The country of Israel contains so many Holy Places for so many peoples and faiths. I am no exception. As a Bahá‘í the holiest sites I can visit are located in Akko and Haifa , which is the administrative centre of my Faith. I was thrilled when I looked at the syllabus months before departure and saw that there was a planned visit to the Bahá‘í Gardens and the Shrine of the Báb in Haifa on our 11th day of our trip. Things moved around a bit on our schedule, but once we made it there it was a truly special experience.
I had been to Haifa once before on pilgrimage with my family, and I was so excited to come back and be in these most holy places, but also to share them with my classmates, some of whom are friends who have seen the way I live as a Bahá‘í back in Ottawa. It was, however, a very different experience to visit as a participant in an academic tour than it was to visit as a pilgrim.
I took the visit as an opportunity to examine my faith academically and to try to apply the same critical lens to these sites as to all of the other pilgrimage sites we had visited up to this point. It was also exciting to have the opportunity to think about the questions my peers were asking and presenting – questions they were posing as scholars of religious studies, and which I hadn’t encountered before.
The Shrine of the Báb is where the forerunner to to the founder of the Baha’i Faith, Bahá‘u’lláh, is buried. The Báb founded the Bábí religion in XXXX in Persia, and was eventually martyred by the Persian authorities. One of the messages that He brought was to proclaim in the imminent arrival of “the One Whom God Shall Make Manifest,” whom He recognized as Bahá’u’lláh before His Martyrdom. The Báb’s remains were brought with the family and close followers of Bahá’u’lláh when He in turn was imprisoned and eventually exiled to the Ottoman Empire and eventually to the prison city of Akko. Bahá’u’lláh instructed His son that the Báb’s remains should be buried on Mount Carmel in Haifa, and revealed Tablets describing the future centre of the Baha’i Faith that should be constructed there as well.
Noga Collins-Kreiner writes very interestingly about the Bahá‘í Gardens and buildings as an example of spatial transgression of religious sites in Israel. Collins-Kreiner compares the Bahá‘í Gardens with the Brigham Young University operated by the Mormons in Jerusalem, and the Shihab-al-Din mosque in Nazareth. Collins-Kreiner describes the Gardens and other buildings of the Bahá‘ís in Haifa as a colonization of Mount Carmel, through the gradual purchase of land and construction of different projects. However, Collins-Kreiner distinguishes between the gardens, the university, and the moque by identifying that the gradual nature of the construction of Bahá‘í sites on Mount Carmel, as well as its relatively integrated appearance on the mountainside, and the very impression which the populations in the area have of the Bahá‘í community (“the Bahá‘í religion and site radiate a harmonious, cooperative, and non-missionary aura”) all contribute it its positive reception by the community, which Collins-Kreiner contrasts with the university and mosque which were built in either very contested or highly revered sites for other religions which influenced how they were responded to.
I was more interested in a supplementary article I found called “Negotiated space: Tourists, pilgrims, and the Baha’i terraced gardens in Haifa” by Collins-Kreiner and J.D. Gatrell. This article looks at the different experiences that pilgrims and tourists can have of the common space of the Bahá‘í Gardens. When I had come before as a pilgrim I had full access to the terraces, the Shrine, and the Pilgrim House, and could participate in a tour of the buildings of the Arc. As a tourist, our access was limited to the upper-most terrace and viewing platform and the lowest terrace and viewing space. We were also able to go in to the Shrine of the Báb in the middle of the terraces, but had to get back on the bus and drive from the top of the terraces down to the middle.
Being in these places that I understand to be so holy with large groups of people around me was very disconcerting, and reflecting on it afterwards I realized that my experience was quite similar to other religious students who participated in the course, for whom the Jordan River baptismal site, or the Western Wall, or other holy sites were particularly precious.
I was very interested in the questions and feedback that my peers had. There were several moments when I heard people remarking on the beauty of the gardens: when the gardens and the Shrine first came in to view on the bus, when we were first exploring the view from the upper terrace, and when we passed around the traffic circle at the base of the terraces. The beauty of the gardens is something I knew to expect, but something I also wondered whether I was biased about. Many of the sites we had visited before, such as the Pool of Bethesda and the Garden of Gesemine, had beautiful gardens. But it seems that I was right in feeling that the Bahá‘í Gardens are different because they are so carefully and attentively manicured. To me, as a Bahá‘í, this is a testament to the beauty that can result from a community of individuals committing themselves to labour together to ever-improve our spaces – and communities. I am not sure that it meant quite the same thing to my fellow students, but it was lovely to hear their responses to a place that is so precious to me and so many Bahá‘ís around the world.
One student also commented to me that the Shrine of the Báb was the most spiritual place she felt we had visited up to this point. For me this was certainly true – although I was disconcerted by the strangeness of sharing a space that I had only ever experienced as reserved for sincere and devoted prayer and meditation with people who were there to look around and see what there was. However, in light of the article by Collins-Kreiner and Gatrell, I also think that this spirituality is something that is being consciously preserved and presented by the Bahá‘í World Centre to the tourists. I would say that in almost every other space we went, the realms of the tourist and the pilgrim, the secular and the devoted, overlapped completely. At the Western Wall, tourists were walking up and taking pictures – women even standing on chairs to look over the partition between the women and men’s sections – alongside individuals praying with great devotion. It was the same in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, where great groups of pilgrims and great groups of tourists stepped on each other’s toes. In some of these cases, photos were also taken to commemorate the pilgrims’ experiences.
In Haifa, the access hours for tourists are limited, and the spaces that can be accessed are limited. Pilgrims travel with guides and groups on clearly outlined schedules which often take them away from the public spaces during tourist visiting hours. In this way the realms of the tourist and the pilgrim, the secular and the devoted, are clearly separated. Furthermore, there are strict rules about conduct in the Shrine for both tourists and pilgrims which limit many of the normal tourist activities or behaviour by prohibiting the taking of photographs and talking and by requiring modest dress.
I had the great fortune at the end of our trip to return to Haifa for a short visit to the Bahá‘í Holy Places. After reading some of the above mentioned articles and having the opportunity to discuss some of these concepts with my classmates, it was a wonderful opportunity to consider carefully the experiences I had in the two very different circumstances and what facilitated them and perhaps caused those differences.