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When Baha’u’llah was released from Persia’s Black Pit in December of 1852, his government exiled him to Baghdad.
First, though, he had to convalesce sufficiently from his torture and imprisonment to be able to travel such a long distance. Baha’u’llah spent a month recovering from his prison privations in the home of a half-brother who was a physician, and who was married to Baha’u’llah’s cousin Maryam—who became one of his most faithful followers. Maryam and Baha’u’llah’s wife Asiyih Khanum nursed him back to health, although he never fully recovered physically from the experience of the Black Pit.
On January 12, 1853, seventy people, including Baha’u’llah’s family and small children, went with him out of Tehran. Moving overland in the dead of winter, suffering greatly in the bitter cold and poorly clothed and provisioned for the arduous three-month journey, the exiles moved forward toward an unknown fate.
Fearful that the Babi Faith he professed and led would spread and destabilize Persia’s rule over its citizens, the politicians of the time wanted to move Baha’u’llah as far away as possible. Because the two ancient capitals were so far apart—about 550 miles or 885 kilometers, across a snow-covered high mountain range—they reasoned that separating Baha’u’llah from his native city and country would slow or stop the rapid growth of the Bab’s teachings among the Persian populace:
At nine years of age, I accompanied my father, Baha’u’llah, in his journey of exile to Baghdad, seventy of his disciples going with us. This decree of exile, after persistent persecution, was intended to effectively stamp out of Persia what the authorities considered a dangerous religion. – Abdu’l-Baha, Abdu’l-Baha in London, p. 115.
Today, if you live in either Iran or Iraq, and the border is passable, and you can avoid danger because the war in Iraq is at a low ebb, you might be able to drive between Tehran and Baghdad in 12 hours or so if you were lucky. In the winter of 1853, Baha’u’llah and his family didn’t have that option—they were forced to walk or ride on horseback for three frigid months. It was a grueling trip:
The journey, undertaken in the depth of an exceptionally severe winter, carrying the little band of exiles, so inadequately equipped, across the snow-bound mountains of Western Persia, though long and perilous, was uneventful except for the warm and enthusiastic reception accorded the travelers during their brief stay in Karand by its governor Hayat-Quli Khan, of the [Muslim] Alliyu’llahi sect. He was shown, in return, such kindness by Baha’u’llah that the people of the entire village were affected, and continued, long after, to extend such hospitality to His followers on their way to Baghdad that they gained the reputation of being known as Babis.
In a prayer revealed by Him at that time, Baha’u’llah, expatiating upon the woes and trials He had endured in the Siyah-Chal [dungeon], thus bears witness to the hardships undergone in the course of that “terrible journey”:
My God, My Master, My Desire!… Thou hast created this atom of dust through the consummate power of Thy might, and nurtured Him with Thine hands which none can chain up…. Thou hast destined for Him trials and tribulations which no tongue can describe, nor any of Thy Tablets adequately recount. The throat Thou didst accustom to the touch of silk Thou hast, in the end, clasped with strong chains, and the body Thou didst ease with brocades and velvets Thou hast at last subjected to the abasement of a dungeon. Thy decree hath shackled Me with unnumbered fetters, and cast about My neck chains that none can sunder. A number of years have passed during which afflictions have, like showers of mercy, rained upon Me…. How many the nights during which the weight of chains and fetters allowed Me no rest, and how numerous the days during which peace and tranquillity were denied Me, by reason of that wherewith the hands and tongues of men have afflicted Me! Both bread and water which Thou hast, through Thy all-embracing mercy, allowed unto the beasts of the field, they have, for a time, forbidden unto this servant, and the things they refused to inflict upon such as have seceded from Thy Cause, the same have they suffered to be inflicted upon Me, until, finally, Thy decree was irrevocably fixed, and Thy behest summoned this servant to depart out of Persia, accompanied by a number of frail-bodied men and children of tender age, at this time when the cold is so intense that one cannot even speak, and ice and snow so abundant that it is impossible to move. – Baha’u’llah, cited by Shoghi Effendi in God Passes By, pp. 108-109.
It’s hard for us to imagine, now in the modern age, how difficult a forced banishment like Baha’u’llah’s first exile must have been for him and his family. Here is his daughter’s description of the painful trip:
This journey was filled with indescribable difficulties. My mother had no experience, no servants, no provisions, and very little money left. My father was extremely ill, not having recovered from the ordeals of the torture and the prison. No one of all of our friends and relations dared to come to our help, or even to say good-bye, but one old lady, the grandmother of Asiyih Khanum.
… we three children were very young, my brother eight, and I six years old. … On the way to Baghdad we sometimes encamped in wilderness places, but … the cold was intense, and we were not well prepared! My poor mother! How she suffered on this journey, riding in a takht-i-ravan [a kind of litter], borne on a jolting mule! And this took place only six weeks before her youngest son was born! – Bahiyyih Khanum, quoted by Lady Blomfield, The Chosen Highway, pp. 45-46.
But in the midst of all this difficulty and trouble, and despite his injuries and his grave illness, Bahiyyih Khanum noticed something profound about her father Baha’u’llah, who she said:
… had a marvellous divine experience whilst in that prison. We saw a new radiance seeming to enfold him like a shining vesture, its significance we were to learn years later. At that time we were only aware of the wonder of it, without understanding, or even being told the details of the sacred event. – Ibid., p. 45.