Design Features of the Terraced Gardens on Mount Carmel
Interview with Architect Fariborz Sahba
The plan to turn the slope of Mount Carmel into a flourishing garden to surround and set off the Shrine of the Báb was born already in the 1950s, when the shrine was being constructed. The initial nine terraces were built and covered with vegetation, while the rest waited for the right time; over the years, the continuity of land ownership from the head of the mountain to its foot was completed.
In 1987, the governing body of the community decided it was time to complete the gardens. The architect chosen to deal with the high aesthetic and spiritual requirements, as well as with the difficult conditions of the site, was Fariborz Sahba. Mr. Sahba was just finishing ten years’ work building the Bahá’í “Lotus Temple” in New Delhi, India, which was immediately labeled “the Taj Mahal of our times” upon its completion. Below is an abridged version of an interview with Mr. Sahba, which appears in the album The Bahá’í Shrine and Gardens on Mount Carmel, published by the Haifa Tourist Board.
What were the sources of your inspiration in designing the gardens?
My main source of inspiration was the short and tragic life story of the Báb. In my office there is a picture of the gloomy fortress where He was imprisoned in a dark cell, which was not lit by even one candle. They wanted to put out His spiritual light, but this sun shone on the other side of the world, in a heavenly garden full of light on beautiful Mount Carmel, whose name, “Vineyard of the Lord”, suits it so well.
Another source of inspiration was the shrine itself, designed by the brilliant architect William Sutherland Maxwell. It is so elegant and special, and combines eastern and western styles in a unique and moving way. That is why we call the shrine “the Queen of Carmel”. It has become the symbol of Haifa and is very close to the hearts of its citizens.
Also, the gardens surrounding the shrine, designed by Shoghi Effendi, have inspired me. They are simple, elegant and stylish, and they create a spiritual atmosphere. The contrast between the deep green of the cypress trees, the shining green of the grass and the hedge between them – is a perfect representation of green, which was the color of the Báb: He always wore green. The gardens bring the fragrances of the citrus and cypress trees of Shiraz, the wonderful geometry of the gardens of Kashmir, and the beauty of the English gardens. When one looks at them, one feels something special, even without knowing their history and their spiritual meaning.
What is the spiritual meaning of the gardens?
The gardens are in fact a tribute to the Shrine of the Báb. Their purpose is to glorify and magnify the Shrine, and to direct one toward it. The number of terraces is eighteen, like the first followers of the Báb, whom He called the “Letters of the Living”. In Arabic, as in Hebrew, the word for “life” is hai and the numerical value of its letters is eighteen. I see in the gardens a symbol of beauty, wholeness and hope, as the Báb wished for all the earth’s inhabitants.
You have referred to light as a special component in the design of the gardens. What is its function?
Light is the central element of the design. During the hours of the night, the arches of light above and below the shrine give the feeling of waves of light emanating from it. In daylight, movement is created by sun beams shining through the cypress trees and reflecting off the shining grass.
The order and rhythm are meant to relax and encourage a spiritual observation. As you walk toward the gardens, all the lines accompany your movement, flowing with you, merging in an infinite continuum. Even the gilded dome and the shrine itself have an amazing relationship with the light and the sky, creating a different picture each hour of the day. There are hours during which they remind us of the Garden of Eden.
In addition to light, water also has a significant presence.
Water accompanies you all through the gardens. It attracts birds, and the harmony of the water and their chirping creates a perfect shield from the noises of the city, allowing one the serenity necessary to detach oneself from the daily routine. Nonetheless, water conservation was an important factor in the design. We conducted extensive research to find drought-tolerant plants, and we used the best experts and the most advanced technologies. Our irrigation system is especially economical, and the water in the fountains is recycled.
Does the choice of plants have meaning?
Nothing in the gardens is coincidental. We planted an experimental garden and watched it for years to find the best plants for the soil, the angle of the sun, the direction of the wind and the nearness to the sea. Color was the main consideration, since color is really an expression of light. We created combinations for every season: for example a purple season, when the Jacaranda trees are flowering and the Convolvulus covers the ground, a red season, a yellow one and a pink one.
What do the various decorative elements represent?
The decorations in stone and metal are used for beauty only and have no religious meaning. There are thousands of items in the gardens, which were designed according to motifs that appear in the shrine. The balustrades, for example, echo the ornamental windows in the drum beneath the dome. The design concept is the harmony of East and West, old and new, modern and classical.
The stone appears to be the controlling element in the design of the gardens.
I was particular in choosing materials that belong to the surroundings and relate naturally to the mountain. We used only local stone quarried in the Galilee. Part of the work was executed in Italy, by computerized equipment that does not exist in Israel. It seems that the first time that stone was exported from Israel to Italy!
How did you deal with the steep slope?
I did that by building concave terraces. In order to cover the 225 meters from the bottom to the top with minimal usage of structures and walls, we hollowed into the mountain instead of building out from it. The unique view creates a dramatic merging of sea, mountain and sky. For me, the eighteen terraces are rungs in a ladder leading to the spiritual meeting with the shrine, and signify, for pilgrims, the ascension of the spirit to Heaven. These are not only gardens for beauty – they are gardens for the spirit.