Saturday, 19 January 2008

Official sites on Baha'u'llah

The other day, I found time to look at the World Centre's new site on Baha'u'llah, "The Life of Baha'u'llah. A Photographic Narrative". The URL is

As the title suggests, the site provides an overview of Baha'u'llah's life using photographs and short pieces of text. The site is based around the places where Baha'u'llah lived, starting in Iran where he grew up and taking you through each of his places of exile (Baghdad, Constantinople, Adrianople, Akka) through to the places he lived when he left Akka, Mazra'ih and Bahji and areas where he pitched his tent on Mt Carmel. Overall, I found the site a good one. The structure is intuitive, the pictures help you to get an idea of the environment Baha'u'llah lived in (for example, he seemed to live amongst stone!) and the small pieces of text do tell you useful things, although I felt the use of quotes was a bit overdone. Perhaps someone who hadn't read those quotes before would have a different reaction. The highlight for me was the series of photographs under the heading Holy Relics.

I congratulate whoever it was at the World Centre that came up with the idea of producing a photographic narrative. It is difficult to get Westerners to view a Middle Eastern figure in a sympathetic light. The social, religious and legal context is so far removed from anything Westerners know. It takes a lot of reading and understanding to see through the social milieu to the person of Baha'u'llah and the extent to which he subverted, rather than participated in, the society in which he lived.

I had seen some of the photos before, but enjoyed going over them again because they take me to the places where Baha'u'llah experienced the highs and lows of his life. Takur, the tiny village in the mountains where Baha'u'llah grew up, always strikes me as exotic, as does his summer residence in Shirman. There's a photo of the place where Baha'u'llah was bastinadoed, a mosque in Amul, Mazindaran. It is a ruin now and that seems a fitting end for the site of such a despicable act. There's a good shot of the mountains Baha'u'llah had to cross in winter on his way to Baghdad. Just imagine trying to walk over these in winter, with clothing unsuitable for the journey! And here are the mountains Baha'u'llah wandered over when he went off on his own to Sulaymaniyyih in northern Iraq. Interestingly, there's a photo of Baha'u'llah's alms bowl, which he used during this time when he was passing himself off as a dervish.

The site has a good series of photographs of Akka, including this shot, which captures the imposing stone walkways within the city. Also included in the Akka series are a series of photos of the barracks and the cells inside, which give you a good idea of what the building and the conditions were like. You can see the skylight that the Purest Branch fell through. The World Centre has recently restored the barracks building but left as is the spot where the Purest Branch landed when he fell. Also found in the series of photos on Akka are some good ones of the House of Abbud. Despite having been on pilgrimage, I hadn't really understood that the house was in fact two independent residences. Baha'u'llah initially rented the back one, known as the House of Udi Khammar, and then later rented the whole building when the owner took down the wall between the two.

I've also been to the Garden of Ridvan and remember the seat where Baha'u'llah liked to sit under the mulberry tree. I spend time admiring and sitting in my garden and I like the fact that Baha'u'llah liked to sit in gardens too. But I hadn't realised that waterways used to flow down both sides of the garden. As a gardener, I must say that really appeals to me. And I also didn't realise that water flowed just below the bench where Baha'u'llah used to sit. No prizes for those who remember the oft-repeated line from the Qur'an, which states that paradise is a garden under which rivers flow!

"Two seats on which Baha'o'llah used to sit under the trees. Abul Kassim, the gardener of baha, stands on the steps leading to the stream which flows through the garden."
Source: Views of Akka
"But give glad tidings to those who believe and work righteousness, that their portion is Gardens, beneath which rivers flow. Every time they are fed with fruits therefrom, they say: "Why, this is what we were fed with before," for they are given things in similitude; and they have therein companions pure (and holy); and they abide therein (for ever)." Qur'an 2:25

Perhaps, most exciting for me were the holy relics. I've already mentioned the alms bowl, but I also loved seeing Baha'u'llah's cut-reed pen and ink spoon. They give you a good idea of the tools people used in those days to write and help with the imagery of writing used throughout the writings, such as "the Pen" and the reed pen. The series also includes photos of Baha'u'llah's pocket watch, brocade pouch (have you ever wondered what brocade looks like?), prayer beads and seals. But the last photo in the series is an odd one; it's a photograph of the cabinets in the Archives Building used to house the photographs of Baha'u'llah and drawings of Baha'u'llah and the Bab. The photo is of three closed cabinets and the text explains that the photo of Baha'u'llah is shown only on very special occasions.

Finally, I wanted to mention the Haifa series. It includes a photo of the tents Baha'u'llah used to stay in when he camped on Mt Carmel. Two photos I found particularly interesting were (no 5) a shot of the circle of cypress trees where Baha'u'llah indicated that the Bab would be buried and (no 6) a recent photo of the Shrine of the Bab, which shows the cypress trees right next to it. These photos have been done well, leaving you with a clear impression of how much change has happened on the mountain since Baha'u'llah pitched his tent there. I know the World Centre has been criticised for spending so much money on the arc, but I think the following passage in Gleanings provides a scriptural basis for what it's done, even if some question the wisdom of it:

"If a man be found willing to rear, in Our name, an edifice of pure gold or silver, or a house begemmed with stones of inestimable value, such a wish will no doubt be granted. He, verily, doeth what He willeth, and ordaineth that which He pleaseth. Leave hath, moreover, been given to whosoever may desire to raise, throughout the length and breadth of this land, noble and imposing structures, and dedicate the rich and sacred territories adjoining the Jordan and its vicinity to the worship and service of the one true God, magnified be His glory, that the prophecies recorded by the Pen of the Most High in the sacred Scriptures may be fulfilled, and that which God, the Lord of all worlds, hath purposed in this most exalted, this most holy, this mighty, and wondrous Revelation may be made manifest." Gleanings, LIX

At the top right-hand corner of "The Life of Baha'u'llah" site is a little option called "Other Baha'i sites". I clicked on this to take a look at what was listed there. Oddly, I found under the heading "The Life of Baha'u'llah", which was the site I was on, another heading "Baha'u'llah". Curious, I clicked on it and it took me to the URL The home page of that site had a list of options down the left-hand side, which were divided into two principal headings: "Baha'u'llah - History" and "Baha'u'llah - Writings". I wondered what the purpose of this site was. But, in any case, I quickly found that the site wasn't well written, whatever its purpose. Here's the three opening paragraphs on the home page, which doubles as an introduction to Baha'u'llah's life:

"In the middle of the last century, one of the most notorious dungeons in the Near East was Tehran's "Black Pit." Once the underground reservoir for a public bath, its only outlet was a single passage down three steep flights of stone steps. Prisoners huddled in their own bodily wastes, languishing in the pit's inky gloom, subterranean cold and stench-ridden atmosphere.

In this grim setting, the rarest and most cherished of religious events was once again played out: mortal man, outwardly human in other respects, was summoned by God to bring to humanity a new religious revelation.

The year was 1852, and the man was a Persian nobleman, known today as Bahá'u'lláh. During His imprisonment, as He sat with his feet in stocks and a 100-pound iron chain around his neck, Bahá'u'lláh received a vision of God's will for humanity."

For a site like this, the writer must assume that the audience knows nothing about the faith and is coming to find out the basics. On this page in particular, one expects to get an idea of the setting for Baha'u'llah's life: the century and year, the country, where Baha'u'llah fitted into the scheme of things and so on, so that the reader can get a handle on the context. However, instead of providing that in a straightforward way, the page opens up with "In the middle of the last century, one of the most notorious dungeons in the Near East was Tehran's 'Black Pit.'" and carries on about the Siyah Chal and Baha'u'llah's receipt of revelation there. What the page is attempting to do is draw the reader in using the shocking details of the Siyah Chal so that the reader just has to read on. It's a technique that Simon Schama (one of my heroes) uses to great effect on his documentaries, if you've ever had the joy of watching them. But you have to know what you're doing to pull it off, because it takes real skill. And if you don't get it right, you achieve the opposite of what you intended - you quickly lose your audience rather than captivating it, because you have forced it to wade through waffle and demonstrate your incompetence in the process. That, in a nutshell, was the impression I came away with after viewing this site. It's such a pity, because the URL is a key one - - and what's on that site, it seems to me, just has to be right.

And so the home page opens up with "In the middle of the last century..." (err, does that mean the 20th century?) "one of the most notorious dungeons in the Near East was Tehran's 'Black Pit.'" Immediate confusion: why is it talking about dungeons? The rest of the first paragraph offers a once-over lightly of the horrors of the Siyah Chal and fails to deliver an impact. The second paragraph goes into "In this grim setting, the rarest and most cherished of religious events was once again played out". Again, what is it on about? You get no clue from the odd idea that the religious event was 'cherished', although 'rare' tells you something. Then you're told something about 'mortal man': "mortal man, outwardly human in other respects". Hmm, outwardly human in other respects? What other respects? Then it goes on to tell you that "mortal man" was summoned "to bring to humanity" a new revelation. How could mortal man be summoned to bring itself a revelation? Throughout, the words just fail to conjure up in the reader's mind any image that helps communicate the meaning.

Paragraph 3 attempts to fill in the blanks: "The year was 1852" (Oh good, a date, now we know what century we're in) "and the man" (Hah? What man? Have we been talking about a man?) "was a Persian nobleman, known today as Bahá'u'lláh." "During His imprisonment," (Oh, you mean he was in the dungeon?) "as He sat with his feet in stocks and a 100-pound iron chain around his neck, Bahá'u'lláh received a vision of God's will for humanity." Oh, so this must be what's meant by "mortal man" summoned by God to bring humanity a new revelation.

To be fair, I haven't read the whole site and I'm sure it's not all this bad. But these are the first three paragraphs of the home page and I'd predict that readers would be scared off by the time they got that far.

The other major problem with the site is this: you click on the links under the first major heading "Baha'u'llah - History" and you get, as you'd expect, text written by the site's author, telling you the details of Baha'u'llah's life. You then click on the first link under "Baha'u'llah - Writings", which is "God and His manifestations" and you expect to find similar explanatory text about what Baha'u'llah wrote on the subject. But instead what you get, without any warning, is a direct quote from Baha'u'llah. Just click on the link and straight into the quote - no quote marks to indicate a direct quote taken from elsewhere, like this:

All-praise to the unity of God, and all honor to Him, the sovereign Lord, the incomparable and all-glorious Ruler of the universe....

And the quotes go for four pages. If you scroll down the page and look very hard, you notice small footnotes that tell you what books the quotes come from. That's the only indication the text is from somewhere else. This problem could be easily fixed with some explanatory text at the beginning of the page, telling the reader that what follows are some quotations from Baha'u'llah on the subjects of God and the manifestations (whatever that means). But it would be better still if the World Centre could get its writers to produce summaries of these topics (as you find on other sites about the Faith, such as Wiki) and provide direct quotes from Baha'u'llah in a way that makes them accessible to the reader.

Baha'u'llah's slippers. Photo taken by Alison, 1987

As I said earlier, is (obviously) a key URL for promoting Baha'u'llah. I think it's tragic that more energy hasn't been put in to make the site a real eye catcher. Seekers find a much better treatment on Baha'u'llah from Wiki, where the admin people are forced to do the job properly because they're acting under the eyes of independent editors, competing with other perspectives of the Faith for the space, and working on a site the world's public will readily use to find out about the Faith. Meantime, has been left to languish.