Baha’is all around the world will celebrate the “King of Festivals,” the holiest days of the Baha’i year, for the next 12 days.
These celebrations commemorate the beginnings of the Baha’i Faith in 1863, in a beautiful rose garden filled with the songs of nightingales on an island in the middle of the Tigris River. Called the Garden of Ridvan (pronounced rez-vahn), which means “paradise,” this flowering, fragrant, birdsong-filled spot witnessed the birth of the world’s newest independent religion during these twelve days 155 years ago.
On this island near the ancient city of Baghdad, the Ridvan garden marks the exact place 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. – Jinab-i-Fadil, Star of the West, Volume 8, pp. 325-326.
One of Baha’u’llah’s biographers, Adib Taherzadeh, tells the story of that day in his book The Revelation of Baha’u’llah:
The departure of Baha’u’llah from His house witnessed a commotion the like of which Baghdad had rarely seen. People of all walks of life, men and women, rich and poor, young and old, men of learning and culture, princes, government officials, tradesman and workers, and above all His companions, thronged the approaches of His house and crowded the streets and roof-tops situated along His route to the river. They were lamenting and weeping the departure of One Who, for a decade, had imparted to them the warmth of His love and the radiance of His spirit, who had been a refuge and guide for them all ….
Abdu’l-Baha has described how, upon His arrival in the garden, Baha’u’llah declared His station to those of His companions who were present, and announced with great joy the inauguration of the Festival of Ridvan.
Sadness and grief vanished and the believers were filled with delight at this announcement. Although Baha’u’llah was being exiled to far-off lands and knew the sufferings and tribulations which were in store for Him and His followers, yet through this historic Declaration He changed all sorrow into blissful joy and spent the most delightful time of His ministry in the Garden of Ridvan. Indeed, in one of His tablets, He has referred to the first day of Ridvan as the ‘Day of supreme felicity’, and has called on His followers to ‘rejoice, with exceeding gladness’ in remembrance of that day. – Volume 1, pp. 259-273.
Once the twelve days of celebration and rejoicing ended, an arduous exile began:
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, p. 326.
The grueling trek the exiles took to Constantinople, over the deserts and mountains of Asia Minor in the heat of the summer, lasted four months. During that period Baha’u’llah proclaimed the mission of his new Faith—the oneness of humanity and peace between all nations—to a widening circle of believers. With this profound announcement, Baha’u’llah transformed the occasion of his banishment from crisis to victory.
Today Baha’is 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, regret or defeat, but as a happy festival of revelation and renewal. The Ridvan holy days demonstrate the power of the prophet of God to create good from evil, bring forth light from darkness, and win triumph from seeming subjugation:
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.