We wake up early and walk down the Terraces to dawn prayers. It’s hard to convey the grandeur of that idea, “walk down the Terraces to dawn prayers.” I haven’t been to Mecca, but I have been to many of the great cathedrals of Spain, as well as most of the major national monuments of the U.S., and nowhere have I ever seen such an astonishing perfection of design. The Terraces which lead from the top of Mt. Carmel (and, fortunately, the hotel district) down to the Shrine of the Bab (and, on the other side, from the Shrine down to Ben Gurion Avenue, facing out to the sea) are, taken individually, always human in scale and never overwhelming in their proportions — yet there is no denying the vast size of them overall. The line of them runs most of the slope of the mountain, nine above the Shrine and nine below, and taken as a whole they have a majestic sweep that is, nonetheless, largely invisible to the individual on a given Terrace, who receives it simply as marble embrace inside of which is hidden a unique garden of prayer and meditation.
The gates to the Terraces are not open to the public in the early morning hours, but the guards will open them to pilgrims. Most of the guards are Baha’i youth working in the Holy Land on a Youth Year of Service, so it is not uncommon to for people to find friends or cousins at the gates. My parents encouraged me, with moderate insistence, to do a Year of Service after high school, but at that time I was so fascinated by intellectualism, and so desperate to prove my intellect, that I couldn’t imagine doing anything but going to college. College turned out to be brutally challenging to my heart and spirit in a number of ways, and it took most of a decade to sort out some of those spiritual crises. Years later, I wished I had gone abroad to serve, wished I had taken the time to find my own identity as a Baha’i; put off my own desires for a year and humbled myself at the threshold of service. College would have gone better; I think life might have gone better.
In my late twenties, I went to Brasil for a short teaching trip with a friend who had faced his own tests in his youth, and when we returned, having suffered sickness and put our bodies in the path of service, but with renewed and refreshed spirits, I took a lousy job for a year and devoted myself to studying and training others in Ruhi Institute courses. I look on that year as a somewhat belated and abbreviated year of service, and while I’ve still failed many times in many fields after that year, I’ve never not known what it means to serve, to be a Baha’i.
We pray in the Shrines of the Bab and ‘Abdu’l-Baha in the early morning — three of us who found each other in the same group and have become basically inseparable: myself, Nina, and Farideh. Saman takes to calling us the Three Musketeers. Something about pilgrimage overtakes us, and our conversations are funny and rambunctious, but also always on fundamentally spiritual subjects. I think I would have been friends with these two no matter under what circumstances we’d met, but there’s something profoundly special about having met on pilgrimage. None of the usual buzz of ordinary life, with its distractions and dissipations, clouds our first few days together.
We pray individually — one of the unusual things about praying in the Shrines is how intensely personal it is; no one really even notices anyone else. I spend most of my time in the Shrine of the Bab praying for purity and connecting with Him on a more profound level than I was able to the first day; the Shrine of ‘Abdu’l-Baha, as always, is a place for more relaxed and contemplative prayer and meditation on service and my own personal life.
Afterwards our little gang has to split up for a little while — for the visit to the Archives display, we are separated into smaller groups, and I’m not in Nina and Farideh’s group. So I go to the Archives myself.
The actual Archives building is under renovation while we’re here; it is the oldest of the administrative buildings on the Arc on Mt. Carmel, having been built first in the 1950’s as a safe and climate-controlled place to house the relics and historical artifacts of the Faith. Instead of going there, we see a small display of things durable enough to survive being moved out of the building to a room in the seat of the Universal House of Justice. They are presented beautifully, stored in two rows of freestanding Chinese cabinets which open on both back and front to reveal the various items stored within. The cabinets are glass-fronted, and behind the glass are beautiful fabric banners hand decorated with geometric designs from India by Amatu’l-Baha Ruhiyyih Khanum herself. (Indeed, as a measure of both economy and devotion, many things have been personally framed by hand by Shoghi Effendi, according to our guide.)
As always, the program is front-loaded with the most significant and emotionally charged event: the viewing of the portraits of the Bab and Baha’u’llah. The guide brings us to the far end of the room, where three cabinets stand side by side. She asks that we not talk while the cabinets are open, in order not to disturb our companions as the gaze upon the portraits. At the same time, while this is a reverent moment, it’s not a sacred one — not in the way that visiting the Shrines is. And that is a good thing, because for the first time so far I don’t fully connect with the program. I am ready, when the doors open, for… I don’t know. I don’t know what I’m ready for, but I’m charged with a certain expectation, a feeling that I should be instantly galvanized by gazing on the face of my Lord.
There are three portraits. The first is a photograph taken of Baha’u’llah shortly after He was poisoned by His brother, who wanted to seize control of the Babi community and declare himself the Promised One. In the portrait, Baha’u’llah is seated indoors, next to a small table on which sits a vase of flowers. One can clearly see on His face to ravages of recent illness, but His gaze is steady and His pose is calm and dignified. His beard is long and straight and black, and in flows freely down to His chest. His small, comforting-looking hands rest in His lap.
I have mixed feelings about this portrait. It is a privilege to have seen it; the vast majority of Baha’is in the world today, who for financial or health reasons or because of political strife will never make pilgrimage, will never see the face of Baha’u’llah, and so when I stand before it I am in some way representing the desires of millions to come here and, in a figurative sense, commune with the Blessed Beauty. Yet this photograph, to me, entirely fails to convey nearly everything that I love about Baha’u’llah, the grandeur of His Revelation, the inarguable subtlety and also the sweetness of His thought, the generosity of spirit which He manifests in so many of the stories and histories; the only thing that I can find in this photo is His long-suffering. Which is to say, the only thing that comes across is His human, physical self. While this is incredibly moving — as it is in the occasional Writings in which He allows us a glimpse into the continual heartache of forty years of imprisonment, exile, and isolation — it is somehow not the aspect of Baha’u’llah I would choose to memorialize.
The second portrait, on the other hand, does attempt to convey His lofty station. It was painted by an unknown American artist who met Baha’u’llah in the baths and asked permission to paint Him. The painting is a triptych; on the left is Baha’u’llah kneeling and draped in a towel, supposedly in the bath, although it looks like He is outdoors. On the right He is seated, and in the center… oh, in the center…. The artist has painted Baha’u’llah in one of those early Renaissance poses of Jesus, one in which His hands are gesturing in the visual code of the time and He is backed by a blazing halo, rays of light emanating from His head in every direction. As Baha’u’llah, in the painting, is wearing a ruby-red taj (somewhat like a tall fez), the overall effect — and I struggle not to think this, and I feel ashamed even writing it — is that Baha’u’llah is wearing a giant police flasher on His head. The thought is so undignified that I have a hard time maintaining my bearing; I stare and stare at it, trying to connect with the artist’s obvious piety and respect for Baha’u’llah, and I eventually succeed in feeling, at least, a great deal of love for Baha’u’llah for accepting this gift, which was obviously meant as a sign of devotion.
The third portrait is of the Bab. It is a painting by a Persian artist, well-known at the time, and it seems to be in some fairly traditional style. The Bab is wrapped in His cloak and stares directly at the viewer. He seems to be seated in some sort of porch or plaza, and behind him are some plain rectangular buildings and some greenery. This painting is more skilled, and yet this one, too, I fail to entirely connect with. As one of my friends will later say, “It just seems like it could be any Persian man. If I met Him on the street, I wouldn’t recognize Him.” I think she’s right — the portrait is so traditional as to be impersonal, and again I don’t feel the connection to everything that I love in the Bab — there’s little of His awesome fierceness, or the mercy of God which He makes so plain in all His prayers.
But each aspect of pilgrimage is, truly, an individual experience, and others seem to feel it very deeply indeed; one man in our group bows respectfully before each portrait.
I find myself moved by other things. The display of manuscripts in the personal handwritings of the Bab and Baha’u’llah speak to me much more directly than the portraits ever can. Many of the tablets have been written with a great deal of space left around the page, as though something else should come later, and Shoghi Effendi brought a great Persian artist to the Holy Land to illuminate many of the original manuscripts. He never worked on reproductions, but painted directly on the very sheets the Baha’u’llah had written on. And the paintings are perfect — exquisite — their abstract geometrical patterns swirl and dart around the Blessed Beauty’s flowing hand with flawless grace. They are the pinnacle of human achievement, and I am, I realize, deeply pleased that this is where the greatest artistic effort has been expended — in celebrating, not His physical form, but His words, which have the power to recreate men.
Even more astonishing, in the midst of such ornate beauty, is one Tablet Shoghi Effendi chose not to have illuminated — a statement of love for His Son, ‘Abdu’l-Baha, in which Baha’u’llah calls Him “the apple of My eye.” Its plainness makes it more intimate and more sweet.
The only other Writings which are not illuminated are those revealed after the loss of Mirza Mihdi, Baha’u’llah’s younger son who perished in ‘Akka. Every Baha’i knows the story, and it will be told again when we visit the prison, but in the midst of this display of hundreds of artifacts I am heartstruck by the small bowl of five stones which were in Mirza Mihdi’s pocket when he fell — they were his only possessions.
Other things I love seeing — the clothes of all three of the Central Figures, the bowl and basin Baha’u’llah used in the bath, His and ‘Abdu’l-Baha’s pocket-watches, ‘Abdu’l-Baha’s binoculars, Shoghi Effendi’s pencils and drafting tools.
Read the entire journal: