The following is a reflection I wrote on my pilgrimage to the Holy Land in late November 2016. It appeared in the 2017 Spring edition of the Scottish Bahá’í Newsletter (issue 15) – my name was overlooked, thus the article appeared as anonymously written.
My eyes were fixated when I first saw the long-anticipated, mesmerising view of the Shrine of The Báb. I was surprised by the spectacle; photographs cannot prepare you for it’s real-world beauty. I suspect that no pilgrim ever forgets first sighting the super superstructure. It’s purely majestic and likely one of the definitive moments of any Bahá’i’s first pilgrimage.
I stayed at the Molada Guest House on Hanassi – nearby to the upper terraces entrance. The first morning at breakfast I met Bas, a Dutch co-pilgrim who had also been allocated group H. We struck up a companionship and spent much time in each other’s company. My pilgrim group was assembled from an influx originating from Hawaii, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Russia, Canada, USA, UK, Belarus, French Guiana and Suriname. It was fantastic to see the first large group of Mongolian pilgrims whom had come, stunning in their colourful, traditional costumes. One evening at the International Teaching Centre, nine of them chanted a prayer together. The intonation was spiritually transportive and later they sang a wonderful traditional song. Their soulful harmony was uniquely beautiful and I wished only that it had been recorded. With believers come from all over the world, the spirit of a global, faith-unified family was evident.
Happily, all of the Universal House of Justice members were present when Stephen Hall gave a welcome speech. An inspiring talk was also given by Juan Mora of the International Teaching Centre – the theme was to taken courage in. teaching the faith. Take the first step; start talking, and you will receive divine assistance from above. Both speeches mentioned that pilgrimage invigorates us; crucially, because pilgrims are the newly-enriched lifeblood of the faith.
Visiting the Prison Cell of Bahá’u’lláh felt an important experience as it’s a potent reality of the injustice suffered by Him. It is lasting evidence of the isolation and wrongdoing imposed against the Blessed Beauty. It was unexpectedly large but devoid of even minimal comfort…chilling winds would have blown through the metal bar windows on winter’s nights .
The Houses of Abbud and ‘Abdu’lláh Pahsa, Mansions of Mazra’ih and Bahjí are all places of simplified and dignified beauty, bringing the history of the faith to life.
For seasoned pilgrims, there were some unexpected delights in the form of ’new’ artefacts to see.‘Adbu’l-Bahá’s beautifully restored carriage (at the House of ‘Abdu’lláh Pahsa) and his 1919 vintage Cunningham car (7-seater Touring edition) in Haifá. How fortunate I was to see such plenty, a feast of unforgettable images. Every building which is a part of the official pilgrimage programme was open for viewing.
Bahjí’s gardens caused me to often stop walking and stare, taking in the natural beauty spread all around. As a fan of cacti, it was a joy to see so many species of these evolutionary oddities. Green parrots flying between the trees seemed symbolic of the freedom of spirit in this divine setting. Picking just two words to describe Bahjí, they would be ‘paradisal’ and ‘glorious.’
Quivering quadriceps began – my thigh muscles were quaking. The reason occurred to me; I’d been down, up and down again the upper terraces every day (around 1.5km of climbing daily). About day five the trembling started and I realised it was muscle fatigue. The full ascent is 225m from bottom to top terrace – a costly climb in energy and it certainly tests endurance!
I was drawn to the impressive World Centre buildings, resplendent in their dignified majesty, visible signs of God upon the Arc. Their classical designs lend them an an appearance of age but the Pentellic marble stone is so clean that it belies its true youthfulness. It is fantastic to consider that these edifices are to endure for a millennium.
Second only to the Universal House of Justice in its measure of stately magnificence, the Archives Building most resembles a restored Parthenon… elegantly crafted with enduring beauty.
To see so many artefacts from the early days of the faith is astonishing – the mind spins in wonder. The items that impacted me most were a beautiful white shirt, simply and elegantly tailored, owned by Bahá’u’lláh and the locks of His hair.
Blood-stained garments of The Báb and The Purest Branch were compelling to view and relics such as these give added context to the significant events in the Faith’s infancy. The sufferings, sacrifices and martyrdoms of the faith consciously resonate. So many thoughtful touches are put into the viewing of the precious archival treasures, for example, when looking upon the portraits of Bahá’u’lláh and The Báb the lighting within their exquisitely crafted, cabinet-style reliquaries is brought up gradually and faded slowly out to avoid any abrupt sense of disconnection with the images of the Divine Manifestations.
The Sea Gate isn’t easy to track down for the uninformed, greenhorn pilgrim, even with the map in the pilgrimage pack, unless you’ve been clued into its situation (on Leopold the Second Street). It’s location mark on the map is ambiguous and I found myself at the end of the Seawall Promenade believing I’d identified it. It isn’t included within the organised pilgrimage visit which is perhaps regretful due to its historical significance. On returning again to Akká with a larger group, I did see the ‘proper’ Sea Gate.
Pilgrim guides share narratives and facts of interest but ultimately, we all absorb something different from the experience. We filter and interpret information and sensory input but each brings their total life’s experiences with them to the Holy shrines and sites, so the journey is completely, personally unique.
Returning home from my pilgrimage, I reflect upon what an unforgettable, beautiful experience it was. I was blessed to have been guided and helped by friends in preparing myself in readings and explanations which facilitated my spiritual readiness and my heartfelt thanks goes to them.
One of the most lasting images that I brought home with me is the long, gravel path approach to Bahá’u’lláh’s Shrine. The time taken approaching, walking that path, I used intensively to gather my spiritual concentration, aligning my awareness with the entire journeys purpose, the path’s endpoint and destination – preparing myself as completely as possible. It took surprisingly long to walk this relatively short distance, the gravel underfoot effectively designed to slow the approach and induce a more meditative mindset.
On the final evening there was a lightning storm across Haifá Bay, and watching it from the higher terraces, it was an unforgettably striking ending. I felt blessed to witness this powerful, beautiful display of natural energy; its position was directly above Akká and Bhaji. Every moment felt perfect, an ‘electric’ atmosphere of discharge and conclusion. I lingered for about 40 minutes soaking up the memory of this farewell spectacle.