HAIFA, Israel, May 21 (RNS)--The new Baha'i garden terraces dribble down the 1,600-foot slope of Mount Carmel in a symphony of color and scent, a parade of natural foliage against a manicured, man-made landscape.

But these gardens are far more than greenery, say members of the faith. They are a visual composition dedicated to the glory of God and the memory of the "Bab," the Baha'i prophet buried here in a gold-domed shrine.

Thousands of Baha'is will gather Tuesday (May 22) in a gala international ceremony inaugurating the decade-long landscaping effort around the Baha'i World Center located here on the grounds. The ceremony is scheduled to include the dramatic sunset lighting of the kilometer-long terraces and an open-air concert of musical compositions by Baha'i composers from Norway and Tajikistan set to excerpts of sacred Baha'i texts.

The Shrine of the Bab has been a fixture on Haifa's skyline for nearly a century. The stone mausoleum houses the remains of the Persian prophet of the Baha'i faith, known simply as the "Bab," which were spirited here from Persia in the early 20th century.

For the world at large, the inauguration of the new terraces is sure to shed new light on the story of the Baha'i faith, one of the lesser-known chapters in Middle East history, and on the modern saga of the faithful adherents to one of the world's youngest and most-persecuted religions.

The Bab was a Persian who in 1844 declared he had a new revelation from God, which was to prepare humanity for the advent of a universal divine messenger anticipated by the world's major religions, said Doug Samimi-Moore, a spokesman for the Baha'i World Center.

The Bab's teachings called for the spiritual and moral reformation of Persian society, the equality of women and men, and the uplifting of the poor. Those were radical themes in Islamic Persia, and eventually led 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 and full of life, come as an appropriate counterpoint, doing justice to the Bab, his teachings and his identity as a manifestation of God."

The forced exile of the Bab's most important disciple, Bahaullah, a Persian nobleman, from Persia to 19th century Palestine set the stage for the relocation of the Baha'i base from Persia to Haifa.

In 1863, Bahaullah had announced he was the universal messenger of human 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 of freedom that permitted him to preach and write the landmark works of the Baha'i faith. He died in 1892 and was interred at his seaside home known as the Bahji, a site that in Baha'i theology ranks as even holier than the Shrine of the Bab.

In 1909 Bahaullah's eldest son built the Shrine of the Bab, just opposite Bahji on Haifa Bay.

The new project, which cost about $250 million, was planned by the Persian-born Canadian architect Fariborz Sahbah, architect of the famed Baha'i House of Worship in New Delhi, which draws some 3.5 million visitors a year to its unique lotus-shaped structure.

"Detail is the essence of the design," said Sahbah during a press tour of the Haifa terraces. The 19 terraces rise to an altitude of more than 700 feet above sea level, at angles of up to 60 degrees, and a width spanning more than 1,300 feet.

"In the garden design, order, beauty, symmetry and discipline coexist side by side with nature," he said. "Manicured strips of grass, stone steps and fountains merge gradually into a landscape of aromatic Mediterranean plants like lavender and rosemary, and finally to forest and wildlife corridors."

Coinciding with the gardens, new administrative offices and archives of the Baha'i World Center also were developed. But the structures were built into the hillsides, and even underground, in an ingenious effort to 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 flowering scents that comprise a peaceful preface to the visit to the Shrine of the Bab," which still stands at the heart of the terraces.

In contrast to the elaborate thought and high-tech know-how behind the new terraces, the interior of the shrine is a relatively simple affair -- a modest arched room sparsely adorned with floral arrangements, chandeliers and candelabra. Visitors sit on Persian rugs in silent prayer and meditation.

While some Israeli architects have criticized the new Baha'i terraces as a "foreign element" bearing little relationship to the original, rugged Mediterranean landscape of shrub and rocky outcroppings, the city of Haifa has been an enthusiastic proponent of the project from its beginning. A study commissioned by the municipality estimated that some 1.2 million tourists may visit the project in its first year.

"To work in such a dramatic landscape, against the sea and the mountains, is the dream of any architect," Sahbah said.

"Still, we did not at all design this project for tourism," he stressed. "It was financed by the many sacrificial contributions of Baha'i followers from around the world, people from the deep jungles of Malaysia and from the islands of Papua New Guinea. Some people went to prison, or into exile, because they dared to contribute a donation."

Albert Lincoln, secretary general of the Baha'i International Community, said the real message of the gardens isn't tourism, landscapes or even religion. "This is a story about the way the human spirit is expressed through concrete realizations. The real story of these terraces is the victory of love and faith in the future over violence," he said.

"When the Bab was killed ... his body was thrown outside of the walls of the city just to deny him a decent burial. ... We've answered hatred with love. And in that message, there is an answer of hope for the peoples of the world and particularly the peoples of the Middle East."

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