City of Tolerance
Seems rather curious Haifa’s signature landmark heralds a faith not commonly associated with Israel. It’s true. You see approximately 3/4th of Israel’s total population of 7.59 million is of Jewish heritage, nearly 20% are Muslims, Christians represent 2% as do those observing the Druze faith. Nearly 4% are “unclassified by choice” and that’s where we find the Bahá’í followers.
In fact, that glittering golden dome looming high above Haifa’s cityscape belongs to the Bahá’í at their World Center of the Bahá’í Faith. If you’ve traveled previously to Israel’s major religious sites you should consider taking a closer look at this complex to discover their contribution to Israel’s multi-cultural fabric.
Shrine Of The Bab
The Bahá’í faith is considered by some to be the world’s newest independent religion. Bahá’u’lláh, recognized as its founder, was born in Persia in 1817 and died just north of the Israeli city of Acre where his remains are today. As with other spiritual leaders, he was born into substantial wealth then walked away from his earthly comforts and worldly goods to begin speaking the words of The Báb (meaning “The Gate”). The Báb was also born in Persia, but in 1819, and declared that the Messenger of God would appear soon to all the people of the world. His proclamations so alarmed the authorities that he was arrested then executed on July 9th, 1850. The Báb’s remains are entombed atop Mt. Carmel, in the Bahá’í’s Shrine of the Báb.
Every five years, the faithful gather in Haifa to elect representatives for the Bahá’í Universal House of Justice whose members address issues affecting their worldwide members. The curious join confirmed believers making pilgrimages to Haifa from, per Bahá’í official statistics, “188 countries and 45 dependent territories or overseas departments.” Some five million in total, they worship at 116,000 localities promoting an end to all strife; equality for the sexes; and education and justice for everyone. What you see before you is the nucleus of their universe including the half-mile-long “Hanging Gardens”. And, directly below that is the “German Colony” established in the 19th century by the German Templars.
Israel’s “Beautiful Coast”
To properly explore this part of the world requires, well, a lifetime for some scholars. Your visit is short so choose your path wisely. Follow in the footsteps of your personal faith or visit important historic sites. If you wish to remain in the country’s third-largest city Haifa (Hebrew for “Beautiful Coast”) explore by following something called the “Step Tours”, four walking routes that are generally well-marked. Remember this city traces it origins back to 1400 BC. Other options include a walk along the seashore’s Louis Promenade, a cable car ride up the mountain, or a visit to the Hebrew prophet Elijah’s Cave at the base of Cape Carmel beneath the lighthouse and the Stella Maris Carmelite Monastery. Many believe it was here where important events in the life of Elijah, the 9th-century BC Prophet, occurred. He taught, sought refuge and meditated here. Do verify opening times before visiting.
Tough choices. Nazareth and the Sea of Galilee should be seen by all visitors. Nazareth is considered the “hometown of Jesus” and is where you find the Basilica of the Annunciation, built in 1969 over the traditional site where the Virgin Mary received word from the Angel Gabriel she would soon bear the Savior. Today, it’s the Middle East’s largest church. Note some scholars believe Mary received this news at what is now the Church of St. Gabriel.
The Sea of Galilee is another holy site. Fed by the Jordan River, it’s known by many names. Many significant Christian events occurred here as Jesus lived in Capernaum for some time. In Cana, it was said He turned water into wine. In Tabgha, Jesus multiplied the loves and fishes.
Acre, known as well as Acco among other incarnations, is a World Heritage Site for many reasons. Once a Crusader City, its archaeological sites are numerous including the Hospitaller’s Quarter and Dining Hall. The Crusaders conquered Acre in 1104 A.D., making it their empire’s most important port when they lost control of Jerusalem in 1187. The Mamluks seized control of Acre approximately one century later. Even Napoleon eyed Acre as strategically important declaring that, “the world would have been mine” had his attempt to seize control hadn’t failed in 1799. Restoration work and fine exhibits bring these stories to life.
Caesarea is important in the history of Herod the Great, the Roman-appointed king of Judaea, who left his mark here in 25 B.C. The city, once the capital of Roman Palestine, was named after Augustus Caesar. Caesarea was eventually conquered by Moslems and Crusaders. Contemporary efforts bring this city’s fascinating history to life.
There’s so much more to see. Safed, believed to have been founded after the great flood by one of Noah’s sons. The Golan Heights that have been significant throughout history, and even today as tensions flare and TV’s blare the reality of life in this region.
If you’ve never been to a kibbutz, you should do so if not now then some day. Witness the daily lives of Kibbutzniks who band together to work farms, manage resorts, and collectively share the rewards of the fruits of their labor.
All too soon it’s time to reboard the ship and sail from the northern reaches of this historic land, a land few can visit then come away untouched by its importance.
Karyn L. Planett