders, but it was an honour for UNESCO to have them on its list of the world’s most culturally significant places.
“The sacrifices of the Báb and the dawn-breakers of the Cause are yielding abundant fruit,” wrote the Universal House of Justice at Naw-Ruz, the exact centenary of the interment of the Báb’s remains on Mount Carmel, “The magnificent progress achieved over the past century demonstrates the invincible power with which the Cause is endowed.”
As we processed from the Seat of the Universal House of Justice, along the semi-circular arc path to the Shrine of the Báb, I turned back and glimpsed the multi-coloured parade of humanity in all its diversity, moving together as one soul in many bodies. I remembered the dramatic circumstances surrounding the Báb’s own execution and the vain hope of the clergy and rulers of His land that, with His swift demise and the brutal massacre of some 20,000 followers, the fire He had ignited would be quenched. The vision of humanity I glimpsed on Saturday demonstrated to me the futility of such attempts to snuff out this inextinguishable light - efforts which persist in Iran to this day. “He doeth as He doeth and what recourse have we? He carrieth out His will, He ordaineth what He pleaseth.”
‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s depositing of the remains of the Báb in the bosom of Mount Carmel marked the beginning of the World Centre of the Bahá’í Faith. It was an act of love and obedience carried out by a son on the instructions of His Father. A seed, still bursting with life and potential, had been salvaged from a savagely felled tree and planted in new soil where it could take root. The circle of cypress trees, silent witnesses to momentous events, are now overshadowed by the efflorescence of Carmel, both in the magnificence of the gardens that now adorn its slopes and the vibrant variety of human hues that gather there in their thousands to pay homage to the martyred herald of their Faith. Today, these are the fruits of that seed, of that act of obedience.
As the Universal House of Justice noted, “It is but a portent of the ultimate realization of the oneness of humankind.”
Filed under: History, Thoughts | 1 Comment
Tags: Bahai, Haifa, Israel, Mount Carmel, The Bab, UNESCO, World Heritage