When in Haifa, we’re sure you will never end your sightseeing in this gorgeous city without visiting its most prominent landmark, the Shrine of the Bab, and the spectacular Baha’i Gardens surrounding it.
Both the shrine and the gardens are built on the slopes of Mount Carmel, overlooking Haifa, its port, and the Mediterranean Sea. The German Colony lies at the foot of the shrine and garden complex.
While casual tourists may see the Shrine of the Bab as another imposing and magnificent structure, it is otherwise a place of significance for the adherents of the Baha’i faith. For the Baha’is (as those adherents are called), the Shrine of the Bab is a sacred place. It is the second holiest site for the Baha’is, after the Shrine of the Baha’u’llah in Acre (Akka), not too far from Haifa. It is technically a mausoleum where the remains of the Bab, founder of the Babism and forerunner of Baha’u’allah, are buried.
History of the Babi faith and the Baha’i faith
The Bab was born Sayyed ‘Ali Muhammad Shirazi in 1819. In 1844, he proclaimed himself as the “Bab,” which means the “gate” in Arabic. Therefore, he identified himself as the gateway to God – a messenger of God. To the Baha’is, the Bab’s role is likened to that of John the Baptist in Christianity – a predecessor or forerunner who paved the way for their religion.
Despite growing opposition from the Shia clergy and the Persian government, the Bab continued his religious and missionary work and gained tens and thousands of adherents. Eventually, the government executed the Bab and several of his followers in Tabriz, Persia (now Iran), in 1850.
After the Bab was executed, his remains were thrown outside the city gates. Some of his followers secretly managed to retrieve his remains and kept them hidden for over half a century.
The Baha’i faith originally grew out of the Babi faith. One of the Bab’s most prominent disciples, Baha’u’allah (born Mirza Husayn-Ali Nuri in 1817), also faced violent opposition from the Shia clerics and the Persian government, just like his predecessor and fellow Babi adherents. After the Bab and several leading figures of the Babi faith were executed, Baha’u’allah was imprisoned as a Babi in 1852. During his imprisonment, he became aware that he was a prophet and messenger of God whose coming had been predicted by the Bab.
Baha’u’allah was released from imprisonment and exiled to Baghdad, where his leadership helped revive the persecuted Babi community in Iran. His reputation eventually rose, which caused concern among the Iranian authorities who requested his transfer from Baghdad to Constantinople. Shortly before his removal from Baghdad, Baha’u’allah publicly announced his claim to divine intervention. An overwhelming number of Babis acknowledged his claim and therefore became known as Baha’is.
The Ottoman authorities eventually confined Baha’u’allah in Adrianople (present-day Edirne, Turkey) and then in Acre (Akko), where he spent the rest of his life until his death in 1892.
The Bab, Baha’u’allah, and ‘Abdu’l-Baha are regarded as the three central figures of the Baha’i faith. Let’s just say they’re the “holy trinity” of the Baha’is.
The construction of the Bab’s mausoleum and shrine
While still technically a prisoner, Baha’u’allah was released from strict confinement and even managed to purchase a summer house. He also used to visit the German Colony in Haifa several times. He subsequently requested his son, ‘Abdu’l-Baha, to build a mausoleum dedicated to the Bab on the slopes of Mount Carmel. In 1909, after nearly 60 years of being kept in hiding, the remains of the Bab were finally laid to rest in that mausoleum.
The mausoleum was originally made of local stone and consisted of six rooms. ‘Abdu’l-Baha was buried in 1921 in a separate room of the mausoleum. In 1929, three additional rooms were constructed in the mausoleum.
The construction of the shrine over the mausoleum was completed in 1953, with the costs being shouldered by the Baha’is all over the world.
Canadian architect William Sutherland Maxwell was responsible for the artistic design of the shrine. Maxwell was a Baha’i convert himself through association – he was the father-in-law of Shoghi Effendi, the great-grandson of Baha’u’allah and grandson and successor of ‘Abdu’l-Baha. Effendi provided overall guidance, including the use of Eastern and Western styles, but left the artistic details to Maxwell.
Other people who helped complete the shrine included American Baha’i follower Leroy Ioas, who helped Effendi with the construction process.
Work on the terraced gardens surrounding the shrine began in 1987, with Iranian-American architect Fariborz Sahba and engineers from Karban and Co. in Haifa overseeing the project.
The gold-capped shrine sits in the middle section, between the terraced gardens. The upper section of the gardens is just off Louis Promenade and the main gate where the tours usually start. The gardens go close a kilometer in length from the lowest gate of the German Colony to the main gate up to the top.
In 2008, UNESCO declared the Shrine of the Bab and several Baha’i holy sites in Haifa and Acre as World Heritage Sites.
Hundreds of thousands of tourists – locals and foreigners, followers and non-followers – visit the Baha’i Gardens alone. The shrine, on the other hand, is open to visitors only in the morning. One can walk only part of the grounds, but some certain areas are off-limits to tourists as it is a prayer and pilgrimage site.
For the Baha’is, the Shrine of the Bab continues to serve as the beacon of light, reminding them of the transformative power and impact of Bab’s revelation and legacy.
The Baha’i faith is only a solid testament that Israel, despite being a Jewish state, welcomes the practice of different faiths and guarantees the freedom of religion for all its citizens.