Acre Bahai Shrine damaged in fire

Damage was sustained to NIS 250 million construction site dedicated to Abdul Baha.

 UNDER CONSTRUCTION: Main building at shrine of Abdul Baha, Acre. (photo credit: GIL ZOHAR)
UNDER CONSTRUCTION: Main building at shrine of Abdul Baha, Acre.
(photo credit: GIL ZOHAR)

Development of the shrine in Acre of Abdul Baha (1844-1921) – the Tehran-born head of the Bahai faith who popularized the religion outside the Middle East – will resume following a fire on April 8 that caused significant damage to the main building which was under construction at the holy site.

Clouds of black smoke billowed from the mausoleum, prompting firefighters to evacuate the nearby suburbs of Givat Hatmarim and Afgad. The blaze destroyed several months of work on the 2,900 sq.m. circular platform and piazza, the Universal House of Justice (UHJ) – the governing council of the Bahai faith – said in an April 14 statement.

The fire broke out when wind-blown sparks from welding on the dome ignited scaffolding and plastic forms being used to mold poured concrete, Ynet reported. The completed concrete walls and structures were undamaged, and the NIS 250 million project – announced in 2019 – is insured, according to the UHJ. The shrine and meditation garden are being paid for by donations from the Bahai faith’s 5 million members across the world.

Bahai media representative Sama Sabet promised, “Construction will resume soon.” She didn’t estimate the cost of the damage.

Many Bahais received news of the fire with “distress,” the UHJ said. Shrines are of great importance in the Bahai religion. Abdul Baha, also known as Abbas Effendi, played a key role in the growth of the Bahai community. For three decades following the death of his father – the religion’s prophet-founder Mirza Husayn Ali Nuri (1817-1892) who changed his name to Bahaullah – Abdul Baha interpreted his father’s writings and spread the faith, particularly in Europe, the US and Canada.

 UNDER CONSTRUCTION: Main building at shrine of Abdul Baha, Acre. (credit: GIL ZOHAR) UNDER CONSTRUCTION: Main building at shrine of Abdul Baha, Acre. (credit: GIL ZOHAR)

He was “a role model for all people of how you live a spiritual life with practical feet; how you go about walking in the world in a practical way but elevate your actions to bring you to the spiritual plane,” said Joyce Litoff, associate director of communications for the Bahai National Center in Evanston, Illinois.

IN THE Bahai faith, shrines function both as mausoleums and places of remembrance. The shrine will “forever embosom those sacred remains [of Abdul Baha]” the UHJ said in the announcement of the shrine’s construction.

For the last century, Abdul Baha has been temporarily entombed in Haifa’s shrine of Siyyid Ali-Muhammad Shirazi (1819-1850), popularly known as the Bab (“Gate” in Arabic). Shirazi was executed in Tabriz, Iran, for apostasy after claiming to be the deputy of the promised Twelver Mahdi (an eschatological redeemer of Islam). 

According to legend, the firing squad’s initial fusillade failed to hit him, and a second team of shooters was brought in. As a Shi’ite heretic, his body was fed to dogs. It was rescued and hidden by believers.

In 1908, all Ottoman political and religious prisoners were freed by the Young Turk revolution. Newly released, Abdul Baha smuggled the Bab’s remains to Ottoman Palestine and built his iconic shrine midway up Mount Carmel, near where he himself was living. Its dome, visible from Haifa harbor along the axis of the German Colony, was gilded in 1953.

When Corrine Strolger, who grew up a Bahai and now works as a community outreach associate for the Bahai National Center, first visited the shrines to the Bab in Haifa, and of Bahaullah in Acre in 2015, it almost felt like “coming home,” she said. She could pray and meditate there for hours on end, which usually had been a struggle.

While the fire will delay construction, Litoff said a discussion she saw among believers on social media puts that slowdown in perspective. The discussion recalled a fire that broke out in 1931 during the building of the Bahai House of Worship in Wilmette, Illinois, the oldest standing House of Worship.

“Despite the setbacks, that building was completed and it’s now a cultural landmark in the area and in the world,” Litoff said. “Yes, this is a horrible thing that happened, but no worries, we’ll rebuild.”

The Bahai faith believes in progressive revelation – God has had a series of manifestations including Moses, Jesus, Muhammad, and most recently Bahaullah.

ABDUL BAHA’S mausoleum and garden, south of the Tel Akko archaeological mound, will be one of seven Bahai holy sites, ornamental meditation gardens and administrative complexes in a western Galilee pilgrimage route stretching from Mazra’a near Nahariya south through Acre, to Mount Carmel in Haifa. 

The serene mausoleums of the Bab and Bahaullah, together with their adjoining manicured gardens characterized by their sacred geometry and immaculate landscaping, were registered on UNESCO’s World Heritage List in 2008.

Abdul Baha’s mausoleum was designed by Vancouver’s Hossein Amanat, an Iranian-Canadian architect. It features a sloping geometric meditation garden rising in a sunburst pattern to form a dome covering the tomb.

Amanat is best known for his “Shahyad” Freedom Tower in central Tehran, which was dedicated in 1972 to honor the Pahlavi dynasty. Following Iran’s 1979 Islamic revolution, the monumental 45 meter-high archway was renamed the Azadi Tower. Amanat’s neo-classical Persian structure here extends to the Rivan Garden, a favorite oasis where Bahaullah retreated after he was released from Acre Prison in 1877. The modest house in which he stayed during his visits there has been restored.

In 1863, Bahaullah fulfilled the Bab’s prophecies by proclaiming the Bahai faith. The new creed eventually evolved into a global religion. Exiled from Persia to Ottoman Baghdad, and then to the imperial capital Constantinople (today Istanbul) in 1868, Bahaullah was imprisoned in Acre’s Turkish citadel in remote Palestine. 

For Israelis, the notorious jail and its gallows are best known for the prison breakout on May 4, 1947, near the end of the British Mandate of Palestine, in which gunmen from the Irgun underground freed 27 incarcerated freedom fighters.

After being released from Acre Prison, Bahaullah moved 6 km. to the north to Mazra’a. Two years later, he settled in the Mansion of Bahjí (meaning “Delight”) in Acre. That palatial home was built in 1821 by Abdullah Pasha, then the Ottoman governor of Acre. Bahaullah remained there until his death in 1892.

The Bahai pilgrimage sites in Haifa and the western Galilee on UNESCO’s World Heritage List include: the Shrine of Bahaullah and adjoining Mansion of Bahji and Bahji Gardens in Acre; the Shrine of the Bab, the 19 terraces of the Bahai Gardens and Bahai World Center in Haifa; and the House of Abbud in the Old City of Acre, where the Bahaullah spent time after being released from Acre Prison. 

The Mount Carmel administrative center includes: the Seat of the Universal House of Justice, the Center for the Study of the Sacred Texts, and the Center for the International Councilors. 