By Arash Azizi
September 25, 2019
Architects who design national landmarks can expect to be feted by their nation for many years to come. This could have been the case for Hossein Amanat, the Iranian architect whose 1970 design for a landmark Tehran tower turned into the most remarkable architectural work of modern Iran. He had built the Shahyad Tower at the age of 24, right after graduating from the Fine Arts faculty of Tehran University.
Less than a decade later, he was forced to leave. The tower would change name its name to Azadi (“freedom”) and remain a symbol of Tehran and modern Iran. But its architect could no longer visit home. Together with tens of thousands of his fellow Iranians, he had been hounded out for a simple reason: He was a Baha’i, a follower of a faith founded in 19th-century Iran.
Baha’is have often bore the brunt of discrimination in modern Iranian history, as a new book by Fereydun Vahman shows — but the Islamic Republic took things to a new height by killing dozens of Baha’is and making their oppression a state policy.
The now 77-year-old Amanat now lives in Vancouver and has acquired Canadian citizenship. In the four decades since he has been away from his original home, he has designed remarkable buildings around the world, from the United States to China. Perhaps his most important works are the buildings he has designed in the Israeli port city of Haifa, which is the administrative seat of the Baha’i faith and a site of pilgrimage for its followers.
In a new turning point in Amanat’s career, he has now designed a shrine for Abdul Baha, the son of the Baha’i faith’s founder and a key figure in Iran’s contemporary history. The Baha’i World Center in Haifa released the news on Friday, September 20, introducing Abdul Baha as a man who “occupies a station without parallel in the religious annals of humankind.”
“From the early years of my childhood, I grew up learning about this man and his life,” Amanat told me in a phone conversation in our native Persian. “This design comes from what I have understood from Abdul Baha’s personality.”
Stills and a video of Amanat’s architectural concept have been released to the public. They boast familiar Baha’i themes through serene gardens and eight-sided geometrical designs.
Abdul Baha’s remains had previously been held in Haifa in a room in the shrine of Bab, a holy figure in the pre-history of the Baha’i faith who was executed in 1850 in Tabriz. After years of preparatory work, the grand work of building a permanent burial place for him is now set to begin.
Amanat remembers being asked about the project during a routine trip to Haifa. “Abdul Baha’s station is so high in my mind,” he told me, “that when I was first asked about this, I had to think hard about whether I dare to do it or not.”
For a long time, he only spoke about the project with two people with whom he was working closely. One of them was someone he has worked with for more than 30 years and the other is a student of his and a graduate of the Baha’i Institute of Higher Education (BIHE), an underground university that Baha’is have set up in order to evade the official ban on Baha’is attending university or pursuing further education.
The news was published after the Baha’i Universal House of Justice, the religion’s elected governing body, accepted Amanat’s design. It is not yet clear when the work on the new shrine will be completed but, according to Amanat, it is hoped it will happen before November 28, 2021, the centenary of Abdul Baha’s death.
The shrine will be adjacent to a garden where Abdul Baha is known to have lived in northern Israel between Haifa and Akka, the old Mediterranean city where Bahaullah, the founder of the Baha’i faith, is buried and is thus considered to be the faith’s most holy site. In a well-known prayer, Abdul Baha had asked God to “make me as a dust in the pathway of Thy loved ones.” Since most Baha’i pilgrims visit sites in Haifa and Akka, a place between the two places certainly counts as being in their “pathway.”
Baha’is have often been chastised because the central sites of their faith are in Israel, but this location is a historical accident that predates the founding of the Jewish state by decades. Opposed by the Qajar dynasty of Iran in the 19th century, Bahaullah was exiled to the Ottoman empire. From the age of eight, Abdul Baha accompanied his family as they made their way around the Ottoman world: Baghdad, Istanbul, Edirne and finally imprisonment in the penal colony of Akka, which was then part of Ottoman lands. It was only the liberal 1908 Ottoman revolution that allowed Abdul Baha to leave Akka and make trips abroad, including his pioneering visits to Europe, the US and Canada.
Speaking of the site’s location, Amanat says: “As you know they call that area the Holy Land. But Abdul Baha and family came there due to exile and prison and not their own desire. They spent very hard days there and Abdul Baha was a crucial help to his father.”
Talking about Abdul Baha, the architect recited some of Baha’s versatile Persian verse. He spoke of his funeral, at which many key figures of Palestine spoke, regardless of their religion.
“This or that religion was not what mattered,” Amanat said. “It was the same for Abdul Baha. He didn’t have a prejudice of thinking Baha’is are better. He saw everyone with the same eye and loved them the same way.”
According to the British High Commissioner of the time, more than 10,000 people attended Abdul Baha’s funeral —Haifa’s population was only around 20,000 at the time. Sir Herbert Samuel describes it as “a funeral the like of which Palestine had never seen.” Many local Christian and Muslim figures spoke at the funeral, including Mohammad Murad, the mufti of Haifa, who praised the deceased’s “ready and helping hand in the service of mankind and the beautiful and wondrous story of his life.”
Abdul Baha was also a pioneering modern thinker whose ideas had some popularity during the Iranian constitutional revolution of 1906 to 1908. I talked to Amanat about how this is often forgotten in contemporary historical accounts.
“As you know he was a rare traveler to Europe and US in those years, where he went and spoke about world peace,” Amanat said. “In his Secrets of the Divine Civilization, he spoke of modernity and told Iranians they shouldn’t simply initiate the West. They should take what is good from the West without losing the good aspects of the Iranian civilization.”
The same approach led Amanat when he designed what was to become the most well-known symbol of modern Iran: “I wanted to use modern technology but to also get inspiration from Iranian history,” he said. According to the architect, Abdul Baha taught him that “learning from the West should not lead us to forget the beauties of the Iranian civilization.”