Nestled in the foothills of the Andes mountains, the Baha’i Temple of South America is one of the most unusual-looking buildings I’ve ever laid eyes on. It’s at once organic and otherworldly; it reminds me of the papery exterior of a physalis, or an intergalactic ship from a 60s TV show that crash-lands on earth and disgorges its crew of extra-terrestrials, proclaiming to a suspicious and hostile human race that they “come in peace.” It most definitely does not look like any place of worship I’ve seen before.
I’m here to visit it, mainly because it’s here and I was intrigued by the look of it in the guidebook. Now I’m approaching it, and with every step I take, the more striking it appears.
As I walk up the staircase to this extraordinary edifice, I realise I know next to nothing about the Baha’i faith – a shocking oversight really, given it’s the world’s fastest growing religion and the second most geographically dispersed after Christianity. Perhaps it’s something to do with the fact that it seeks not to convert or pull believers away from other faiths, but instead to help them understand that all religions are essentially different expressions of the same truth. The religion emphasises one single all-powerful God, the unity of all religions, and the unity of humankind. To its followers, figures like Buddha, Mohammed, and Jesus are all messengers of the divine, sent to explain and illuminate God’s nature and purpose, and to help those who listen to their message to develop morally and spiritually. Originating in Iran in the 19th Century, the Baha’i faith now has adherents all over the world, and Houses of Worship on every continent.
This one, serving South America and located just outside Santiago, Chile, was designed by Hariri Pontanini Architects of Toronto, Canada, and opened its doors to the public on October 19th 2016. Since then, over 1.4M visitors have ascended the staircase to its doorway, to be greeted by a smiling volunteer who quietly welcomes you, explaining that silence is required inside the building and that you are welcome to stay as long as you wish. The nine wings (also known as “sails” or “petals”) of the building are built around a steel superstructure with panels of translucent marble and cast glass cladding. Nine pathways lead to the building’s nine entrances, and nine fountains surround it. Why nine? Because in Baha’i teachings, the number nine (as the highest single digit number) symbolises completion, and the fulfilment of all prior religions’ expectations. Nine is also the numerical value of the word “Baha’i” under the isopsephy, the foundational system of classical arithmetic and geometry, and whose legacy can still be seen today in code-breaking, numerology and Masonic symbology. The building seats 600 people, and measures 30m in height by 30m in diameter. It has also won a raft of prestigious national and international architectural awards.
The other name for the Houses of Worship is “Mashriqu-l-Adhkar,” an Arabic phrase meaning “dawning-place of the remembrance of God.” The building represents an extraordinary feat of design and engineering, yet there’s something about the quality of the light, the silence and the cool stillness of the air inside the building that transcends the rational world of numbers, measurements, empirical reasoning, facts and figures. I sit there quietly for a while and realise with a start that I have no idea how long I’ve been there. A few minutes, or a few hours? It’s impossible to say, but I know I could have sat there all day simply…. being. It has a beauty and simplicity which really does evoke a sense of sacredness.
Editor’s note: I have been to the North American Temple just outside of Chicago and the Shrine of the Bab in Haifa, Israel (the Baha’i religion’s most important site), and I can tell you that this sense of peace is universal in these buildings.
What’s perhaps even more unexpected about the Temple is that – like all the other Baha’i Temples around the world – it is not intended as a local meeting place for practitioners, who typically meet and worship in one another’s homes. Instead, it is open to the public to be used as a devotional space by people of any and all faiths. Inside the building, no formal services or ceremonies take place. The sacred writings of any faith may be read, and music from any faith performed by choirs. Whatever your own religious or philosophical persuasion, you’ll find that after a few minutes sitting quietly in the coolness of the glass and marble structure, your spirit is calmed. Like the green pastures and still waters of Psalm 23, this is a place that will restore your soul.
It’s one of the world’s most unusual buildings. For the architectural interest and magnificent scenery alone, it would be worth the trip. But it’s about more than that. The Baha’i faith intends this building, along with its other houses of worship around the world, as a gift to the rest of humanity. The people responsible for this amazing creation may have been ordinary human beings and not extra-terrestrials, but they truly did come in peace. And after a visit here, you will leave feeling the same way.
Insider tip: to get there, either drive, or take a taxi. If you choose the latter, insist that they drive you all the way up to the car park. Otherwise, it’s a 30-minute climb on foot up a concrete path on a steep hill with no shade.
The complex and the Temple are open every day except Mondays and public holidays. They are free to enter, and you can take as many photographs as you wish outside the building itself, but they are strongly discouraged inside. A respectful and contemplative silence is also mandated inside the Temple.
Photo credits: @kilo.juliet.kilo, The Baháʼí Temple of South America
Editor’s note: Please join me in welcoming Kathryn Kneller to the team here at The Royal Tour. She will be bringing us regular insights into her adventures as a full-fledged staff writer! For more of her articles, see her index here!
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