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Inhale the fragrances of the Ridvan from His roses and be not of those who are deprived. – Baha’u’llah, The Tablet of the Branch.
On May 2nd, 1863, Baha’u’llah, the prophet and founder of the Baha’i Faith, rode out of Baghdad’s Ridvan Garden into the unknown. Along with his family and a few of his followers, Turkish troops accompanied them over the rugged mountains toward exile and imprisonment.
Ultimately, Baha’u’llah’s journey led him away from his native land and into lifelong incarceration.
So you might think that Baha’is, when they commemorate the Twelfth Day of Ridvan, view it as a somber, sad observance. Rather than a day of melancholy remembrance, however, Baha’is joyously celebrate this anniversary as one of the high points of the Baha’i year.
Why? Well, the entire Ridvan Festival commemorates Baha’u’llah’s twelve-day sojourn in the Garden of Ridvan outside Baghdad, during the days before his exile to Istanbul (then known as Constantinople) in Turkey. Accordingly, Baha’is everywhere happily observe the Twelfth Day of Ridvan as a festival of renewal and peace, commemorating the joyful beginnings of the Baha’i Faith and celebrating the first law of that new revelation, Baha’u’llah’s admonition to humanity to stop waging war:
This is the Day in which God’s most excellent favors have been poured out upon men, the Day in which His most mighty grace hath been infused into all created things. It is incumbent upon all the peoples of the world to reconcile their differences, and, with perfect unity and peace, abide beneath the shadow of the Tree of His care and loving-kindness. – The Proclamation of Baha’u’llah, p. 119.
For his declaration of the peaceful, progressive Baha’i principles, Baha’u’llah ultimately suffered forty years of exile, imprisonment and torture.
His repeated exiles and imprisonment came about as a result of Baha’u’llah’s increasing spiritual influence throughout the entire region, and the large and growing number of followers attracted to the Baha’i teachings. Baha’u’llah’s first banishment, from Tehran in Persia to Baghdad in 1852, and his second exile to Constantinople in 1863, would be followed in rapid succession by two more: later in 1863 from Constantinople to Adrianople (Edirne) in northwestern Turkey near the Greek border; and then ultimately, in 1868 to the barbaric penal colony of Akka (Acre) in Palestine, where Baha’u’llah spent the rest of his life as a prisoner.
In the spring of 1863, before Baha’u’llah’s short sojourn in the Ridvan garden, his family learned of the government’s banishment order. It would permanently remove Baha’u’llah from Baghdad and tear him away from most of them forever. On the day of departure, mourning and lamenting, many of them forced by the authorities to stay behind, they felt nothing but sadness and despair.
We have only a few eyewitness accounts, including one from a follower of Baha’u’llah named Mirza Asadu’llah Kashani, who later wrote about Baha’u’llah’s departure from Baghdad amid thousands of followers had come to tearfully bid him farewell:
…on the twelfth day, in the afternoon, they went from us, under the escort of Turkish soldiers to an unknown destination. Although Baha’u’llah had commanded the friends not to follow them, I was so loath to let Him go out of my sight, and I ran after them for three hours.
He saw me, and getting down from His horse, waited for me, telling me with His beautiful voice, full of love and kindness, to go back to Baghdad, and, with the friends, to set about our work, not slothfully, but with energy: “Be not overcome with sorrow – I am leaving friends I love in Baghdad. I will surely send to them tidings of our welfare. Be steadfast in your service to God, who doeth whatsoever he willeth. Live in such peace as will be permitted to you.”
We watched them disappear into the darkness with sinking hearts, for their enemies were powerful and cruel! Weeping bitterly, we turned our faces toward Baghdad, determined to live according to His command.
Baha’u’llah’s declaration of his mission during that very first Ridvan period marks the moment, Baha’is believe, when “the breezes of forgiveness were wafted over all creation,” when “the doors of the Kingdom have been opened unto you, the call of God is being raised, and the virtues of the human world are in the process of unfoldment.” When Baha’u’llah announced the advent of a new cycle of human progress, the organic unity of all humanity and the dawn of a new world Faith, he transformed the fact of his exile from tragedy to triumph.
Every year, the worldwide Baha’i community commemorates the eve of Baha’u’llah’s departure from Baghdad, not as a time of sorrow or regret, but as a festival of great joy. Every year the Twelfth Day of Ridvan demonstrates the power of the revelation of Baha’u’llah, the newest prophet of God, to transmute tragedy into triumph, bring forth light from darkness, and wrest victory from defeat.