THE GARDEN OF ALL RELIGION
In the middle of Haifa, running up and down the slope of Mt. Carmel, is a spectacular garden that evokes Babylon, Eden, and even Versailles. With 18 terraces, fountains, geometrical plantings, and over 100 gardeners meticulously manicuring the flowers, trees and lawns, the Bahai Gardens, I learned, were constructed to protect, link and enhance the shrines of this global religious community.
Having never heard of this faith, despite being the second fastest-growing independent religion, with 6 million followers in 200 countries around the world, I decided to investigate. Begun in the 19th century in Persia, the Bahai faith is monotheistic and emphasizes the spiritual unity and equality of all mankind. According to its principles, a series of divine messengers was sent by God–Abraham, Buddha, Jesus and Mohammad among them–to educate believers progressively, throughout the ages. Each was sent at a different time, bringing substantially the same message but varying it to meet different social needs.
This idea of progressive revelation is clearly revealed in the gardens, descending (or ascending, depending upon where you are) gradually and gently down the mountain. Another tenet, cross-cultural unity, was expressed in horti-cultural terms by The Bab, one of the founders of the Bahai religion:
“If in a garden the flowers and fragrant herbs, the blossoms and fruits, the leaves, branches and trees are of one kind, of one form, of one color and of one arrangement, there is no beauty or sweetness, but when there is variety, each will contribute to the beauty and charm of the others and will make an admirable garden, and will appear in the utmost loveliness, freshness and sweetness.”
Built between 1950 and 1990, the Bahai Gardens were added to UNESCO’s World Heritage List in July 2008. More recently, the gardens have been re-designed to put them on the world horticultural map–essentially expanding faith through horti-culture.
Precisely geometric, the mostly symmetrical, controlled designs dictated by culture yield to wilder, assymmetrical elements allowed out of respect for nature. The flora is organised according to seasonal colour: there is a purple season, followed by red, yellow and even a pink season. Green, the official colour of the Bab, is evident in the amazingly lush grass that grows in the winter time.
Ever water-resourceful, the grass is turned under in the hot summer, and the most advanced irrigation system in the world waters the 450 different species of plants carefully chosen for their adaptation to dry climates, including echium, rosemary, oleander, yucca, almond, olive, cypress and pine.
Though quite European in design and Middle-Eastern in vegetation, oriental influences are present, like these almost bonsai-like trees groomed to resemble a painted screen:
I found one of the most fascinating elements was the textural mix of plants, here cypress and ivy, combined to capture movement and light:
A vegetal revelation…