The day was perfect. The sight over the Bay of Haifa is often blanketed by pollution and sandy winds, but not last Friday. Crystal-blue waters and a clear view of the mountains on the other side of the bay are a much appreciated treat for the inhabitants of this northern Israeli city, especially when the lower half of the Terraces of the Bahá’í Gardens are open to them.
On 21 October 2011, the Bahá’í International Community, in collaboration with the City of Haifa, opened the nine lower terraces of the gardens below the Shrine of the Báb. Nestled in the middle of nineteen terraces, this golden-domed structure was the prize at the top of a nine-story walk, which many took leisurely during the five hours the terraces were open. Water stations helped them along the way, as the sun still shines strongly at this time of the year. Children were able to further enjoy their visit by visiting two children’s corners, one at the bottom gate of the Terraces, on the famed Ben Gurion avenue, and the other on the side gate of the ninth terrace. Face painting, flower making, and various other activities had been prepared by volunteers, and most children could be seen leaving the area with beaming smiles, carrying the fruits of their guided artistic endeavours.
The nine lower terraces which were opened to the public form only half of the entire structure, as nine more terraces link the Shrine of the Báb to the top of Mount Carmel. The terraces were officially inaugurated in May 2001, marking the end of a ten-year project funded entirely by voluntary contributions of the worldwide Baha’i community. The Open Day created the most wonderful of sights, with families joyfully exploring the beautiful gardens, peering into the fountains, and gently stroking the many blooms colourfully peppering the nine levels open to the public. Since 2001, the Bahá’í Gardens have received seven million visitors from around the globe. Last year, some 760,000 tourists visited Haifa’s Bahá’í gardens, which amounts to well over 14,000 visitors a week.
One visitor, who has lived her entire life in Haifa, expressed her gratitude at having this opportunity, all the more since “it is not easy, cleaning all of this up after we leave.” I watched her walking away and smiled when she bent down to pick up a candy wrapper that had probably accidentally fallen from the pocket of a parent, intent on further sweetening the visit for their child. A child beamed at me when I asked her if she was having fun; her father translated for me that she found the terraces “very, very pretty.”
This year’s Open Day was particularly worthwhile as the Shrine of the Báb underwent an extensive restoration project between 2008 and 2011, which involved: installing concrete reinforcements and steel structures to protect the Shrine and its surroundings from earthquake damage; improving the building’s waterproofing; gilding anew many decorative elements; restoring ornamental balustrades; and re-tiling the dome with almost 12,000 glazed porcelain tiles coated with a solution containing pure gold. In 2008, the Shrine of the Báb and its surrounding terrace gardens together with the Shrine of Bahá’u’lláh were inscribed on UNESCO’s World Heritage List, and in 2011, its chief inaugurated the UNESCO for Tolerance and Peace Square in Haifa at the bottom of the terraces, in the middle of the roundabout between Ben Gurion avenue and Hagefen, at the point where the city’s historic Germen Templar colony meets the terraced gardens. One can only hope that the beauty and serenity of the gardens will have instilled peace in the hearts of all those who visited and volunteered on that beautiful day.