We’ve arrived in Haifa, northern Israel having travelled effortlessly up from Jerusalem. We rocked up to the Jerusalem Central Bus Station, paid our 42 shekels each (no discounts for kids) and then sat back and relaxed with free wifi for the 2 hour express trip.
Our first impressions of Haifa are mixed and seem to match the Israeli phrase that "Haifa works, Jerusalem prays, and Tel Aviv plays". A port city whose outskirts house quite a number of factories and laden with plenty of hills, the city has serious work to do in order to win us over.
The main reason we’re here is to visit the Bahá'í Gardens, which are also known by the moniker the Hanging Gardens of Haifa. Established as terraces around the Shrine of the Bab, they are only a short(ish) walk from our accommodation. I say shortish, as while the actual shrine is close, getting to the top terrace in order to look down Mount Carmel requires us to ascend a great number of stairs. Given most of Haifa is built on hills, we are getting very used to climbing stairs.
The word Bahá’i is derived from the Arabic Bahá meaning "glory" or "splendor" and the beauty of the gardens is such that they have been called the eighth wonder of the world. Not surprisingly, they have UNESCO World Heritage Site status, forming part of The Bahá’i Holy Places in Haifa and Western Galilee (Israel), which comprise a number of buildings, monuments and sites at a range of different locations in Acre and Haifa.
Covering an area of 200,000 square metres and spanning a kilometre from top to bottom, the grounds have a total of nineteen terraces, arranged in concentric circles. These terraces represent the first eighteen disciples of the Báb plus the one terrace of the Shrine of the Báb.
The Báb was a Persian merchant who began preaching that God would soon send a new prophet similar to Jesus or Muhammed. That prophet was the Bahá’u’lláh who then established the Bahá'í faith in modern day Iran in 1863 and who we can now be thankful for being able to visit such beautiful gardens.
As beautiful as the gardens are, it is the Bahá'í shrine with its golden dome made of 12,000 interlocking tiles, marble walls and granite pillars that steals the show.
So good in fact, it needs another picture!
Inside the shrine, no religious ceremonies, sermons or prayers are held. Instead, it is a place for individual quiet prayer and meditation. Having to adhere to that gave me the only five minutes of peace and quiet I had all day. Amen to that.
The Bahá'í faith has a lot going for it. Based on the three principles of unity of God, unity of religion and unity of humanity, it is religion that values the worth of all religions, and the unity and equality of all people. Even now it is only estimated to have between 5 and 8 million followers, the largest majority of whom reside in India. Despite the importance of the religion in Israel, the actual number of followers is likely to number less than 20,000.
You can visit the Shrine and inner gardens every day between the hours of 9 am and noon, with access to the other terraces open until 5pm. So long as the weather is good, a free walking tour of the gardens also takes place from the Yefe Nof Street. This lasts about 50 minutes and runs every day except Wednesdays. While we didn’t avail of the walking tour, our visit to the many terraces and Shrine has gone a long way to convincing us that visiting Haifa, is definitely worthwhile.