But these gardens are far more than greenery, say members of thefaith. They are a visual composition dedicated to the glory of God andthe memory of the "Bab," the Baha'i prophet buried here in a gold-domedshrine.
Thousands of Baha'is will gather Tuesday (May 22) in a galainternational ceremony inaugurating the decade-long landscaping effortaround the Baha'i World Center located here on the grounds. The ceremonyis scheduled to include the dramatic sunset lighting of thekilometer-long terraces and an open-air concert of musical compositionsby Baha'i composers from Norway and Tajikistan set to excerpts of sacredBaha'i texts.
The Shrine of the Bab has been a fixture on Haifa's skyline fornearly a century. The stone mausoleum houses the remains of the Persianprophet of the Baha'i faith, known simply as the "Bab," which werespirited here from Persia in the early 20th century.
For the world at large, the inauguration of the new terraces is sureto shed new light on the story of the Baha'i faith, one of thelesser-known chapters in Middle East history, and on the modern saga ofthe faithful adherents to one of the world's youngest andmost-persecuted religions.
The Bab was a Persian who in 1844 declared he had a new revelationfrom God, which was to prepare humanity for the advent of a universaldivine messenger anticipated by the world's major religions, said DougSamimi-Moore, a spokesman for the Baha'i World Center.
The Bab's teachings called for the spiritual and moral reformationof Persian society, the equality of women and men, and the uplifting ofthe poor. Those were radical themes in Islamic Persia, and eventuallyled to the Bab's execution in 1850.
"The story of the Bab was a story of deprivation and hardship,"notes Samimi-Moore. "These terraces, which are beautiful, elegant andfull of life, come as an appropriate counterpoint, doing justice to theBab, his teachings and his identity as a manifestation of God."
In 1863, Bahaullah had announced he was the universal messenger ofhuman redemption about whom the Bab had foretold.
Confined to the Ottoman penal colony of Acre, just north of Haifa,Bahaullah managed to gain the confidence of his guards and a measure offreedom that permitted him to preach and write the landmark works of theBaha'i faith. He died in 1892 and was interred at his seaside home knownas the Bahji, a site that in Baha'i theology ranks as even holier thanthe Shrine of the Bab.
In 1909 Bahaullah's eldest son built the Shrine of the Bab, justopposite Bahji on Haifa Bay.
The new project, which cost about $250 million, was planned by thePersian-born Canadian architect Fariborz Sahbah, architect of the famedBaha'i House of Worship in New Delhi, which draws some 3.5 millionvisitors a year to its unique lotus-shaped structure.
"Detail is the essence of the design," said Sahbah during a presstour of the Haifa terraces. The 19 terraces rise to an altitude of morethan 700 feet above sea level, at angles of up to 60 degrees, and awidth spanning more than 1,300 feet.
"In the garden design, order, beauty, symmetry and disciplinecoexist side by side with nature," he said. "Manicured strips of grass,stone steps and fountains merge gradually into a landscape of aromaticMediterranean plants like lavender and rosemary, and finally to forestand wildlife corridors."
Coinciding with the gardens, new administrative offices and archivesof the Baha'i World Center also were developed. But the structures werebuilt into the hillsides, and even underground, in an ingenious effortto minimize the visual impact of the construction on the terraces.
Samimi-Moore describes the gardens as not only a "visual experience,but also one full of sounds, such as cascading water, and floweringscents that comprise a peaceful preface to the visit to the Shrine ofthe Bab," which still stands at the heart of the terraces.
While some Israeli architects have criticized the new Baha'iterraces as a "foreign element" bearing little relationship to theoriginal, rugged Mediterranean landscape of shrub and rockyoutcroppings, the city of Haifa has been an enthusiastic proponent ofthe project from its beginning. A study commissioned by the municipalityestimated that some 1.2 million tourists may visit the project in itsfirst year.