Fifteen-year-old May Lampel returns to Haifa after a full day at her school in Kfar Shmaryahu and another two hours travel home. By now most of the other youngsters have eaten lunch after school and are out with friends. May, though, hasn’t eaten all day.
With a few more hours to go, she completes her homework, says her prayers and at last the family sits down to dinner. Another day of sun-up to sun-down fasting has ended for this family, and for the estimated five million members of the the worldwide Baha’i community.
May and her family moved to Israel from Florida nine years ago as volunteers to work in the Baha’i shrine in Haifa. Her mother Marcia, was born an African-American Bahai’i; her father Paul converted and later met his wife. Together they moved to Haifa with their three children. They haven’t looked back since.
“It’s wonderful to be here,” says Marcia. “This is the Holy Land for us.”
As for May, this is her first year of fasting, but she is strong in her dedication. “Fasting is hard for the first few days, but then you get used to it,” she said. There are only 14 other Baha’i children in her school, but she doesn’t feel unusual. Says May, “religion is important to me, but it doesn’t make me different.”
Christians fast at Lent, Jews at Yom Kippur and Muslims at Ramadan. Prayer and fasting are twin pillars of most religious traditions.
The Baha’is’ fast for 19 days, marking the last month in their calendar which began March 2 and concludes today. Baha’is all throughout the world are celebrating their New Year today and at the Baha’i World Center in Haifa there will be prayers, readings of sacred texts, feasts and a circumnavigation around the Shrine of the Bab on Mt Carmel.
The Baha’i, whose founders were Persian, adopted the thousands-years-old Persian New Year holiday, called NowRooz (new day), which begins at the exact time of the vernal equinox, this year on Friday, March 21. An ancient Iranian holiday with many associated customs and long traditions, it is a national 13-day holiday celebrated by all religions in Iran, with all schools and offices closed, although Baha’is celebrate for only one day.
The Baha’i faith teaches that the founders of the world’s major religions including Krishna, Buddha, Zoroaster, Abraham, Moses, Jesus Christ and Mohammad, are divine teachers sent by one God to educate humanity through teachings and laws suited to its stage of development. The Baha’i Faith recognises two additional teachers for this age: the Bab and Baha’u’llah.
The Haifa region hosts the two most important holy sites for the Baha’i. The Bab, born in Shiraz, Iran, one of the two founders of the religion, is buried in the golden dome shrine in the center of teh gardens, which stretch from the base to the crest of Mount Carmel, in Haifa. His successor, Baha’u’llah, born in Teheran in 1917, is buried near Akko and before his death in 1892, he specified that the Baha’i World Headquarters should be in the Haifa/ Akko area of what is now Israel.
Director of the Baha’i World Center Office of Public Information, Douglas Samimi-Moore said, “Baha’is have built these structures because we are confident in the peaceful future of humanity. The power to unite is one that the world desperately needs.”
Taking two hours out of his busy schedule to explain the root of the Baha’i faith, talk politics and tour the 19-terraced garden, despite not eating and drinking all day, Moore makes it clear that he believes seeking world peace is a fundamental aspect of being Baha’i.
“The abolition of war is not simply a matter of signing treaties and protocols, “he claims. “It is a complex task requiring a new level of commitment to resolving issues not customarily associated with the pursuit of peace.”
The diversity of Baha’i followers, in 235 countries, makes it one of the most widespread religions. Other tenants of the faith include the equality of men and women, a commitment to social and economic justice and the pursuit of universal education.
Inside the shrine housing the body of the Bab, the impression is simplicity: many Persian carpets, fresh flowers and people quietly praying. As he takes off his shoes to enter the holy site, Moore points out that nothing can be said inside the Shrine, unless it is in prayer – be it from the Torah, the Qur’an or the Bible.
Strolling through the gardens, just above the Shrine of the Bab and at the top of an arc-shaped path in a monument garden, the visitor comes to the Seat of the Universal House of Justice, the international governing body of the Baha’i faith. From this building and others nearby, a staff of more than 700 people from 60 countries administers the international affairs of the Baha’i world community.
The buildings blend in harmoniously with the layout of the gardens, leaving the visitor almost with a feeling of being in the Garden of Eden. The beauty of the surroundings is intentional; aesthetic beauty is fundamental for Baha’is, for whom, says Moore, “there is an emphasis on personal refinement and cleanliness of the home, both of which are conductive to spirituality and a closeness to God.”
Each terrace has three garden zones. The central area is formal in layout, with lawns of zoysia grass, annual flower beds, santolina and duranta hedges, bushes and carefully pruned trees.
The side zone is more informal, with flowering trees and perennial bushes characteristic of the Middle East, including drought-tolerant, low-maintenance succulents, oleanders, rosemary, lantana, olive, jacaranda, coral and plumeria.
The third zone has been left free to develop into natural forests that serve as wildlife corridors.
“It has not been our aim just to build beautiful architecture or merely beautiful, landscaped gardens,” said Fariborz Sahba, the architect.
“There are so many beautiful gardens in the world. The whole aim was to create beautiful, spiritual gardens: gardens that touch the spirit, so that a visitor may pause and think, ‘this is someplace different. There is something special about it.’”
Sahba, originally from Iran, also designed the famous Baha’i Lotus Temple of New Delhi, which now attracts more visitors than the Taj Mahal.
The terraces, the giant golden dome and gleaming white marble administrative buildings have transformed the face of Haifa. The project was completed over a 10 year period at a cost of $250 million, funded by voluntary contributions from members of the worldwide Baha’i community.
Former Haifa Mayor Amram Mitzna referred to the site as the “Eighth Wonder of the World”.
History of the Baha’i
The Baha’is faced discrimination and persecution in Iran, from the founding of the religion through today’s Islamic Republic. They are not considered one of the minority People of the Book (such as Jews and Christians, who have special dhimmi status under Islam).
The Bab, who founded the religion in 1844, was executed in Tabriz in 1850. After 50 years his body was interred in a shrine on the side of Mount Carmel where the present Baha’i World Centre is located.
After his execution, many of his followers were also imprisoned, including Baha’u’llah, his successor, who was exiled to Baghdad in 1863, then to Turkey.
Finally in 1867, he was exiled to Akko with his family and followers, where he lived under house arrest.
Baha’u’llah visited Mount Carmel several times and, on his last visit in 1891, the year before he died, he told his son, Abdu’l Baha, where the Bab’s remains should be buried and a mausoleum erected. His son was eventually freed, and one of his first actions was to complete the shrine. He died in 1921 and is also buried here.
One of the prerequisites for allowing the Baha’i World Centre to be built in Haifa was that the religion agree not to proselytize in Israel.