A personal experience of Baha’i pilgrimage

Editor’s note: Back in May, two Bahá’ís from the Calderdale community, went on Bahá’í pilgrimage. After returning they wanted to share the experience, along with some history and details about the special places they visited. One of these two Bahá’ís, John, took wonderful pictures of many of the buildings and locations he saw, which you can see below… (Please note, you may click on the small versions below to access larger photos, if you wish.) He also wrote the account below about this special journey…

An introduction

Like the followers of many religions, Bahá’ís undertake pilgrimage. Each year thousands of Bahá’ís take the opportunity to forge a profound and lasting connection with the spiritual and administrative centre of their Faith. For Bahá’ís this is located in the Haifa-‘Akká area of what is now northern Israel.

Why do we as Bahá’ís go on pilgrimage to Haifa and ‘Akká? This is because the founder of the Bahá’í Faith, Bahá’u’lláh, lived in this area, in the Holy Land, from 31st August 1868 until His ascension on the 29th May 1892 – a period of approximately 24 years. In this region a key part of His ministry took place, despite the fact that He arrived a prisoner for His beliefs and teachings – an enduring feature of His life and mission, since His expulsion from His country of birth, Persia (modern day Iran).

During the many years of Bahá’u’lláh’s exile, His followers at the time would undertake arduous travel from other countries, sometimes for months and on foot, to visit Him. After Bahá’u’lláh’s passing, His Shrine became the spot towards which Bahá’ís turn each day in prayer, and a place to which they strive to visit at least once during their lifetime.

This practice of pilgrimage to the Haifa-‘Akká area has continued. Today, Bahá’í pilgrims pray and meditate at the Shrine of Bahá’u’lláh in ‘Akká, at the Shrine of The Báb in Haifa, and in the beautiful gardens that surround them both (as shown in our photos below). Bahá’í pilgrims also draw inspiration from the time they spend at various historical sites associated with the lives of Bahá’u’lláh, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, and Shoghi Effendi, and they visit buildings dedicated to the worldwide administration, international archives, research/learning, and teaching, of the Bahá’í Faith.

Considering their significance to pilgrim visitors like us, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá wrote, “Holy Places are undoubtedly centres of the outpouring of Divine grace … because on entering the illumined sites associated with martyrs and holy souls, and by observing reverence, both physical and spiritual, one’s heart is moved with great tenderness.”

Pilgrimage offers Bahá’ís from a vast number of cultures and countries from all around the world an unique opportunity to enjoy precious moments of spiritual fellowship together. Pilgrims have been described as the “life-blood” of the Bahá’í World Centre. They bring with them news of their activities and take back to their own countries inspiration and new insights. Returning home after a short but intensive time in the Holy Land, we certainly felt reinvigorated by the experience, keen to rededicate ourselves to service to humanity, and eager to share with family and friends the joy that has filled our hearts!

My experience

As I set off for Haifa and ‘Akká in May of this year, although this was not my first pilgrimage it did seem to be particularly special. My pilgrimage lasted for nine days. It followed a carefully designed programme that ensured free movement and access for me and my group, and for other pilgrims from many countries speaking different languages, to all the Holy places and Shrines whilst still ensuring precious time for personal prayer and meditation.

The group I was assigned to met initially at the Pilgrim Centre in Haifa (shown below, when it was all lit up for us one evening):

Photo: Pilgrim Centre, Haifa.

There were also incredible cactus gardens nearby to navigate our way through. These are tended daily:

Photo: Gardens at the Pilgrim House in Haifa.

It was a very humbling experience when I first met up with my fellow pilgrims. The world shrinks as so many happy faces with skins of different colours share these wonderful moments with you. All of us were full of wonder and awe for what we were seeing and experiencing together… My group was an English speaking group, although with many varied accents and grammatical styles! This was the group, from a photo taken later on in the pilgrimage:

Photo: A photo of our pilgrimage group; taken at the Master’s House in Haparsim Street, Haifa. (I am in the middle right, shaded by a nearby tree…)

At the Shrine of the Báb

All of us pilgrims began our spiritual journey on the first day by visiting the Shrine of the Báb and ‘Abdu’l-Bahá. This is a single building located on Mount Carmel, Haifa. When a pilgrim first visits this most holy place it is accompanied by a reading of what are called the ‘Tablets of Visitation’ prayers. This was an amazing experience, to share such prayers with pilgrims from all over the world, who very quickly became friends and wonderful fellow travellers on a spiritual journey of a lifetime!

Photo: One view of the Shrine of The Báb.

Photo: A view of the rear of the Shrine of The Báb, showing some of the magnificent gardens surrounding it.

These are just two of many views one gets, as a visiting pilgrim, of the Shrine of The Báb. The Báb is the so-called ‘Prophet Herald’ of the Bahá’í Faith. This building also contains the Shrine of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, the eldest son of Bahá’u’lláh. As I was there, I must say it felt wonderful to be at these special sites, knowing that on 21st October of this year (2017) myself and Bahá’ís all around the world will celebrate the Bi-Centennial birthday of Bahá’u’lláh (for more details see the new section on our website).

The setting within which the pilgrimage takes place is both in the gardens of Haifa and at Bahjí in ‘Akká – two sites that have been beautified in recent years using voluntary contributions by Bahá’ís from all over the world. The sites that surround the two main Shrines and Holy places really have to be seen first-hand to be fully appreciated and understood… For instance there are nineteen landscaped terraces that span Mount Carmel top-to-bottom, in Haifa, and there are beautifully designed gardens surrounded by olive groves in Bahjí, ‘ Akká that contains the Shrine of Bahá’u’lláh.

The Shrine of Bahá’u’lláh

Below is a photo I took of one view of the Shrine of Bahá’u’lláh. This site is known as ‘The Qiblih’ – the spot towards which Bahá’ís pray during their daily prayers, wherever one is in the world. The second photo below is another small aspect of the Bahjí gardens which surround this most sacred place:

Photo: Entrance to the Shrine of Bahá’u’lláh.

Photo: Just one aspect of the surrounding Gardens at Bahji.

The peace and uplifting presence of this wonderful place of prayer and meditation was amazing! It was coupled with the aroma of roses from petals placed on the threshold of the Shrine. It took my mind and soul to incredible heights… and made it very difficult to leave.

The Citadel and Barracks in ‘Akká

In complete contrast to the beautiful scenes above, pilgrims then visit the nearby city of ‘Akká. This is where the Citadel and Barracks are located where Bahá’u’lláh and His Family were imprisoned for exactly two years, two months and five days after they first arrived in the region.

The conditions and deprivations experienced by Himself and His Family led Bahá’u’lláh to refer to ‘Akká as the “Most Great Prison”. This was despite the fact that He had experienced many horrible events previously earlier in life, such as suffering in the dark and damp, in heavy chains and fetters, in the Síyáh-Chál (‘Black Pit’) prison in Tihrán, Persia (now Iran).

On arrival in ‘Akká explicit orders had been given for Bahá’u’lláh to be held under strict conditions of incarceration, for He and His fellow exiled followers to have no contact with each other, with family members, or with the public, within this then walled, penal city. The first picture below shows what I saw on my visit, with the outer and inner sections of the Prison walls in ‘Akká visible:

Photo: The ‘Most Great Prison’, inner and outer walls.

The next picture below, if you look at the top floor, at the rightmost end two windows, is where the Holy Family were imprisoned. For some time as a prisoner here, Bahá’u’lláh could only stand and wave to those pilgrims of that time who had walked many miles, for many months, to see Him:

Photo: The ‘Most Great Prison’. Bahá’u’lláh’s cell is visible on the top floor, two upper rightmost windows.

At the time, the need for barracks for the Turkish army eventually enabled the Holy Family to leave the prison complex and move to a building called Khán-i-‘Avámid (meaning “The Inn of Pillars”) in the city, close to the sea walls. Khán-i-‘Avámid was a caravanserai, a temporary holding place. Sadly I could see it is now deteriorating through a lack of maintenance and upkeep. It is no longer possible for visitors to go inside the building itself, but you can see through to the inner yard (see below):

Photo: The Khán-i-‘Avámid, exterior view.

Photo: The Khán-i-‘Avámid, a view of the yard inside.

The House of ‘Abbud and House of ‘Abdu’lláh Páshá, ‘Akká

Following lengthy negotiations,  Bahá’u’lláh, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá and The Holy Family moved out of the Khán-i-‘Avámid, with some other brief stays in-between, to what is now known as the ‘House of ‘Abbud’. The House of ‘Abbud is still within the ‘Akká city boundary, less than two kilometres down the road from the caravanserai.

The House of ‘Abbud (shown below) was significant for many reasons. It was here that the “Most Holy Book” of the Bahá’í Faith, the Kitáb-i-Aqdas, was revealed to Bahá’u’lláh, in 1873. It was also here that ‘Abdu’l-Bahá married. Including at the House of ‘Abbud, The Holy Family lived for seven years in this area of ‘Akká, near the sea. The House was originally divided into West and East sections but was combined later to accommodate better the Holy Family:

Photo: Exterior of the House of ‘Abbud.

Photo: Interior of the lower floor of the House of ‘Abbud.

Not far from the House of ‘Abbud is the House of ‘Abdu’lláh Páshá (shown below). It was purchased by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, and had once been the residence of the Governor of ‘Akká. From this House ‘Abdu’l-Bahá directed the construction of the Shrine of The Báb, located across the bay, in Haifa. Pilgrims from the West were also received at this House from December 1898 then for the remainder of the thirteen years ‘Abdu’l-Bahá lived here, before he later moved to Haifa.

Photo: The House of ‘Abdu’lláh Páshá.

Photo: A further detail view.

Leaving ‘Akká, on to Mazra’ih

Having lived such a punishing life in prisons, and having to journey on foot, and in exile, many hundreds of miles in dreadful conditions, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá wanted to provide for his Father, Bahá’u’lláh, a place where He could look out onto green fields and breathe the countryside air. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá had heard his Father say, “I have not gazed out on verdure for nine years. The country is the world of the soul, the city is the world of bodies…

This led to negotiations with the then Mufti of ‘Akká to allow The Holy Family to move out of the city’s boundaries. Bahá’u’lláh was originally reluctant, because of the sentence passed on Him. It took the Mufti himself to reassure Bahá’u’lláh that He was free to move away from the city. A house, four miles North of ‘Akká, now known as the Mansion of Mazra’ih, was acquired at a low rent. The house itself and gardens were brought up to a better standard before the move was finally made (and have, like many of the sites we saw, been significantly beautified, improved and preserved since):

Photo: The Mansion of Mazra’ih, as it looks today.

Photo: Inside of the Mansion of Mazra’ih, showing the staircase leading up to the bedroom once used by Bahá’u’lláh, and period features to restore original aspects of the building.

For me, as a visiting pilgrim, the Mansion of Mazra’ih created a very special feeling. It really brought a focus to the fact that Bahá’u’lláh would walk up those exact stairs (shown above) to retire to bed… and made me feel I was able to see this scenario for myself. This is thanks, in no small part, to the efforts of the Bahá’í world governing council (The Universal House of Justice) and many volunteers in helping to recall and recreate, with actual items and period pieces from that time, a ‘true’ experience of what Bahá’u’lláh and His Family would have seen…

The Ridván and Junayn Gardens

From time to time Bahá’u’lláh and ‘Abdu’l-Bahá would take the opportunity to visit the Ridván Garden which lies between ‘Akká and Haifa. (We learned this is not to be confused with the separate Ridván Gardens on the banks of the River Tigris in Baghdad where Bahá’u’lláh declared Himself a Manifestation of God in 1863.)

Having access to such quiet, beautiful places… despite being quite close to nearby housing settlements, was a chance to see some of the beautiful flowers and trees close to the aquifer that flows through the Garden. Once again I knew and could feel that these too had been seen by Bahá’u’lláh and ‘Abdu’l-Bahá (although this area has since been landscaped differently to the original configuration of that time):

Photo: One view of the aquifer flowing through the Ridván Garden.

Photo: An alternate view of the aquifer.

Photo: A place for meditation in the Ridván Garden.

Photo: Tree-lined access path to the Ridván Garden.

We also saw the nearby Junayn Garden and building, located fairly close by between Haifa and ‘Akká and also visited by Bahá’u’lláh:

Photo: A view of the Junayn Garden and building.

Photo: Another view of the Junayn Garden and building.

Photo: Beautiful plants in one side of the Junayn Garden.

Photo: Another attractively composed planting area in the Junayn Garden.

The Mansion of Bahjí

In the early hours of 29th May 1892, Bahá’u’lláh ascended at a house He had lived later in His life, now known as the Mansion of Bahjí. Bahá’u’lláh had lived there for thirteen years. His final resting place, His Shrine, is a small building, situated next to this larger building in the grounds of Bahjí. I had separate opportunities to see the Mansion of Bahjí and wonderful opportunities to spend time in the Shrine.

The Mansion itself – now much repaired after quite a history – enabled the Holy Family to have space to live and receive many visits from pilgrims from various places in the West (from the UK and America in particular) and from many countries in the East.

Years after Bahá’u’lláh’s passing, Shoghi Effendi later brought to the Mansion many maps, newspaper cuttings, paintings, artefacts and items of historic importance. For me as a pilgrim, this meant that each and every room now has a different fascination, with high levels of interest throughout. There was never enough time wherever I went on this pilgrimage, including the Mansion of Bahjí, in particular!

Photo: The Shrine of Bahá’u’lláh (at right) and Mansion of Bahjí (left).

Flowers, plants and trees all around!

It would be a significant omission if I did not to show some of the many flowers, plants and trees which made their particular contribution to the spirit and beauty of my pilgrimage. And this is bearing in mind that the weather at home, fascinating though it is in West Yorkshire (!) does not have the same characteristics and warmth as Northern Israel… and certainly not as it did in May during my pilgrimage, when the daily temperatures varied between around 24 and 32C!

Photo: Part of the Pilgrim House cactus garden.

Photo: Bird of paradise flower on the Mount Carmel terraces.

Photo: Flowers inside the House of ‘Abbud.

Photo: Flower along the walkway to Bahá’u’lláh’s Shrine.

Photo: Flower in the Ridván Garden.

Photo: Flowers in the Junayn Garden.

Photo: Olive grove on the fringes of the Bahjí gardens.

Photo: Trees illuminated at night near the Shrine of The Báb.

Photo: Flower near the International Archives, Mount Carmel.

Photo: Part of the Pilgrim House cactus garden.

Buildings, places and sites on Mount Carmel

It becomes obvious visiting Mount Carmel and the Bahá’í Holy Places that the Bahá’í Faith I practice is worldwide and growing. As a visiting pilgrim the significance, and increasing importance of these sites could be seen and felt. This region of the world holds the accessible spiritual centre, the administration, the focus for continual teaching, learning, guidance, and development for the Bahá’í Faith. Holy Writings, some hand written by Bahá’u’lláh, are archived, preserved and studied there. Interpretations and explanations of these Holy Writings that followed and flowed later are further accessible through the legacies of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá and later Shoghi Effendi. When visiting you realise they are all available… right there…. and accessible to us through the love and guidance of the world governing body, the Universal House of Justice.

What do these places look like to the visitor and pilgrim? The first and subsequent views of these buildings, establishments and Holy places are not only incredibly impressive… but are also awe-inspiring. For me they created a sense of pride in what the Bahá’í Faith stands for. Whatever I saw – and what is shown in my photos here – has only ever come from Bahá’ís own voluntary funding, never from any other source.

It is also worth mentioning again that the setting for all these buildings on Mount Carmel – set out in an arc – is the gardens, paths and wider walkways originally created by Shoghi Effendi. Now this beautiful setting is wonderfully managed, even down to the type and changing colours of the flowers, the shape of the shrubs and the evidence and sound of flowing water (non-potable, and continually recycled) flowing down the mountain.

Photo: Entrance of the Universal House of Justice.

Photo: The seat of the Universal House of Justice.

At least twice during my nine day stay for pilgrimage the buildings on Mount Carmel were lit up. It made for a truly wonderful spectacle! It can be seen for miles and serves as a focus for the beauty in Haifa. My photographs below were taken during these evening periods of illumination:

Photo: Evening illuminated entrance to the Universal House of Justice.

Photo: The seat of the Universal House of Justice at night.

The building below is the International Teaching Centre, as seen from the seat of the Universal House of Justice. Work is done here to inspire and coordinate the activities of Bahá’ís all around the world. As a visiting pilgrim this was where I attended evening lectures and listened to talks by members of the Teaching Centre and Universal House of Justice. This was such a privilege!

Photo: The International Teaching Centre building on Mount Carmel.

Also on Mount Carmel is the Centre for the Study of the Texts. This is an institution designed to assist the Universal House of Justice in consulting on the Bahá’í Writings, and to prepare translations of, and commentaries on the authoritative Bahá’í texts. Once again I was fortunate to be able to picture it both during the daytime…

Photo: Centre for the Study of the Texts.

And illuminated at night:

Photo: The Centre, at night.

Another important building on Mount Carmel is the International Archives (shown below in the daytime, and at night):

Photo: The International Archives, on Mount Carmel.

Photo: The International Archives, at night.

The Archives building houses many items that Bahá’ís are charged with preserving for future generations. I personally found the experience of being inside this building difficult to put into words… except to say that to see closely things like the personal artefacts of Bahá’u’lláh is truly amazing. By doing this, it became much easier for me to ponder, and perhaps comprehend the truth of Bahá’u’lláh being the Manifestation of God for this age, and as part of our reality, truly of the here and now…

The nighttime photo below shows how these various buildings are configured in a far-flung ‘arc’ on Mount Carmel:

Photo: Part of the arc of buildings on Mount Carmel; visible is the Centre for the Study of the Texts, the International Archives, and the Shrine of the Báb.

These buildings are accessed by a set of garden terraces that run up a large portion of Mount Carmel. These terraces are world famous, have their own website for tourists (accessible here) and are an UNESCO world heritage site. Here are some photos of the terraces:

Photo: Details of one of the lower terraces.

Photo: Beautiful details of the terraces.

Photo: The planting becomes less formal farther away from the central part of the terraces, blending back into the mountain.

The terraces are a continuous set, even though a main road runs right underneath them in some places:

Photo: A road runs underneath the terraces, in the middle distance of this picture.

Each of the broader sections of the terracing have seating, usually with palm trees that create shade and shelter you from the warm sun. I found that the colours of the flowers, the shapes of the trees and shrubs and the sound and sight of running water down the terraces, made it the most wonderful atmosphere for reflection, prayer, and meditation!

Photo: Water feature at the base of the terraces.

Photo: Water running and re-circulating down the centre of some of the terraces.

Photo: Water on the terraces, lit up at night.

Photo: An illuminated fountain, at night.

Photo: Water bubbling up out of the terraces.

Trying to sum up my experience…

Whilst on this pilgrimage, everywhere I looked I realised there is thought, consideration, planning and presentation done to a level that is actually difficult to comprehend. The water features (above) for example create such beauty, tranquility and atmosphere that they enable a setting that is totally at one with spirituality… to a level that I would find almost unimaginable elsewhere…

What was even more amazing of course was the fellow Bahá’ís that I met whilst there, and hearing their stories, and about their activities, challenges and hopes.

It probably comes across from just how many pictures I took to try and capture this experience… that is something that is very difficult to convey in words or even in images… I hope I’ve managed to convey something of the truly inspiring spirit of it and I encourage you, if you have chance, to visit too, to experience something of this wonderful place!

John, Calderdale Bahá’í community