If I may join the English-speaking tour at 12 o’clock, I inquire from the guard in front of the iron gate. The enormous gardens of the Bahai religion dominate the cityscape of Haifa.
The landmark of the third-largest city of the Jewish state is the compound of an altogether different religion, just as the Temple Mount with its two mosques is the landmark of Jerusalem. In Tel Aviv only the beach has similarly religious importance. Freedom of religion is nothing remarkable for most of my readers, but here in the Middle East it’s the absolute exception. In the countries neighboring Israel, people are being imprisoned, persecuted and murdered if they belong to any other than the currently dominant strand of Islam. For that reason too, the Bahai came to Haifa.
“This is a religious place. No eating, no chewing gum, no smoking,” the guard in a dark uniform rattles out. He and his three colleagues carry guns in their holsters. My bag warrants only a brief glimpse, then he scans me. To be on the safe side, I arrived 40 minutes early. “The tour begins at the upper level,” he explains. We are standing at the lower level of the hanging gardens. No problem, I still have 40 minutes, I will simply run up the stairs to the top through the gardens. From an earlier visit many years ago, I remember that the upper and lower level of this admittedly steep hillside are connected by an exaggeratedly meticulously trimmed park.
“No, you must take the road and walk around the whole complex.” Great, that will take me three times as long. Apparently, the 700 steps can only be walked from top to bottom. The Bahai always present themselves as peaceful, open-minded, conciliatory. In reality they are pedants, hell-bent on their rules. One could have thought as much, considering the fussily manicured lawn. A religion for stiffs, indeed a market niche in the otherwise rather chaotic Middle East.
Walking towards the direction of heaven, I gasp up the switchback road. At the middle level there is another entrance. The same procedure. May I walk through the park to the top? No, that is not permitted. On foot I won’t be able to make it before 12 o’clock. A taxi driver (who isn’t available at this spot out of coincidence) offers to give me a ride for 40 shekels (10 $). Then I rather come by bus tomorrow. Now I have lost all passion for the Bahai and instead set out to find the cave of the prophet Elijah. I did find it, but you’ll have to wait for a separate article on that.
The next day, there is no tour because it’s Wednesday. That’s OK. Every religion has to offer at least one day off each week, otherwise it couldn’t survive the competition against other beliefs.
I return to Haifa on 21 March. Now the gardens are closed for the New Year, which is celebrated on its Persian date. New Year at the beginning of spring does indeed make more sense than celebrating it in the middle of winter, although none of these alternatives makes any sense to our friends on the Southern hemisphere.
On Sunday, 22 March, my chance has finally come. I get up early enough, climb up Carmel mountain for the third or fourth time during my visit to Haifa and present myself at the upper gate in due time before 12 o’clock. I am turned away. For the guided tour there is an extra gate, a few hundred yards further down. So I trod back. 11:30. “Happy Nowruz,” I greet the guard there, and for the first time a smile appears on the face of one of the members of the Bahai Army. But the registration for the English tour will only begin at 11:45, she informs me, clasping her blue clipboard with both hands and holding it in front of her chest. Exact procedures, by the minute. Under palm and pine trees, in the warm sun, looking on the turquoise Mediterranean, I feel like in a German tax office.
Fittingly, there is an obelisk on the other side of the road commemorating the visit by Kaiser Wilhelm II in the year 1898.
A board lists not only the general admonishment to dress appropriately, to refrain from smoking and from carrying weapons on the premises, but also warns that the several hundreds steps may be too much for visitors with weak knees. If the Bahai are running up and down these steps all the time, they can’t have any overweight members. The further warning to always watch one’s step is explained with some level of immodesty: “The beauty of the gardens can be distracting.” A stray dog runs past, a T-shirt in its mouth. Animals are not permitted either, of course.
Then the show gets started. The guard reels off the rules once more. “This is a holy place. No food. No chewing gum. No smoking. Only water to drink, all other drinks are not allowed. You may take photos, but only at the stopping points.” Rules as if I am about to visit a military base run by Mormons. Each visitor is asked to provide first name and country of origin. Because no checks are carried out, one could make the Bahai statistician happy by pretending to be Tongalese or Bhutanese.
Marina, our guide, is out of breath when she arrives. She just gave a tour in Hebrew. But she didn’t have to run up the stairs because there is not enough time between the tours. We are about to fast-forward down the stairs and through the history of the Bahai.
It began in Persia in 1844. The “Bab”, as a Mr Ali-Muhammad called himself from that day, claimed that he had been privy to a divine revelation. The Shiites and the Persian state didn’t find this too funny and arrested the Bab in 1847 in order to execute him in 1850. But this was only the beginning of the religion inspired by the Bab because he had 18 disciples (50% more than Jesus, ensuring that he would have won any football match against the Christians).
Among these disciples, Baha’ullah became the most famous, which again meant that he was imprisoned in Persia. Because his father was a minister, he was not executed but exiled. Stations of his exile were Baghdad, Istanbul, Erdine, Alexandria, Port Said and finally Akko in today’s Israel, but then like all of the previous stops on that journey part of the Ottoman Empire.
Baha’ullah’s shrine in Akko is the Bahai’s most important pilgrimage place, in whose direction all 5 million Bahai pray once a day, as Marina assures us. When I wish her a “Happy Nowruz” as well, she clarifies right away that she is not Bahai herself but simply a tourist guide. Only 30% of the guides are Bahai. If, among 5 million believers, one cannot find enough people to guide tour groups in a beautiful park in a beautiful city in a country where they are not persecuted for their belief (which they still are in Iran), then maybe there aren’t really 5 million, I wonder. Are the Bahai the Greece of religions?
The shrine in Haifa, the marble and granite building with the golden dome, houses the remains of the Bab since 1909. The gardens were only completely finished in 2001. Mount Carmel was chosen as the location because the prophet Elijah, whom I have already mentioned and as whose reincarnation the Bab saw himself, had lived here 2,900 years ago. In the mid-19th century, Elijah was actually quite busy, because already in 1836 he had met with Joseph Smith, the founder of the Mormons who did however have visions of God and all 49 other characters from the Bible.
Above and below the shrine, there are nine terraces each. This makes 18 terraces in total, like the number of disciples. Very creative. Marina is telling us now that the Bahai faith is a monotheistic religion which accepts all other prophets and which doesn’t rule out further prophets. All human beings, in particular men and women, are equal. The latter point must have been quite revolutionary in the 19th century Middle East. Actually, if I take a look around the region, it still is.
To the left and the right of the polished stairs, water purls down step by step in a 4-inch wide canal. A sea of flowers that puts any botanical garden to shame. If you visit at different times of the year, you will experience different colors. Because Baha’ullah had no light in prison, this element is of special importance. 2,200 lamps lighten up the compound at night.
The next building, which like all other buildings we can only marvel at from the distance, is an acropolis with a turquoise-colored roof. I can’t help it, but the “Universal House of Justice”, the parliament of the Bahai, reminds me of Legoland, at least from this perspective.
Nine members are elected for five years. There are no priests and no religious leaders, and the nine-member board is supposed to ensure that no single leader evolves, Marina explains. What she doesn’t say and what I have to research myself later is that all nine current members are men. This whole gender equality thing shouldn’t go too far, after all. I read that women are excluded from the election and that the reason for this shall be revealed at some undetermined time in the future. – And then religions are surprised that people don’t take them seriously.
Between the flowerbeds we walk on pleasantly crunching red pieces of broken tiles.
The animal statues on the railings – I notice many eagles – have no religious meaning according to our guide. So they are just kitsch. I believe Disneyland was built at the same time.
Now Marina tells us that Israeli citizens are banned from becoming Bahai. Not Israeli law bars that, but the rules of the Bahai. When they settled here, still at the time of the Ottoman Empire, the Bahai bosses wanted to assure the country that gave them protection that they would not upset the religious status quo. Thus, they ruled out the local population’s possibility to adopt the Bahai faith. The current rules of the Bahai state that questions by Israeli visitors shall be answered, but that this must occur “in a manner without stimulating further interest”.
The English-language tour seems to be run according to the same instructions. Quickly and languidly, dates, names and facts are given. The “Any questions?” at the end of each block of information carries the threatening “DON’T!” with it already. Meanwhile we have reached the shrine, but it is only open from 9 to 12. It is therefore impossible to visit it as part of the guided tour. Very logical. So I’ll take a look at the toilets instead. Luckily, these are not from Persia.
Admittedly, the site is a very beautiful park. It would benefit from secularization.