Day 5: Pilgrims Again

In Istanbul, we had made the first leg of our “mini-pilgrimage,” backtracking in Bahá’í history from the pilgrimage in the Holy Land described in a previous post. After the Holy Family was banished from their homeland of Iran to Baghdad, they were once again banished first to Constantinople then Adrianople before final exile to Akka. While Bahá’u’lláh’s original residence in Istanbul (Constantinople) no longer exists, a house was rebuilt on the spot, located in a strange quarter where women clad in black chadors walk past endless shops selling poofy wedding dresses. We were welcomed by the custodian and visited the upstairs quarters, where some artifacts are displayed. While visiting this house, we met a group of Bahá’ís from Beijing who were stopping briefly in Turkey to visit this house and Edirne before going to Israel. They described their working lives: 12 hours per day for 6 days a week year-round. They were using their scant vacation days to make this journey. The next day, we hopped on a bus that took us on the three-hour trip from Istanbul north to Edirne (Adrianople). I passed the time by working on reading Five Quarters of an Orange, a novel set in the French countryside, which in my mind blended with the damp flatlands we were driving through.

Snowdrops and raindrops in Edirne.

Snowdrops and raindrops in Edirne.

Edirne, Land of Mysteries, was cold and rainy. We beelined to the visitors’ center for the Holy Places, where once again we were met by the custodian and a guide who took us to the House of Bahá’u’lláh across the street, one of three places the Holy Family lived in this city. This was where Bahá’u’lláh’s family moved after He was poisoned at the hands of His jealous half-brother.

The backyard and rear wall of the House of Bahá'u'lláh.

We are standing in the backyard of the House of Bahá’u’lláh.

After our visit, our guide walked us to the nearby ruins of another house, reduced to foundation stones in a grassy meadow. The elderly custodian gave us some aromatic leaves as a keepsake—and I found my own keepsake, a snail shell.

The remains of another House of Bahá'u'lláh in Edirne.

The remains of another House of Bahá’u’lláh in Edirne.

With our remaining time, we visited the famed Selimiye Mosque, designed by the architect Sinan, who also designed the Suleimaniye Mosque that we had visited the day before. First, we surveyed the small, attached bazaar, which was built to support the mosque financially. Then we walked up some steps to the mosque, which won our Prettiest Mosque Award with its airy, bright interior and elegant decorations.

Part of the gorgeous courtyard of the Selimiye Mosque.

Soon enough, we had to leave the Land of Mysteries and catch our bus back to Istanbul. Our last day was nigh upon us.

The Pilgrims

Courtyard of building at Junayn Garden in Nahariyya, Israel

Courtyard of building at Junayn Garden in Nahariyya, Israel

As I sit here writing, wind buffets the windowpanes, driving rain against our building. It howls like a banshee. It gusts, it moans, it wails, it whines. This is the second night of this storm. This morning, after a night of half-sleeping to the thudding sounds of the wind banging against our windows, we awoke to find Haifa coated in dirt, apparently the result of a marriage between a rainstorm and dust storm. Now it continues to rain, but just water without the dirt. This long-lived storm reminds me of the one that made our Pilgrimage so memorable.

A few days into our nine-day Pilgrimage, a strong thunderstorm drove sheets of rain down so hard that our windows leaked, inspiring us to batten down the hatches—or in this case, to lower our plastic shutters over the glass, partially to block out the water, partially because we feared the wind would smash our windows. This was the first time my mom and sister got to experience the full volume of a storm as heard from our flat. It sounded like the world was ending, as thunder coupled with the thudding of wind on windowpane. With the storm came the insidious damp cold that seeps into every pore. The storm started in the evening and was still going strong in the morning, when we went to visit some of the sites in Akká associated with Bahá’u’lláh.

Akká boasts a vast and varied history, oscillating between glory and ruin depending on the ruler, which we had learned about the previous weekend on our visit to the underground crusader city. Yet, by the time of Bahá’u’lláh in the 19th century, it had become a penal colony of the ailing Ottoman Empire. Along with His family and some followers, He was banished there from the previous place of exile in Adrianople (today’s Edirne, Turkey).

The nasty weather was an appropriate reminder that the Akká of that time was a far cry from the bustling touristy city we see today. Wrapped in many layers and carrying umbrellas like lances to battle the storm, we stepped off our bus into the gray day and walked through the old city gate to the prison cells where Bahá’u’lláh’s family lived after their arrival. Chilled to the bone even within the stone walls of the prison citadel, it was hard to imagine surviving for two years in these barren quarters. Outside the windows, the sea crashed against the city ramparts, foaming angrily.

I had the same feeling in the next house the family occupied. Although surely an improvement over the desolate prison, the house still bore an aura of oppression about it. Looking out the window of a room upstairs upon the block of cold stone houses and the leaden sky above, with nary a tree or creature in sight to relieve the harsh view, I could begin to imagine the pain of living as a prisoner.

That was the dark part of Pilgrimage, which helped us appreciate its lighter times: our time spent together, and the eventual return of the sun for our visits to Bahjí, Junayn Garden, and Holy Places in Haifa.

Light moments had to include a trip to the big baklava mountain, where the nutty pastry naturally accumulates in waist-high drifts.

Light moments had to include a trip to the big baklava mountain, where the nutty pastry naturally accumulates in waist-high drifts.

NB: Bahá’í pilgrimage consists of nine days during which pilgrims visit the Holy Places in Akká, Haifa, and Nahariyya associated with the history of the Faith in the Holy Land—and most importantly pray at the Shrines built at the resting-places of our Central Figures: Bahá’u’lláh, the Báb, and ‘Abdu’l-Bahá. If a Bahá’í has the financial resources, he is supposed to make pilgrimage at least once in his life as a means of spiritual deepening.

Shrine of Bahá'u'lláh at Bahjí, the most holy place on earth for Bahá'ís

Shrine of Bahá’u’lláh at Bahjí, the most holy place on earth for Bahá’ís