‘Going on holiday?‘ I’d be asked once I had informed people I would be leaving the country. ‘Well, not exactly…‘ would be my reply, with a huge smile as I marvelled at the look of awkward wonder which beset their faces. But for me the prospect of seeing Israel, steeped in antiquity and culture, is one I could not pass. Although the richness of this nation enticed me, the real reason for this sojourn was primarily spiritual; a pilgrimage. Armed with limited funds, one tiny suitcase and enough enthusiasm to compensate for anything materially I lacked, I tarried no longer.
Israel is the spiritual centre of a number of religions, and the youngest world religion, the Bahá’í Faith, has both its administrative and spiritual centres in two of Israel’s main cities; Haifa and Akko. The Bahá’ís flock to Haifa and Akko to pay homage from all over the world, the religion being the second most widespread geographically. ‘You’re on pilgrimage too? How nice to meet you!‘ said the Portuguese to me, followed by the Ugandans, the Americans and the Persians.
Haifa (Israel’s third largest city) features a centre of adoration for millions around the world. Taking the long walk up Ben Gurion Avenue, you find yourself at the foot of Mount Carmel. On the mountain’s ninth terrace there is a white building, with a golden dome shimmering in the sunlight. A strange and wonderful looking building it is, neither mosque nor cathedral; neither eastern nor western. It is in fact, the Shrine of the Báb – the Báb being the herald of the faith- which is marked a UNESCO world heritage site. With nineteen terraces, from the foot of the mountain to the top, with flowers, fountains and seats for respite, it is an oasis of tranquillity.
Haifa is, indeed, a strange city, with its stark divide between the Jewish Israelis, Christian clergymen and the Muslim Palestinians. This land is holy for all of these seemingly antagonistic groups of people. Nevertheless, the people were kind, warm and friendly to me. Down Mount Carmel is the monastery, where Carmelite monks are said to keep nightly vigils awaiting the return of Christ. Further down the mount is the sacred spot for the Jews, the lower cave of the prophet Elijah. It was late at night, and the caretaker was kind enough to let us in.
From the metropolis of Haifa, we went to Bahji. Bahji is the resting-place of the founder of the faith Bahá’u’lláh, who was exiled to the once penal-colony in the 1860s. It has been beautified, with its world-famous ‘Bahá’í garden’. The garden has won acclaim and renown throughout the world, but one only understands its true beauty viewed from the balcony, where the garden appears like a carpet which has been rolled out – symmetrical and finely weaved – with the greatest care and effort. I thought even a superficial observer could understand the peace and reverence of this place.
Bahji is a short distance away from the city of Akko. Through its cobbled and tiny avenues we passed. This Crusader city was teeming with history. Memories came flashing back, of the joyous hours I spent playing Assassin’s Creed, wasting precious time, as only adolescent boys can do. To me, Akko is a city trapped in the eighteenth century trying desperately to move to the twenty-first. Its narrow streets get crammed when cars try and drive through. Yet primarily an Arab residence, the smell of delicious mouth-watering shawarmas filling the air and the sound of the Islamic call of prayer echoing throughout the medieval establishment are the senses most vivid in my memory.
Homogenous yet culturally diverse; spiritual yet conflicted; historical yet modern, Israel is indeed a barrel of endearing contradictions.