Religious tourism in Haifa
Much of Israel is an open air museum. The major Christian sites are the obvious locations to visit, but there is much more.
I wanted to visit Haifa, in northern Israel, for the Baháʼí World Centre, the spiritual and administrative heart of the Bahá’í community. Then, close to Haifa, in the nearby town of Acre, which was the important port in the region for hundreds of years, until the end of the 19th century, when the port of Acre no longer was able to serve the ever larger ships, there’s the Shrine of Baháʼu’lláh, the founder of the same faith, as well as, under construction, the shrine of the oldest son of the founder.
The World Center is only fully open to followers of the faith, and visiting requires being on a waiting list for years. But, anyone can book a tour of the gardens, except that I found that, when I arrived, there was no availability to visit the gardens for the next few weeks.
I did go up to the entrance of the gardens, handsomely overlooking the Mediterranean, to shoot a piece of my film for my residency in Sweden, only to have security come up to me to ask me to stop filming.
I asked why.
“Ah, this is sensitive.”
Indeed, there was a surprisingly large number of security milling about, and I had the hunch, which I later confirmed, that Reza Pahlavi, the son of the last shah of Iran, was about to visit.
I’m sure he didn’t get the grilling that I received when entering the country.
The next day, I went to Acre. To find the shrine of the founder of the Baha’i faith to also be closed. I walked around the gardens, which was tricky, as this was wetland, though not very wet, while at some point I had to skirt a puddle by hanging from a wall and sliding along.
When I had circled most of the compound, encountering no one, I finally saw what seemed like a guard.
“Are the gardens closed?”
“I’ll tell you what I tell the thousands of people that show up”, though he half swallowed ‘thousands’, realizing he was making a gross overstatement.
“If you look at the website, not at Google, it says the gardens are closed until…” making the point that it’s not clear when they will open up again.
I asked him why.
“Well, I don’t get into the politics of it all. But they have their conference next week…”, probably referring to Ridván, a 12-day festival commemorating the founder’s declaration that he was the manifestation of God.
“So that’s why they’re closed?”
“No, no, but, I don’t get into the politics…”
Both the World Center and the shrine are a World Heritage Site, and being closed to the public is problematic; Some kind of access to the public is required to maintain inclusion on the World Heritage list.
One aspect of religion, all religion, that I have the biggest issue with, is that, in the end, all religion is dogma. Baha’i is a very reasonable monotheistic religion, but still depends on dogma to define its own terms.
One ever-present aspect of life in Israel, more so in Jerusalem, is people wearing religious costumes, one type of dogma. The orthodox Jewish outfit is the obvious one, but there are several. And they are so uniform that they become caricatures of themselves.
The Bahá’í do not require a costume, though.
And with only perhaps some 8 million followers worldwide, the Baháʼí faith hasn’t yet seen major schisms, though a long article on Wikipedia details a lot of disagreement within the movement. And suggest that, as per the guard’s reservations, something rotten might be brewing under the surface right now.
Society changes, and issues addressed by the founder of a religion can hardly cover prominent developments after the founder’s demise.
One such example is that the oldest son of the founder became the leader of the Baháʼí community after the founder’s death, immediately making the movement hereditary, and thus individual followers not equal in the face of God. No further hereditary leaders followed, but deciding on whom was to lead the movement has produced perhaps the largest disagreements within the faith.
Another issue is that Baháʼu’lláh never addressed homosexuality, but that through the writings of his oldest son, homosexuality, within the faith, is accepted canonically as a disease.
This was par for the course at the time these words were written, but also completely archaic today.
In Baháʼí’s defence, the faith explicitly states that each époque will see a form of the same religion, as all religions are one, develop, to serve man in a way necessary for the times, but that also will likely mean that Baháʼí will not be immune to schisms. We’re all only human, after all.
What about Acre?
The name of the city of Acre is not etymologically connected to the state of Acre in Brazil. The name of the Brazilian state comes from the indigenous Tupi, perhaps from a term meaning ‘green river’. The original of the name of the Acre in Israel is not known, but considered to be not Semitic. Egyptian texts going back as far as 1800BC might already mention the town as Akka, which is close to the local pronunciation of the name.
Acre is a world heritage site for its Templar connections, and a small and pleasant walled city. I visited on Friday, the day Ramadan was going to end, and the city was busy with preparation for the festivities which would start at sunset.
Meanwhile, it being Friday also meant that public transport stopped running towards the middle of the afternoon, in preparation for the Shabbat, during which much of the country mostly comes to a standstill.
I left early to catch a train, to find trains were not running at all, but free replacement buses ran instead.
In the bus, a Russian grandfather entered with his grandson. Soon, a debate started on where the bus was going to stop.
The old man spoke Russian, the grandson English, the driver Hebrew. It was a Tower of Babel, but somehow, issues were resolved.
Later, going back to Haifa, the last train, and thus replacement bus, left at 1:30pm, with no trains whatsoever running during the whole of Saturday.
Besides the Templar presence in Acre, the city plays another role in European history; Napoleon suffered his third defeat in the siege of Acre, in 1799, retreating to Egypt as a consequence.
The hill on which Napoleon set up his camp, close to the location where the shrine to the son of the founder of the Baháʼí faith is being built, south-east of the city walls of Acre, is still known as “Napoleon’s Hill”. Acre also has a street named after the man, the only such street in Israel. In a folk tale circulated by Acre Arabs, Napoleon, upon lifting the siege of Acre, let a cannon shoot his hat into the city “so that at least a part of him would enter into Acre”.
There’s a strong Russian, as well as German, presence in the region. At Acre’s old cemetery, many of the funeral stones have writing in Cyrillic. In Haifa, there’s a suburb called the German Colony, and it’s where the restaurants and cafes are.
Next to the German Colony, I stayed in the Russian quarter, where a supermarket had a wonderful Russian buffet, which served me for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
One night, in my guesthouse, the owner, and some acquaintances ordered a few pizzas for dinner. They offered me a slice, which I accepted. They had a few slices left at the end, with everyone satiated.
They offered me another slice, and I politely declined, as I had already had some wonderful fish-in-sour-cream from the nearby Russian supermarket.
“You know”, one of the friends said, “it is like vodka. Once you start a pizza, you have to finish it.”
This is, quite literally, how I was introduced to excessive Russian drinking in 1999.
I responded with the corollary:
“But when you finish one, you have to order another!”
“Ah, if you order another pizza, we surely will finish it!”
To Tel Aviv
On the Saturday, I had to get myself to Tel Aviv, though I wanted to first visit nearby Nazareth, were according to some scholars, who believe the Christian legend of the birth of their god, Jesus was actually born, as opposed to in Bethlehem.
The streets were deserted, because of the Saturday, but some busses did run. So, in preparation for heading to Tel Aviv afterwards, I got my luggage and headed to Nazareth.
There, when I arrived, the city was almost empty, too, except for significant numbers of tourists, in groups, visiting the few places of interest.
Essentially, this was where Jesus’ parents lived, and worked, and where Mary was told she was going to give birth to a god. Christians can’t agree on which was the actual place Mary was told this, so the Orthodox christians and Catholics each have their own church, pretty close to each other, representing the location.
Both are on top of caves, again hinting at the megalithic roots of Christian worship.
Trying to understand the public transport system, because of COVID, I was told, Israel no longer accepts payment in cash in public transport. In Jerusalem, I was told you can use a bank card on the trams. In Haifa, and, I later found out, elsewhere in busses, they use a public transport card, only.
Going to Nazareth, there was no way to buy a ticket. The driver, though, convinced what I thought was a passenger, sitting close to the driver, to take my money, presumably such that he would use his card to pay for my trip.
I got off at what, on my map, was called the Nazareth bus station. It was quiet, and nothing hinted at the existence of a bus station. All I could see was a single bus stop. Was I going to get a ticket, and a bus, back?
I walked over to Mary’s well, one of the two places where Mary might have been told of her upcoming birth, next to which there was a nice cafe. I sat down, ordered a coffee, and asked how I could get back to Haifa, or perhaps straight to Tel Aviv.
Using WiFi, the waitress showed me I had to walk through half the city to get to a particular bus stop.
“But, how to get a ticket?”
The waitress decided that close to what was the bus station on my map, where I had gotten off the bus from Haifa, someone would be able to help me.
After visiting the sites of Nazareth, I went back to the ‘bus station’, where the streets had now started to fill up. But where there still was no sign of a bus station.
In a mall, I asked a guard about buses and tickets.
“From here, no. Get to ‘big fashion’. There, yes.”
I had no ‘big fashion’ on my map.
“Ask any child. They will know ‘big fashion’.”
Instead, I walked to where, in the morning, my bus had dropped me off. A bus with the same number was waiting, and I got in.
“How do I get a ticket? I don’t have a card”
“You don’t have a card.”
“I can pay in cash”
The driver, again, started to talk to the passenger next to him, and they clearly were debating something. After a while, the passenger waived me through.
It appeared that these ‘passengers’ were not passengers at all, but officials in some kind of capacity.
This bus got me to an edge of Haifa. My map showed a nearby large bus station, and though a gorgeous concrete monster, also abandoned. I had to walk to another big bus station, some 7k away.
At least the walk was along the beach, which the owner of my guest house had recommended as one of the nicer things to visit in Haifa.
The walk, along the corniche, was fairly busy, families out to enjoy the weather on their day off. The bus station, however, was nearly abandoned.
How was I going to get a ticket? No ticket booths were open, and machines either required me to place my ‘Smart card’ in their reader, or complete an online purchase, while WiFi was not available.
An Israeli couple told me I had to try another machine. “Yes yes, it will work.” Which it didn’t.
A pair of older Russian ladies had the same problem, but were convinced we could buy a ticket on the bus. On the bus, I found out I couldn’t, as you need the now mythical transportation card, which the Russian ladies had.
Waiting for the bus, the queue had swelled to more people than would fit a typical bus. When the bus arrived, I managed to get on, and asked the driver how to buy a ticket, after which the driver acted with visible confusion, clearly not knowing what to do, or simply pretending not to understand the question.
Someone behind me shouted “Move it!, not telling me to actually move it, but explaining that what I needed was an app, Moovit, which is a popular mobile app for getting public transport schedules, globally, and apparently can be set up to pay for bus rides, in Israel.
I actually had started the sign up process with Moovit earlier, but the first thing it asked for was a phone number. And as I have no coverage outside of Brazil, I gave up, even if I could route the setup through a global Skype number I also use.
I sat down, not wanting to wait another hour for a bus, and found there was WiFi on the bus, meaning I could spend time to try and complete the Moovit sign up process and pay for my ticket, while actually being transported to my destination.
Wifi worked for a minute or so, but then failed. I couldn’t move to step 2 in the process.
Somewhat later, the connection started working again, and I could confirm my phone number.
I then had to jump through more hoops, which included registering a credit card, where I also had to enter an ID number, which had to be a certain amount of numbers, only. The form accepted none of the ID numbers I offered, so I was stuck, again.
Technology is great, if you take the liberty to ignore the edge cases.
In this bus, I discovered I was sitting next to the plainclothes person that was also at the front, next to the driver, of the previous busses I had taken. This was a fairly attractive young woman who only had attention for her phone. Until we got to Tel Aviv, when she started barking commands to people and the driver, later understanding this was to avoid a demonstration that happened in the center of the city.
She never cared about anyone paying for their tickets, and so I ended up with another free ride on the Israeli public transport system.