“Kind of Like a Theme Park… But a Holy One”

The recent completion of the renovation of the Shrine of the Bab has lead to Time magazine to feature a short article on the Baha’i World Center in Haifa and its gardens:

Stepping into the gardens of the Shrine of the Bab is like entering a hallucination. They rise in steps all the way up the mountainside above Haifa’s downtown, and at the midway point, at midmorning, the clear light off the Mediterranean combines with the precise efforts of 150 gardeners to achieve a combination of lucid depth and dazzling color.

The Little Religion That Persists: The Baha’i in Israel

The Time magazine journalist talks to Rob Weinberg who is one of the BWC’s external communication people as well as to several regular people visiting the gardens.

Jonas Mejer, a student visiting from Copenhagen says:

“It’s kind of like a theme park, where they’re keeping everything ‘just so’.?But it’s a holy place.”

I chuckled after reading that because it displays a child-like innocence and honesty. My own impression after visiting the gardens was that they were maintained and manicured to an inch of their lives.

From afar they were much more beautiful than from up close. It is difficult to explain or perhaps I lack the eloquence of Jonas but there was a cosmetic vibe to it that didn’t sit well with me. I suppose the House of Justice is only trying to maintain the high standards set by Shoghi Effendi when he, with his own hands, created the gardens with much effort and sacrifice.

You won’t have to look far to guess what one of my most favorite spots was in the gardens (look up!).

Here is a short video from August 2010 from CNN.com talking with Rob Weinberg:

Frequency of the Word “Bahai” in English Books

The eggheads at Google have done it again. After aggregating and digitizing more than 5.2 million books containing more than 500 billion words, they have unleashed a massive and searchable database of words used in those published works: the Google’s Book Ngram Viewer.

As you probably know, I’m a sucker for data-mining: Declining Internet Interest for ?Baha’i?. That was keeping track of the relative popularity of search incidents for the keyword “bahai”.

This new tool from Google is equally fascinating but it provides a different perspective. Whereas the previous one is a reflection of our modern times and our penchant for using google as a search engine to find answers on the internet, this new tool allows us to look at the usage frequency of certain words throughout history in published books.

Of course, I immediately typed in “Bahai” to see what it would show. Keep in mind that it is very sensitive to alternative spellings. So the word “Bahai” that I used will produce different results than the word “Baha’i” or the word “bahai” or “baha’i”. In the end, I chose to show you the graph for the word “Bahai” because it has the most frequent usage in Google’s database.

Take a look at the graph and see if you notice the same things that I did:

Bahai google ngram English

Click to see larger graph

The first ‘bump’ is 1850 which is right around the time of the Babi movement in Iran, which then morphed into the Baha’i Faith. It is surprising to see such an immediate – albeit relatively small – reaction from the English press to this event halfway around the world. But then again, orientalists like E.G. Browne were deeply interested in the movement.

There is a clear spike between 1911 and 1918 (approximately). The line is smoothed with a smoothing coefficient of 3 – a setting which can be changed in the Ngram control panel. If you reduce the smoothing coefficient, there are two distinct spikes, one for 1915 and the other for 1919.

Knowing that Abdu’l-Baha’s visit to the West took place between 1911 and 1913 provides a simple explanation for this sudden increase in exposure. And providing that we give a few years lag time for research and publication we have a very neat match for this sharp increase in the prevalence of the usage of the word “Bahai” in English books.

The second spike occurs a few decades later between 1944 and 1946. What might account for it? My hunch is that it is the outbreak of World War II and the inevitable soul searching that occurred in reaction to the horrific tragedy that is war.

The other standout years are 1973 and 1982. I’m not sure what 1973 corresponds to but 1982 would probably be explained by the Islamic revolution of Iran and the systemic persecution of Baha’is – which continues to this day.

Here is the same graph restricted to “British English”:

Bahai google ngram British English

Click to see larger graph

The prevalence of the word “Bahai” in British books is somewhat different. The first spike occurs in 1921. Then there are other spikes of activity in 1974 and 1981. And finally, most curious is the astounding increase in 2008 – the final year for which there is data.

Take a look yourself and see what sorts of things you can discover. As always, if you have any insight or comment, I’d love to hear about it below.

If searching through billions of words in the span of seconds isn’t amazing enough, you can also bore down into the books themselves using the links provided at the bottom of the graph at the Google Ngram website and actually read where each mention is featured.

Declining Internet Interest for “Baha’i”

A while back we looked at the geographic breakdown of the data: Iranians Curious About ?Bahai?, Americans Not. I decided to go back and take a look at the pattern of search results for Baha’i.

Since Google is the king of internet when it comes to search, I was somewhat saddened to see that the number of worldwide searches for the keyword, “Baha’i” is continuing to decline. The chart below is from Google Insight for Search and it shows the incidence of people searching for the word Bahai on Google:

Since 2004 (the farthest Google has data) there has been a consistent decline in the number of Google searches for the term Baha’i. By the way, alternative spellings such as “bahai” provide the same results – Google is smart like that. Since Google loves numbers more than the Count, they crunch the numbers to come up with a short term forecast one year ahead (not visible in the chart above). Based on their forecast, the search index will decline from 39 (May 2010) to 33 in June 2011. You can see the chart including the forecast here.

To get some perspective we can compare this to, say, the term “Islam”. For starters, Islam’s index is flat, indicating a consistent level of online search interest. But I didn’t show the two together because there is so much more interest in the term “Islam” that the two plotted together on one index makes “Baha’i”‘s index basically unreadable.

Searching for other religions is also interesting. For example, the keyword “Judaism” shows a similar decline in popularity but the amount of search is higher than Baha’i. As well, there is an annual peak of interest that centers around Yom Kippur – the holiest of Jewish religious holidays.

So what inferences can we draw from this?

For starters, it is important to realize the importance of the internt. The reality is that the internet is a now an integral part of life in most developed countries. And with time, the integration and usefulness of the internet is only growing. So on the one hand, this trend tells us that within the Western, or wealthy nations, there is a decline in interest.

Considering the significant correlation between religiosity and wealth that isn’t surprising. As well, the Baha’i world center has for some time now targeted the less developed nations and developed programs such as Ruhi specifically to gain inroads within them.

Oldest Bible (Codex Sinaiticus) Now Online

Although in physical form it is in 4 separate locations around the world, the oldest known copy of the Bible is now completely online. The document dates back to Constantine I and is considered one of the world’s greatest written treasures. Now, thanks to the internet, everyone has equal access to this historical heritage.

To find out more about why this document is so important, you can read more about it here. Interestingly enough, there are many discrepancies between the contents of the Codex and what we consider as the Bible today. For example, it has no mention of a resurrected Jesus – a pivotal component of modern Christian doctrine.

Codex Sinaiticus detail

I took the image you see above while playing around with the controls at the Codex Sinaiticus website. As the image shows, you can zoom in to see quiet a lot of detail.

Even you are not a librarian or a photographer or an archivist, it isn’t difficult to imagine the daunting task of digitizing a 1,600-year old manuscript that is literally falling apart.

This monumental achievement reminded me of the massive volumes of Baha’i texts which are hidden away in vaults and not accessible by scholars (or anyone else). To give you an idea of what a similar project for Baha’i texts would look like, here is a low resolution image of an excerpt from the Epistle to the Son of the Wolf by Baha’u’llah (written in the handwriting of Mirza Aqa Jan, Baha’u’llah’s amanuensis):

excerpt from Epistle to Son of the Wolf Bahaullah (Mirza Aqa Jan handwriting)
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