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On the Twelfth Day of Ridvan in 1863, the time for Baha’u’llah’s departure in his Ottoman Empire-imposed exile to Constantinople had finally arrived.
Banished by government decree because the Baha'i Faith had continued its spread among the people, Baha’u’llah and his family faced a perilous, grueling four-month journey through the hottest months of the year to an unknown destination — and destiny.
At noon on that twelfth day of Ridvan, in early May of 1863, Baha’u’llah mounted his horse, a noble red roan stallion. Immediately surrounded by hordes of people begging for his blessings and imploring him not to go, he and his family and followers, accompanied by a military escort, set out toward Constantinople, clothed in majesty.
People wept. Baha’u’llah’s decade-long sojourn in Baghdad, and his immense spiritual influence on the citizens of that city, had made him a beloved public figure there.
Numerous were the heads which, on every side, bowed to the dust at the feet of His horse, and kissed its hoofs, and countless were those who pressed forward to embrace His stirrups.
One of Baha’u’llah’s followers, named Mirza Asadu’llah Kashani, was overcome with emotion, and ran after the group as they departed. Later he wrote, as reported by Lady Blomfield in “The Chosen Highway”:
Although Baha’u’llah had commanded the friends not to follow them, I was so loath to let Him go out of my sight, that 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! And we knew not where they were being taken. An unknown destination!
Weeping bitterly, we turned our faces toward Baghdad, determined to live according to His command.
Baha’u’llah’s devoted daughter Bahiyyih Khanum remembered that:
Many of [Baha’u’llah’s] followers decided to abandon Baghdad also, and accompany him in his wanderings. When the caravan started, our company numbered about seventy-five persons. All the young men, and others who could ride, were mounted on horses. The women and [Baha’u’llah] were furnished wagons. We were accompanied by a military escort.
This banishment became Baha’u’llah’s second exile. Two more successive banishments were yet to come, the final one to the pestilential Ottoman prison-city of Akka far away in Palestine, where few survived the terrible prison conditions.
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Despite the expectations of those who ordered his repeated exiles, the Baha'i Faith continued to flourish. These cruel banishments, driven by rulers who feared the rapid spread of Baha’u’llah’s teachings, did not suppress or damage Baha’u’llah’s nascent revelation. Instead, Shoghi Effendi said in “God Passes By”, they helped render it victorious:
Acclaiming that historic occasion as the "Most Great Festival," the "King of Festivals," the "Festival of God," He has … characterized it as the Day whereon "all created things were immersed in the sea of purification," whilst in one of His specific Tablets, He has referred to it as the Day whereon "the breezes of forgiveness were wafted over the entire creation." "Rejoice, with exceeding gladness, O people of Baha!", He, in another Tablet, has written, "as ye call to remembrance the Day of supreme felicity, the Day whereon the Tongue of the Ancient of Days hath spoken, as He departed from His House proceeding to the Spot from which He shed upon the whole of creation the splendors of His Name, the All-Merciful ... Were We to reveal the hidden secrets of that Day, all that dwell on earth and in the heavens would swoon away and die, except such as will be preserved by God, the Almighty, the All-Knowing, the All-Wise.
Today the millions of followers of Baha’u’llah mark the 12-day Ridvan period each year 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 their Faith’s teachings of world unity; symbolically celebrate the garden of humanity in all its diversity and beauty; and recall Baha’u’llah’s powerful declaration during the days of Ridvan, which established a new global community dedicated to peace and oneness.