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For Baha’is the twelve-day period between April 20th and May 1st marks the holiest and happiest festival of the year, called Ridvan (pronounced Rez-wan). These Baha’i Holy Days, which celebrate the beginning of the Baha’i Faith in 1863 as its Founder Baha’u’llah prepared for exile, also recognize a period of great turmoil in Baha’i history and signify the transformation of suffering and oppression into joy.
Three of the twelve days of Ridvan – the first, ninth and final day, which fall respectively on April 20th, April 28th and May 1st – have special significance. Baha’is observe and celebrate those holidays by abstaining from work and taking part in gatherings, observances, parties and picnics. These joyous occasions, often characterized by reflection, prayer and reading from the Baha’i writings, remind Baha’is that devotion to a noble cause dedicated to the service of humanity can bring us great and lasting happiness.
The Ninth Day of Ridvan commemorates a profoundly symbolic event in Baha’i history. Baha’u’llah, who had been previously exiled to Baghdad by the Shah of a hostile Persian government in 1852, had once again been officially banished from Baghdad to Constantinople (now known as Istanbul, Turkey), the capitol of the Ottoman Empire. Both governments had opposed and feared the rapid spread of Baha’u’llah’s teachings and those of his predecessor The Bab, and the Persian authorities had reacted by unleashing a violent genocidal persecution campaign of imprisonment, torture and execution against the followers of this new Faith.
The progressive Baha’i teachings – world unity, the oneness of all religions, the equality of men and women – severely threatened the dogma and the dominion of the powerful Imams and Caliphs who ran the tyrannical governments in those countries. Historians have repeatedly documented the vicious treatment those cruel rulers meted out to the Baha’is, and most estimates agree that at least 20,000 innocent people were killed as a result.
With this concerted campaign of exile and extermination at its peak, Baha’u’llah prepared to leave Baghdad. He and a small number of followers moved temporarily to a verdant garden on eastern bank of the Tigris River. This fertile wooded garden, built by Najib Pasha, one of the previous governors of Baghdad, had four avenues, each lined with rose bushes, which attracted the nightingales that sang loudly there every night. In the spring the Tigris would flow past powerfully, and observers said the rushing river, the heady fragrance of the thousands of roses and the melodic songbirds “created an atmosphere of beauty and enchantment.”
A hundred and fifty years ago, on April 29, 1863, the ninth day of Ridvan, the flooding Tigris receded enough so that Baha’u’llah’s family could cross the river and join him on the island. This symbol – the reunification and strength of the bond of family, and by extension the unity of the entire human family – permeates the meaning of the ninth day of Ridvan.
In December of 1902 Baha’u’llah’s daughter was interviewed by the American attorney and writer Myron Phelps, and she recounted her experience during that Ridvan period in 1863:
When the news (of Baha’u’llah’s exile) came to us, from which we inferred that my father would again be made a prisoner, we were thrown into consternation, fearing another separation. He was summoned before the magistrates…. Great numbers of his followers had assembled before our house, and these witnessed his departure with many demonstrations of grief, feeling that it was possible he might not return.
The magistrates expressed great sorrow to my father; they said that they respected and loved him, that they had not instigated the order (the exile order had come from the Sultan of Turkey), but that they were powerless to suspend or modify it, and must proceed with its execution.
This report was like a death-knell to his followers, who were still gathered about the house. The next day they so overran the house that we could not prepare for the journey… Then, as the only way in which to soothe his followers, the Blessed Perfection (one of Baha’u’llah’s titles) took all his family to the (Ridvan) garden. Here we pitched our tents… The tents made, as it were, a little village….
Many of the Blessed Perfection’s followers decided to abandon Baghdad also, and accompany him in his wanderings. When the caravan started (on the twelfth day of Ridvan), our company numbered about seventy-five persons. All the young men, and others who could ride, were mounted on horses. The women and the Blessed Perfection were furnished wagons. We were accompanied by a military escort. This journey took place in 1863, about eleven years after our arrival in Baghdad.
Baha’is often celebrate the ninth day of Ridvan with outdoor activities like picnics, games and hikes, enjoying the beauty of lakes, rivers and oceans as a reminder of Baha’u’llah’s momentous Declaration on the shores of the Tigris. These Baha’i celebrations around the world echo the words of Abdu’l-Baha:
The whole world is born anew, resurrected. Gentle zephyrs are set in motion, wafting and fragrant; flowers bloom; the trees are in blossom, the air temperate and delightful; how pleasant and beautiful become the mountains, fields and meadows. Likewise, the spiritual bounty and springtime of God quicken the world of humanity with a new animus and vivification. All the virtues which have been deposited and potential in human hearts are being revealed from that Reality as flowers and blossoms from divine gardens. It is a day of joy, a time of happiness, a period of spiritual growth.