It is not often that one stands at the bottom of a mountain and finds himself at a look-out point, yet this is precisely the experience of standing at the bottom of Mt. Carmel in Haifa, seat of the Baha'i Gardens and Baha'i World Center.
When positioned at the foot of the mountain, the observer is treated to a vision of unparalleled beauty - a pristine garden with nineteen terraces sweeping majestically up to the mountain's summit.
The foliage that extends the length of the mountain seamlessly strikes a divine chord with greenery that appears to ascend into the heavens, aptly revealing the meaning of the mountain's name: Carmel, the Vineyard of the Lord. The view from the top of the mountain is no less enchanting. Soft winds compliment a panorama of sea, city, and flower blossoms, ornamented by the stately golden dome of the Baha'i Gardens' shrine to its founder, the Báb.
The Baha'i faith is the world's newest religion. In the mid 19th century in Shiraz, Iran, a merchant by the name of Siyyid 'Ali-Muhammad Shirází, or the as he was more commonly known, announced the coming of a messenger who would manifest the prophesies foretold by a plethora of the world's iconic spiritual leaders, including Abraham, Zoroaster, Krishna, Moses, Buddha, Jesus, and Mohammad. In preparation for this event, the Báb took eighteen students to disseminate this message, and instructed them in a new way of religious thinking, one which would open their eyes and hearts to the spiritual revelation of the Baha'i faith.
In contrast to the stark polemical atmosphere into which the Baha'i faith was born, its message is one of plurality and unification. A central belief of Baha'i followers is that each of the aforementioned prophets and their various teachings constitute part of a long line of divine revelations that emanate from a single, universal religion, whose ultimate goal is to unify all humanity under a banner of common good and mutual respect and affection.
Shoghi Effendi, a preeminent Baha'i thinker, explains that Baha'is believe "that religious truth is not absolute but relative, that Divine Revelation is a continuous and progressive process, that all the great religions of the world are divine in origin, that their basic principles are in complete harmony, that their aims and purposes are one and the same, that their teachings are but facets of one truth, that their functions are complementary, that they differ only in the nonessential aspects of their doctrines, and that their missions represent successive stages in the spiritual evolution of human society."
Not long after the Báb's death in 1850, a man called Baha'u'llah revealed himself as the messenger the Báb had spoken of, the prophet sent inform the people of the world of their impending oneness. In spite of his forty year imprisonment in Acre under the Ottoman Empire, Baha'u'llah managed to consolidate and codify the tenants of the religion, along with his son, Abdu'l-Bahá, who became the next leader of the fledgling religion. Today, the Baha'i faith has over 6 million members in 260 countries, making it the most dispersed religion on the planet.
Baha'i Gardens and World Center is the ultimate reflection of the Baha'i experience. Its history is recorded in the architecture of the gardens, which features nineteen levels that represent the Bab and his eighteen students, and various shrines to the faith's most influential leaders. More than just a museum of relics however, the Baha'i World Center focuses on the community's present and future, housing the administrative and governmental bodies of the religion.
But most importantly, the gardens are a beacon for Baha'i followers, who come to volunteer, pray, and meet their religious obligation of making pilgrimage. There is a special serenity marked in the step of the Baha'i believer, who is notably more contemplative than the rest of the gardens' visitors, stopping to listen to the running water of the monument's numerous fountains, or standing motionless while looking out over the breathtaking views of Haifa.
A Baha'i may even be caught with his back to the Mediterranean, taking in the view of Mt. Carmel from within the gardens, likely savoring what looks to be a stairway to another realm. Doubtless, for the Baha'i and non-Baha'i alike, the Baha'i Gardens offer 360% of beauty, encompassing its visitors in a world that does seem as unified and whole as the Baha'is envision it.
As much as it is symbol of the Baha'i faith, the Baha'i Gardens itself is also emblematic of the city of Haifa, Israel's most demographically diverse city, which prides itself on coexistence and cooperation. The ethos of tolerance that prevails in Haifa exemplifies and reflects the enduring Baha'i belief that a day will come when all men will unite as one.