Nina and I walk down the Terraces together at around 8:30 to arrive at the Pilgrim Reception Centre for a 9:00 bus to ‘Akka. The walled city, sometimes known as Acre, has been many things, including a Crusader citadel, but in the nineteenth century it was a prison for the worst elements of the Ottoman Empire. It’s a little more than half an hour north of Haifa, but the difference is eerie. Haifa is a beautiful, highly industrialized, yet very clean city full of life and greenery, where people move at a cheerful, brisk pace, at least until they reach a cafe. But as we drive into the old city of ‘Akka, things take on a crumbling, decayed aspect. Everything is a thousand years old, and looks it. History is everywhere, but it seems like the long-discarded shell of a vast and unremembered creature, through which people walk and bicycle with a grim obliviousness. The Sea Gate, through which Bahá’u’lláh entered the prison city, is now a cafe, and not a particularly nice-looking one. One of the moats outside the city, across which pilgrims used to peer for a glimpse of Bahá’u’lláh in the prison window, is now a basketball court.
The bus lumbers awkwardly up a small road and into the actual prison area, and when we get out it is a short walk through narrow streets to the stone army barracks where Bahá’u’lláh and His family were interned when they first arrived. We start, wisely, on a note of devotion and gentleness, as we stand outside and ponder what it must have been like to travel on foot for months from Persia to attain the Holy Presence, which in the end would be only a waving hand through the iron grille of a small barracks window. Yet this itself, says our guide, would be enough to sustain, even enrapture the pilgrims, and they would go back home to their cities and tell the friends what they had seen.
The barracks itself is an odd combination of the ancient and intimidating and the new and smooth. Zionist fighters were imprisoned here by the British after Bahá’u’lláh’s time, in the very rooms which the Holy Family had occupied, and so the government of Israel has cleaned, re-plastered and repaved those rooms, as well as cleaning and maintaining the courtyard outside. After years of negotiations, however, the House of Justice succeeded in securing, to be left more-or-less in their original state, the room of Bahá’u’lláh and the spot where the Purest Branch fell.
We stand outside in the wide promenade overlooking the courtyard, waiting to go up to the rooms, while our guide tells us a few stories about the dreadful conditions under which the Holy Family was brought to this place. Bahá’u’lláh Himself relates in the Lawh-i-Ra’is that on the first night of their arrival after a painful voyage by sea in the company of their enemies, they were thrown in the cells with no way to sustain themselves: “They even begged for water, and were refused.” The next day they were provided with some old bread, which proved to be inedible. They still had no source of water except a fetid and stagnant pool in the courtyard. Several died within the first few days.
Conditions eventually improved slightly; ‘Abdu’l-Bahá was eventually allowed to buy them some food, and they were given access to a slightly larger area, including the roof of their portion of the barracks. It was here, while pacing the roof one evening, that Mirza Mihdi, one of Bahá’u’lláh’s younger sons, known as “The Purest Branch,” fell through a skylight onto a crate below, injuring him fatally. When Bahá’u’lláh came to his side and asked him what he wished, the Purest Branch asked that his death be a sacrifice to enable the Bahá’ís to attain the presence of Bahá’u’lláh. He passed away less than a day later, and not long after that, the Bahá’ís were indeed given access to come and visit Bahá’u’lláh, though not without difficulty.
This story is, of course, profoundly sad and moving, not only in its own right, but also because it calls back to, and fundamentally alters, the story of Abraham, who was willing to sacrifice His own son to God. God, of course, intervenes at the last moment, and Isaac or Ishmael (depending on which text you’re reading) is saved. Christians, of course, see this story as a prefigurement of God’s willingness to sacrifice His Son, although humanity does not return the favor and spare Him. But Jesus, of course, must be seen as a willing participant in the crucifixion, and so His sacrifice takes on an additional meaning.
Here the two aspects of the story come together: Bahá’u’lláh, like Abraham, is willing to make the ultimate sacrifice and let His son die (the implication of the story being that He could easily restore Mirza Mihdi, but does not), but only because his son asks to be sacrificed. Just as Jesus went willingly to the crucifixion that people might believe in Him and thus attain to God, Mirza Mihdi is willing to die as a sacrifice that others might attain the presence of Bahá’u’lláh, and through Bahá’u’lláh God Himself.
Nothing so academic is passing through my mind as I climb the narrow, rocky steps to the barracks and open the door. Jamshid, our guide, has warned us that the place on the floor where Mirza Mihdi fell is in the first room, but I am not prepared for it to be so suddenly and so directly before me when I enter. Although, in honor of the Zionist prisoners, the entire floor has been repaved in clean, smooth white flagstone, a small rectangular section immediate in front of the door has been left at its original depth and in its original, rough condition. Velvet ropes form a small perimeter around it to keep people from stepping there. I know immediately what it is, of course, having seen pictures and with the story at the fore of my mind; but this doesn’t keep it from being a shock. There is nowhere to hide from it; it is the first thing in the room.
We make a respectful ellipse around it and proceed to the far end of the hall, where Jamshid tells us a little more about the times of Bahá’u’lláh and His family here, and then we take off our shoes and he opens the small door in the corner of the hall leading to Bahá’u’lláh’s room.
We enter the room a few at a time. The floor is the same bright white stone as the hall, but it is covered with straw mats and, in one corner, a small carpet which no one sits on. Some plaster has come away from the vaulted ceiling. The small window is barred, of course, but beautiful Mediterranean light pours in and fills a brilliant white rectangle on the wall, and the sea laps peacefully outside. There is very little left here of the horror and suffering that caused Bahá’u’lláh to name ‘Akka “The Most Great Prison.” Still, one can imagine it — the cold, filthy cell, the lack of food or drinkable water, dozens crowded into this small suite of cells, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá forced to sleep in the morgue below.
Nonetheless, this cell became the site of one of the greatest stories of Bahá’u’lláh’s ministry — this is where Badi, a troubled youth of Khurasan, finally attained Bahá’u’lláh’s presence and received his mission.
Badi was a bad seed, the kind of boy destined for trouble in his youth. Born in 1853, around the time Bahá’u’lláh first received His revelation, he was disobedient, wild, a heartache to his father, a dedicated Bábi and later Bahá’í. But when he met Nabil, who quoted to him passages from Bahá’u’lláh’s “Ode of the Nightingale (or Dove),” Badi was changed, and he was seized with a longing to go and meet Him. His father insisted that he finish his studies of the Kitab-i-Iqan before going, and, in a sign of the change that was coming over him, he obeyed. His father gave Badi a horse and money to make the long journey from Persia to Palestine, but he, perhaps feeling that this was somehow too fine for such a pilgrimage, gave away everything he had with him and made his way across the Ottoman Empire as a laborer. Months later, he entered ‘Akka as a water-carrier, quietly found a Bahá’í living in the city (some of Bahá’u’lláh’s enemies had been exiled with Him, and acted as spies for the government), and finally arranged to go to the prison to meet Bahá’u’lláh. He entered Bahá’u’lláh’s chamber, and when he emerged, he was charged to deliver His message to the Shah of Persia.
Bahá’u’lláh had refused to send this Tablet to the Shah for some time, saying that “No man yet born can take it.” But on Badi’s emergence from his audience, Bahá’u’lláh is supposed to have declared that “The old Badi is completely gone; the new Badi is born.” Badi, newly-born, rushed to fulfill his mission; he returned to Tihran in secret and sat outside for three days without moving, waiting to be noticed by the party of the Shah, who was hunting. He was eventually noticed and granted admittance to the presence of the king, where, straightaway, he quoted the Hoopoe in the Quran, saying, “Oh King, I have come unto thee from Sheba with a weighty message.” (Perhaps troubling to the Shah, this verse actually begins, “I comprehend that which you do not comprehend.”) The Tablet was sent to be read and analyzed by the Muslim divines, while Badi was thrown into prison, tortured, and finally martyred.
This story is dear to my heart, because I’ve known several young people who couldn’t stay out of trouble in their teen years, drug dealers and thieves and scrappers, who were completely remade by a love for Bahá’u’lláh. Many of those people take Badi as a model of hope; the more so if they grew up in Bahá’í families. All of us who spent some time wandering in the wilderness in our youth long to be Badi, long to achieve that level of devotion which would enable us to run headlong into danger and suffering for the sake of God. As Bahá’u’lláh writes:
The true lover yearneth for tribulation, even as doth the rebel for forgiveness and the sinful for mercy.
Experiencing both those states at once, I think, is what the story of Badi is about; every one of us is a rebel, and every one a true lover. And in a way, we can measure the distance we have yet to go towards true devotion by the degree to which we seek mercy instead of seeking difficulty and sacrifice in the path of God. The true lover takes mercy and forgiveness as a natural part of his relationship with God; he doesn’t yearn for them, because he feels them overwhelmingly whenever he communes with God. Instead, he yearns to leave behind material things, to expend his substance in service to God. Badi and the other early martyrs are the extreme case, of course; they suffered unspeakably in the physical realm, but Shoghi Effendi tells us that, for them, the veil between this world and the next was very thin. They were already living in the spiritual world.
We spend some little time meditating in the room of Bahá’u’lláh, and I decide, when I come out, to walk around to each cell individually and pray there for some of the strength and devotion of the Bahá’ís who had to live there, some of whom died there, all of them willing to suffer extreme depridation rather than deny their faith. This takes some time; then we come back out to the entrance and stand around the roped-off area of original stone floor. It’s hardly even enough to encompass the body of a young man, and I think Mirza Mihdi must have been, like Bahá’u’lláh and ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, very small.
Jamshid tells the story of the fall of the Purest Branch as only Jamshid can (we are in love with Jamshid, a great storyteller and a man whose devotion and humor are contagious). I always have trouble hearing this story, and several days of prayer and joyful devotion have made me subject to weeping anyway, but I am all right, holding it together… until he mentions the stones. The stones which were in his pocket, which I have seen just the day before in the archive. And the tears release themselves effortlessly. There is a moment of reverent meditation, and then I find that I must take a strong interest in a nearby staircase, and not look at anyone for a moment.
Nina comes and stands next to me. Red-eyed and sniffy, we take a great interest in the staircase together for a few moments, discussing it in more than usual detail. We confess to each other, in whispers, that we are devastated by this experience, that it is more sudden and real than we are ready for.
“I can’t imagine taking a picture of this,” I say. And, indeed, I take no pictures inside ‘Akka. It’s not that I disapprove of the others who do — in fact I’m grateful to them, those who carefully compose images of that roped-off area. I had seen it before in someone else’s pilgrim photos, which probably kept it from being a bigger shock than it was when I first walked in. But for us, there’s too much power in the silence around it, and we find ourselves turning away.
We do agree, though, that it’s better that these cells are the way they are, clean and white and fresh, than left as a memorial to the bitterness suffered here. If I have given the impression that there was a sense of tragedy in these rooms, that is not right. There is the tremendous force of sacrifice, a force made almost tangible in that area around the bare patch of stone, but all the suffering of Bahá’u’lláh and His companions only serves to magnify the brilliance of their determination to announce the truth. Bahá’u’lláh himself wrote, as the family washed Mirza Mihdi’s body:
At this very moment… My son is being washed before My face, after Our having sacrificed him in the Most Great Prison…. Under such conditions My Pen hath not been prevented from remembering its Lord, the Lord of all Nations. It summoneth the people unto God, the Almighty, the All-Bountiful.
All this can, of course, seem a bit startling, even inhuman. But loss and reunion are inextricably linked; we have to lose everything that we love in this life — including, ultimately, life itself — in order to attain reunion with God and with other souls in the spiritual realm. And, on the other hand, life itself is a kind of loss; in another Tablet, Bahá’u’lláh writes of the Purest Branch that
At his birth he was afflicted through his separation from Thee, according to what had been ordained for him through Thine irrevocable decree.
It is possible to end that affliction, even while we are still alive, by reuniting with God through His Manifestation. But to do so necessarily means we will be confronted with loss in the material realm:
And when he had quaffed the cup of reunion with Thee, he was cast into prison for having believed in Thee and in Thy Signs.
Not all of us will be thrown into prison, of course, but in the course of love we will always be confronted with the necessity of voluntarily giving up our material comforts and joys. Parents know this best, of course; they willingly give of their wealth, time, effort, and sleep for their children, and yet, while it is a sacrifice, and while they may even feel the pangs of loss, they would hardly do things any other way. So each of us is called, according to his conscience, to give of his time, money, and energy to this Cause that we love, the work of bringing to fulfillment the world-altering promise of Bahá’u’lláh’s message.
Indeed, in moments of greatest love, we may feel a spontaneous desire to offer up things it’s not even necessary to relinquish, such as Badi giving away his horse and proceeding to ‘Akka on foot.
These are my thoughts, and the things I try to dedicate myself to, as we leave that quiet prison.
Afterwards, we visit the House of ‘Abbud, a very fine house and one of the places Bahá’u’lláh lived after He was able to leave the prison. It stands out in its neighborhood, clean and white and beautiful as a fresh tablecloth. Inside we have tea and then ascend the stairs and hear about the revelation of the Kitab-i-Aqdas (“Most Holy Book”), Bahá’u’lláh’s book of laws and charter for Bahá’í civilization. This took place in a small, wood-panelled room, furnished today much as it was then, with a plain wrought-iron bed and a couch to sit on. We pray and meditate in this room, and I feel pleased and privileged to be in the room where such an astonishing book was revealed.
Still, after the morning, we all need a little laughter, and when we have prayed Jamshid takes us to another room and tells us light-hearted stories of the lives of the members of the Holy Family in the house. He tells us that there were so many people living in the house that they slept often a dozen or more to a room. To save space, one young woman decided to make her bed on a narrow ledge along the wall. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá warned her not to sleep there because of the danger of falling. But of course she slept there anyway, and in the middle of the night rolled off the ledge and onto… yes… ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, who was sleeping on the floor below.
Jamshid also tells us of the owner of the other half of the house, which was divided, as a very large duplex, who knew and admired ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, and began to wonder why such a young man was still unmarried. He realized that, of course, it was impossible under such circumstances of crowding for ‘Abdu’l-Bahá to take a wife. And so he began, in secret, to build and furnish a bridal chamber for Him in his own house, just on the other side of the wall. When it was completed, he went to Bahá’u’lláh to offer his gift, which was of course accepted, and ‘Abdu’l-Bahá and Munirih Khanum were married.
We go home this day tired and emotionally overwhelmed, but with full hearts. Our little gang of three goes to the Shrine of the Báb at dusk, and we pray contentedly. I feel, this night, for the first time, the intimation of a call to greater service, one which will continue to swell in my heart for the rest of pilgrimage. When I come back to my hotel at night, I find an email from one of our area coordinators asking me to tutor a study circle in Ruhi Book 2 — whose title is, of course, “Arising to Serve.”
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