Behold a beautiful garden full of flowers, shrubs, and trees. Each flower has a different charm, a peculiar beauty, its own delicious perfume and beautiful colour. The trees too, how varied are theœy in size, in growth, in foliage — and what different fruits they bear! Yet all these flowers, shrubs and trees spring from the self-same earth, the same sun shines upon them and the same clouds give them rain.
The Baha’i Faith began, appropriately enough, in a beautiful garden. Called the Garden of Ridvan (which means paradise, and is pronounced rez-vahn), this rose-scented, birdsong-filled island garden witnessed the birth of the world’s newest independent religion on April 21st, 1863.
Situated on an island in the Tigris River near Baghdad, the Ridvan garden marks the exact spot where Baha’u’llah first declared his mission and inaugurated the Baha’i Faith. Baha’u’llah’s momentous declaration happened during the twelve day period before his banishment to Istanbul, Turkey (then called Constantinople). Ten years before, in 1853, the Persian government had exiled Baha’u’llah to Baghdad, fearing the rapid spread of his teachings and their progressive impact on society. In April of 1863, because his teachings continued to spread and threaten the clerics, Baha’u’llah faced a second exile:
At last the enemies of the Cause secured from the government authorities an order banishing Baha’u’llah from Baghdad. It first read that he should go, alone. But later this was changed, permitting his family and a few followers to accompany him. The band of exiles left Baghdad and paused, first, in a beautiful garden outside the city. Here they sojourned for twelve days. A tent was pitched for Baha’u’llah, and around it the tents for the others. These days in the garden are called “The days of Ridvan” and they are of supreme importance, for it was then that Baha’u’llah declared, to a few followers, his great mission and began to build the palace of peace and unity for the world. He revealed many wonderful verses which sing the melodies of the New Day of God.
When the twelve days were over, the party, mounted on horses and donkeys and guarded by Turkish soldiers, set out again. The believers who could not accompany them were utterly broken-hearted. It was as though Baha’u’llah was a king starting upon a glorious journey. Outwardly, an exile–but in his spirit a great light was shining. – Jinab-i-Fadil, Star of the West, Volume 8, pp. 325-326.
The grueling, arduous journey of the exiles to Constantinople, over the deserts and mountains of Asia Minor in the heat of the summer, took four months. During that period Baha’u’llah proclaimed the mission of his new Faith to a widening circle of believers. With this profound announcement, Baha’u’llah transformed the occasion of his banishment from crisis to victory.
The twelve days of Ridvan—which Baha’is observe from April 21st to May 2nd each year—commemorate that sojourn in the garden, and celebrate the birth of Baha’u’llah’s new Faith. Baha’i communities and their friends around the world remember the eve of Baha’u’llah’s banishment from Baghdad to Istanbul, not as a time of sorrow or regret, but as a happy festival of renewal. The Ridvan holiday demonstrates the power of the prophet of God to create good from evil, bring forth light from darkness, and win triumph from seeming defeat:
The Persian government believed the banishment of [Baha’u’llah] from Persia would be the extermination of his cause in that country. These rulers now realized that it spread more rapidly. His prestige increased, his teachings became more widely circulated. The chiefs of Persia then used their influence to have Baha’u’llah exiled from Baghdad. He was summoned to Constantinople by the Turkish authorities. While in Constantinople he ignored every restriction, especially the hostility of ministers of state and clergy. The official representatives of Persia again brought their influence to bear upon the Turkish authorities and succeeded in having Baha’u’llah banished from Constantinople to Adrianople, the object being to keep him as far away as possible from Persia and render his communication with that country more difficult. Nevertheless the cause still spread and strengthened. – Abdu’l-Baha, The Baha’i World, Volume 9, p. 163.
Baha’u’llah’s declaration of his mission in the Garden of Ridvan gave new inspiration to everyone around him, infusing the entire gathering in the garden with joy and life. Each year Baha’is celebrate these joyous emotions during the Ridvan Festival, and Baha’i communities all over the world host parties and gatherings where everyone is welcome.
Today the Ridvan period also serves as the time when Baha’is around the world elect the democratic institutions that administer and guide their Faith. Baha’is have no clergy, so Baha’i communities govern themselves with democratically-elected bodies of nine people called Spiritual Assemblies, annually elected at the local and national level during the twelve days of Ridvan. Every five years, Baha’is elect the Universal House of Justice during this same period.
When Baha’is gather to pray and silently cast their ballots for these unique democratic institutions, they affirm Baha’u’llah’s teachings of world unity, symbolically celebrate the garden of humanity in all its diversity and beauty, and recall that powerful declaration in the Garden of Ridvan, which established the Faith of oneness and peace.