Photo book takes us on a virtual journey to the Holy Land

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Gigi Alford and Anis Mungapen wanted to begin their married life serving humanity together. They were already working as volunteers at the world center of the Baha’i Faith in Haifa, Israel, but they also wanted to contribute something original to their faith’s efforts to build up community around the planet.

What better service to render, they decided, than bringing a little bit of the sacredness of the Holy Land to every city and village in the world. In 2007 they started designing a book using photographs of the Baha’i Holy Places in northern Israel paired with quotations from the religion’s sacred texts.

“We felt that being in Haifa, near the Shrines, was such a privilege,” Ms. Alford said, referring to the two resting places of the Baha’i Faith’s most holy Figures, Baha’u’llah and the Bab. “We wanted to share that. We wanted to make a piece of that experience accessible to all.”

In late summer 2010 the couple, now living in Alabama, at last introduced the fruits of their labor to the public. The 150-page photo book is titled Hasten Forth: The Dispensation of Baha’u’llah, and it is a virtual journey to the Holy Land, its creators say.

‘We made a good team’

Ms. Alford is by trade a journalist and likes working with words, and her husband, although a trained engineer, is an amateur photographer. They already knew their complementary skills made them a good team for a publishing project. For their wedding they designed the ceremony programs and special prayer books to give guests as keepsakes. Afterward they made a coffee table book of the photographs their friends captured of the special day.

As they worked diligently on the book in their spare time, they learned something about the potential for their project. They noticed family and friends from all religions were attracted to the photographs of the the Baha’i Holy Places and gardens included in their wedding book.

“We would sit with people and go through the book with them, and the conversation would just naturally turn to the significance of the Shrines and the teachings of the Baha’i Faith,” Mr. Mungapen said.

This discovery gave them the idea to make their new book for a wider audience and to design it in such a way that anyone who flipped through its pages would learn something new about the Baha’i Faith. That’s why they chose to base Hasten Forth on a document titled “The Dispensation of Baha’u’llah” by Shoghi Effendi, head of the religious community from 1921 to 1957. The author himself stated that he wrote the message to explain the fundamental verities of the religion.

Hasten Forth
takes shape

Dated 1937, “The Dispensation of Baha’u’llah,” is divided into four sections. Hasten Forth mirrors this structure, using the quotations Shoghi Effendi selected and illustrating the theme of the passage with images of places associated with each chapter’s subject.

The first section is focused on the station of Baha’u’llah, as well as all the Manifestations of God. In Hasten Forththe photographs feature Baha’u’llah’s Shrine and Mansion in Bahji.

The second section is devoted to the Mission of the Bab, the One Who proclaimed the coming of Baha’u’llah. The Shrine dedicated to Him and the adorning gardened terraces on Mount Carmel in Haifa are the images seen in this chapter in Hasten Forth.

Section three is on the Unique Personage of Abdu’l-Baha, the son of Baha’u’llah and leader of the Faith from 1892 to 1921. The chapter in Hasten Forth likewise is distinctive from the other chapters in that it features several different places because His ministry as head of the Baha’i community spanned so many years and locations.

The last section is on the Administrative Order of the Baha’i Faith. For this final chapter the creators of Hasten Forth captured nighttime photos of the Arc on Mount Carmel during a period when the Administrative Buildings were fully illumined.

“We didn’t realize at the outset that the places in our photos and the themes in the message would go together so perfectly,” Ms. Alford said, “but it seems so obvious now. Even Mr. Barnes in the foreword of our book mentions this.”

History meets present

Member of the Universal House of Justice Mr. Kiser Barnes, in his essay that prefaces the contents of Hasten Forth, not only addresses the special association of the places in the book with Baha’u’llah’s divine Dispensation. He also expounds on the connection between the history of published photography in the Holy Land with the history of the Baha’i Faith in that land.

Canadian Baha’i Laura Mostmand contributed dozens of photographs to the more than 200 images in Hasten Forth.

“Photographing the Holy Land is a one-of-a-kind experience,” said Mostmand, who just recently returned from serving at the Baha’i World Center in Israel. “The meaning of this special place really comes through the lens. One can truly feel the spiritual nature coming through the photo.”

Like with their wedding coffee table book, the creators hope individuals will sit on the couch with their friends and flip through its pages to discover, in words and pictures, the fundamental verities of the Baha’i Faith.