Baha'i Library Online

COLLECTIONTranscripts of videos and audio
TITLEPilgrimage or Tourism at the Baha'i Gardens?
AUTHOR 1 Religion For Breakfast
NOTES Transcript prepared by Doug Couper from video online at
TAGS- Bahá'í World Centre; Akka, Israel; Alan Coupe; Báb, Shrine of; Haifa, Israel; Mount Carmel, Israel; Pilgrimage; Tourism

1. Transcript (see video below)

Pilgrimage or Tourism at the Baha'i Gardens?
uploaded by ReligionForBreakfast
2018 Dec 10
5:29 minutes
Video Description: While the Baha'i Gardens on Mt. Carmel in Haifa have become a major tourist site, Baha'i pilgrims find significance in travelling there to pray and meditate at the Shrine of the Bab.
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When you hear about a pilgrimage to a holy city in the Middle East, you might think about Mecca in Saudi Arabia or maybe Jerusalem - which has holy sites for three major world religions: the Western Wall for Jews, the Dome of the rock for Muslims, and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre for Christians - among others, but when I studied abroad in Jerusalem last semester, I visited two additional holy cities that don't get quite as much attention - Akko and Haifa, located on the coast near the border with Lebanon.

These are the holiest cities for the Baha'i faith. The Bahá'í faith is a relatively recent monotheistic religion. Like other Abrahamic religions, they believe in one God, but they also believe in the oneness of all humanity and the oneness of all religions, and this last part is a key teaching - that God's will for humanity is revealed in a series of Manifestations of God - God's messengers who continuously enter history to communicate God's will - and these messengers span religions so Buddha, Krishna, Zoroaster, Jesus, Muhammad, Abraham are all Manifestations of God and (these) include the founder of the Baha'i faith, Bahá'u'lláh.

The religion grew out of the cultural context of Twelver Shiite Islam in 19th century Iran. If you remember from my Intro to Islam video, Twelvers are the largest sect of Shiites and formed the majority of Muslims in Iran through this day. They believe in 12 successors to the Prophet Muhammad called Imams and according to tradition, the 12th Imam Muhammad al-Mahdi disappeared in the 9th century and is prophesied to return again at the end of time. This messianic expectation helped spark the Baha'i faith in the mid-19th century. One sect of the Twelvers thought that the 12th Imam would return in 1844, and it just so happened in that same year that a Persian merchant by the name of Syed Ali Muhammad declared himself to be a Messenger of God and took the name the Bab, which means gate in Arabic. In other words, He is the gate to the 12th Imam.

He soon gathered a following but the Babi movement did not last very long. A few years later, the Shiite authorities arrested Him and executed the Bab and his followers by firing squad, but the movement did not die out. One of the followers of the Bab, a Persian man by the name Mirza Husayn-Ali gathered a new following from the remnants of the Babis, and He took the name Baha'u'llah, meaning glory of God, and His movement continued into what we know today as the Baha'i faith.

So here's where Akko and Haifa come into the picture. Baha’u’llah was not popular with the Persian authorities, so they exiled Him from His homelands and He spent the next few years bouncing between different cities in exile and the Ottoman Empire, until the Ottomans imprisoned Him in the city of Akko. Here he spent the rest of his life teaching and writing tons of books until he died in 1892. Today, Akko and Haifa are pilgrimage sites for Baha’is worldwide and the cities are considered the heart of the Baha'i faith.

The shrine of Baha'u'llah, where He is buried, is located in Akko and Baha'is turn toward this shrine during prayer. The Bab is buried nearby in Haifa in a domed shrine surrounded by a kilometre of gardens stretching down the slope of Mount Carmel. The Baha'i World Centre is located nearby, and it's an administrative institution since they don't have an official clergy. With the spiritual centre of their faith located in Akko and Haifa, you would expect a sizable Baha'i population in Israel, right? But there actually isn't one. A few Baha’is reside in Israel as volunteers at the World Centre on a rotating basis, but there's no formal community. Even the tour guides of the Baha'i Gardens are local Jewish Israelis and not Baha’is, and this is what surprised me most about the Baha'i Gardens when I visited there - the relatively low profile that they kept. Now compare this to Christian pilgrimage sites such as the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, where tourists intermingle with Christian pilgrims who are engaging in all manner of ritual practice - bowing; kissing the stone of the anointing; standing in line to get a glimpse at what is believed to be Jesus's tomb - and nearby the church you have shops selling tons and tons of Christian souvenirs.

And as a scholar of ancient Christianity, this is what I think about when I think about pilgrimage - the Venn diagrams of tourism and pilgrimage overlapping. Christians in late antiquity would travel to a big church just to see the bones of their favourite saint and a whole industry would pop up selling stuff like tokens with little pictures of Saint Simeon on it, but at the Baha'i gardens I didn't see any ritual practice. The pilgrims and the tourists are kept fairly separate.

Baha'is in good standing can apply for a pilgrimage on the World Centre's website, and they get exclusive tours and access to the Shrine of the Bab for prayer and meditation, but my experience was very much a tourist experience. I was surrounded by bus loads of tourists; I was interacting with an Israeli tour guide with a memorized script; and I couldn't help but wonder how much different this experience must be for a Baha'i pilgrim. If you're one of them, put your experience in the comments below. I'd be very curious, but for the rest of us, what do you see as the difference between tourism and pilgrimage? Are they one in the same or are there key differences. Put your thoughts in the comments below and, as always, thanks for watching.

2. Video

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