Almost 150 years ago, Baghdad experienced a spring such as the city had never seen before and has not seen since. In the last week of April, a wind blew that lasted for days.
In the Najibiyyih Garden, in Baghdad’s Rusafa district on the banks of the Tigris River, roses bloomed in profusion as the nightingale sang without restraint. But the spring of 1863 was memorable not only for its physical beauty. Today, it is remembered by Baha’is the world over for the historic declaration of Baha’u’llah, an exiled Persian nobleman, to a handful of friends and family members that he was the Promised One of all the religions, the one whose mission it would be to usher in the era of peace spoken of in all the holy books. His declaration marked the beginning of the Baha’i faith and is commemorated by Baha’is as the 12-day Festival of Ridvan (Paradise), celebrated each year from April 21 to May 2.
Baha’u’llah had lived in Baghdad for a decade, having been exiled from his native Iran by officials who feared his growing popularity might be a threat to their own hold on power. He would next be exiled to Constantinople, today Istanbul. But in the spring of 1863, Baha’u’llah camped in the Najibiyyih Garden, where his friends had erected a tent so he could receive the crowds who thronged him, seeking an opportunity to bid him farewell. His followers begged to accompany him on his exile and many wept at the thought of separating from their beloved. To all, Baha’u’llah offered words of comfort and encouragement, for he, especially on these God-intoxicated days, was keenly aware of the nature of the yearning of the lover for the Beloved. As the historian Nabil reports, as Baha’u’llah walked among the roses one night, he was heard to say:
Consider these nightingales. So great is their love for these roses that sleepless, from dusk to dawn, they warble their melodies and commune with burning passion with the object of their adoration. How then can those who claim to be afire with the rose-like beauty of the Beloved choose to sleep?
Today the Najibiyyih Garden has been replaced by a complex of teaching hospitals, but the memory of that epoch-making spring almost 150 years ago still lives in the minds of those who have accepted Baha’u’llah’s claim. In a city under assault, Baha’u’llah’s vision of peace might seem, to some, a chimera. But for Baha’is, who believe that the old world order must be dismantled before a new one can be established, his vision of peace serves as a beacon of hope. As Baha’u’llah proclaims, “Soon will the present day order be rolled up and a new one spread out in its stead.” The horror of war fuels the yearning for peace; and as the inadequacy of the old methods of resolving conflict becomes painfully and repeatedly revealed, we inch ever closer to choosing new ones that rely on the arts of consultation and negotiation. So during the days of Ridvan, the Baha’i community remembers that spring in Baghdad when humanity understood, once and for all, that the peace of the world was not only possible but inevitable.