The Qasr (The Mansion) of Bahji

By Bahiyeh Afnan Shahid

After Shoghi Effendi assumed the Guardianship of the Bahai Faith he was very keen to get the Mansion refurbished and restored to the original condition it was in at the time when Baha’ullah lived there, which was until his passing away in 1892. Since that time, Bahau’llah’s family — those that came to be designated as covenant breakers — had lived there. Abdul Baha himself, his wife and four daughters, their husbands and children lived in Akka in Abboud’s house and the Saraya of Abdulla Pasha, and later in Haifa, at No. 7 Persian Street, a house built with funds contributed by Bahais throughout the world.

Shoghi Effendi asked Mirza Jalal, son of Sultan al Shuhada (King of the Martyrs) to assume this task. To start with it was necessary to purchase the property. It had not been purchased at the time of Baha’ullah, as is claimed in The Priceless Pearl (p. 231). Neither Baha’ullah nor the Master had the kind of money required to purchase such ‘a building, unique in Palestine for its majestic style of architecture’ (ibid). It had been inherited by numerous descendants of the original owner, Audi Khommar, the rich Syrian merchant who originally owned the Qasr (Arabic for palace). These had to be tracked down in Syria, Lebanon and Palestine, and their individual shares bought. It took Mirza Jalal two to three years to find each one of them and to purchase their share. This required funds which the Guardian had said he would be happy to pay — at the conclusion of these transactions. Mirza Jalal did not have the necessary funds at hand, so his wife, Ruha Khanum, one of the four daughters of Abdul Baha, who was a good friend of Mrs. Styvesant Chanler, a wealthy Bahai, asked her whether it would be possible for her to give them a loan for the sum required, at the end of which the Guardian would repay the debt. Mrs. Chanler wrote back to say that she would be happy not only to provide the loan, but would be honoured to pay for the purchase of the Mansion. This Ruha Khanum assured her would not be necessary but accepted the loan until the transactions were all completed. This was duly done, and the loan paid back.

The next task facing Mirza Jalal was to vacate the Mansion. The building had been occupied by Baha’ullah and his family since the late 1880s. The family consisted of the descendants of Baha’ullah and his brother Agha Mousa Kalim and their respective families. At the time Mirza Jalal sought to vacate of the Mansion some 40 years or more had passed upon their occupancy. There was no law and no way of forcing those who had lived for so long in the Mansion to leave. The only way was to settle the matter amicably. He therefore went to see Mr. Mousa Bahai, who was the youngest son of Mirza Mohammad Ali, and a prominent member of the family. He explained that Shoghi Effendi had purchased the Mansion and wanted to repair and refurbish it to keep the home in which Baha’ullah had spent the last years of his life as a place of pilgrimage for the Bahai world. Mr. Mousa Bahai concurred with the idea and asked for a period of two months to find alternative accommodation for the different members of the family and vacate the mansion. This was duly done and he gave the keys to Mirza Jalal who in turn delivered them to the Guardian.

The paragraph that appears in Moojan Momen’s article entitled ‘Covenant, The, & Covenant-breakers’ in Bahai Library Online (written for possible inclusion in The Bahai Encyclopedia) regarding the Mansion of Bahji says:

‘In 1929 they were forced to evacuate the Mansion of Bahji as they had allowed it to deteriorate to such a point that it was no longer habitable. They remained in buildings surrounding Bahji until 1957’.

As stated above, they were not ‘forced’ out by the state of disrepair and deterioration, nor was ‘its roof caving in’ as stated in The Priceless Pearl (p. 231). Both accounts are highly exaggerated, the former drawing on the latter as its source. The truth of the matter is that Mirza Jalal first had to purchase the property, then negotiate the hand-over, for which, incidentally, the family refused any compensation, financial or otherwise. Also, most of the family did not remain ‘in buildings surrounding Bahji until 1957’ (ibid.) but upon leaving the Qasr moved to Haifa and Acre. These errors in Moojan Momen’s article are but two of unfortunately many that exist in that article alone.

In The Priceless Pearl it is stated (p. 232) that upon the completion of the repairs, refurbishment and furnishing of the Mansion Shoghi Effendi invited the High Commissioner to Bahji to show him the completed works. He had asked His Excellency

‘…if he did not feel that such a place as this, so sacred in its associations to Baha’is the world over, far transcended the right to be considered any individual’s private residence and should be preserved as a place of pilgrimage and an historical museum? His Excellency, no doubt as much impressed by the advocate as by the testimony, agreed and the Mansion remained in Shoghi Effendi’s hands.’

Of course it remained in Shoghi Effendi’s hands. The Mansion (Qasr) had been purchased from its original owners and the family of Mohammad Ali had willingly vacated it.

Years later, when Hassan Shahid, the son of Mirza Jalal, had gone to see Mr. Mousa Bahai (who was the Haifa Land Registrar) about some land registry matters, the latter had told him that when his father, Mirza Jalal had gone to see him regarding his family vacating the Mansion, he had spoken so eloquently, so gently and kindly, and had explained the situation so convincingly that he had immediately accepted to cooperate with the request.

In The Priceless Pearl (p. 173) it is stated that as late as 1948, ‘at the end of the British Mandate in Palestine and expected outbreak of war, Majdedeen and Shoah Bahai were living in the Mansion — if the Arabs came, the consequences are only too clear.’

But how could Majdedeen and Shoah Bahai have been in the Mansion in 1948 when it was in Shoghi Effendi’s hands since the late 20s?