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It’s always fascinated me that the very first Baha’i House of Worship (Mashriqu’l-Adhkar) no longer exists. Built in the city of Ashkhabad in modern day Turkmenistan, the House of Worship enjoyed only a brief 20 year history before it was relinquished to the hands of the Soviet authorities. It was later destroyed following one of the deadliest earthquakes in modern history, with tremors so severe that some estimates suggest almost two thirds of the city’s population perished.
The story of how this House of Worship came to be, and what was accomplished in those twenty years by one of the earliest Baha’i communities is fascinating. What’s more, there are many photos remaining in existence. We’ve compiled some of these images, along with a little bit of the story behind this foundational Baha’i community.
A Frontier Town
The city of Ashkhabad was something of a frontier town at the turn of the century. Coming into existence a scant two decades prior through a Russian territorial push, Ashkhabad was positioned well on trade routes that would see it quickly flourish.
With its close proximity to the border of Iran, the city attracted many early Baha’is fleeing persecution in their home country, and seeing opportunity in this fast growing new city. Along with Baha’is, many other Iranians, Jews, Armenians and Russians helped swell the population of the nascent city from just 4,000 at its founding in the early 1880s to some 52,000 by 1910.
The Murder of a Baha’i and a Surprising Outcome
At first the Baha’i community continued in this new home in much the same fashion as they had in their native Iran. Most Baha’is didn’t actively distinguish themselves as Baha’is, and were still mixed with a generally hostile Iranian migrant community.
Things came to a head in 1889, when a prominent Baha’i, Hajji Muhammad Rida Isfahani, was murdered in broad daylight in the middle of the main bazaar. The murder had been planned as the first act in a series of attacks on Baha’is. But the actions of the Russian authorities had a remarkable outcome:
“The perpetrators made no effort to conceal their crime. They asserted that it was a purely religious affair between Iranians, and the Russian authorities need not be involved. They assumed that, as in Iran, the mere fact of proving that their victim was a Baha’i would be sufficient to justify their action. When they saw however that the Governor took no notice of this line of argument, those involved in the plot began to flee to Iran. Some seventy persons fled. Nine were arrested and brought to trial. A military tribunal, sent from St Petersburg, tried the case in November 1890. The judges instructed that the different religious communities sit separately in the court-room. This was the first occasion when many who had secretly been Baha’is openly identified themselves by where they sat. It was also the first occasion in Baha’i history when official recognition was given to the Baha’i Faith as a religion independent of Islam. The court found against the perpetrators of the crime…. The Baha’is were of course jubilant. It was the first time in the forty-five-year history of the Babi-Baha’i movement that an attack on one of their number had been dealt with justly. Baha’u’llah commended the Russian Government for its action. As the news spread throughout Iran it increased the surge of Baha’i immigrants…”
M. Momen from The Baha’i Community of Ashkhabad; Its social basis and importance in Baha’i history
A Growing Baha’i Community
From this point onwards, the Baha’i community grew quickly. In 1902 there were over a thousand Baha’is in Ashkhabad. By 1919 there were four times that many. With this substantial community came many skilled Baha’i builders, merchants, scholars and craftspeople. By 1904 a foundation stone was laid for the construction of a House of Worship.
Unlike modern Houses of Worship, this one was built in the pattern that ‘Abdu’l-Baha has described, surrounded by a traveller’s hospice, a school, a cemetery, a dispensary and a hospital, and other institutions for social welfare. It was the focal point for an energetic and growing Baha’i community.
Images of the House of Worship
Shown Above: A 3D Rendering of The House of Worship, source unknown.
Shown Above: Haji Mirza Muhammad Taqi Afnan, Vakilu’d-Dawlih, center, maternal cousin of the Bab, who largely paid for and supervised the building of the House of Worship. (Source – Worldwide Community of Baha’u’llah)
Shown Above: November 1902 — Laying the foundation stone of the Baha’i Temple, Russia Haji Mirza Muhammad-Taqi, a cousin of the Bab, is standing next to General Krupatkin in the first row. (Source – Worldwide Community of Baha’u’llah)
Shown Above: The Baha’is of Ashkhabad gathered in the House of Worship. (Source – Worldwide Community of Baha’u’llah)
Shown Above: Entrance way of the House of Worship
(Source – Chupin.ru Archive)
Shown Above: Colourized depiction of the House of Worship
Shown Above: Postcard showing the House of Worship
(Source – Delcampe)
Shown Above: Female Members of the Baha’i Community on the steps of the House of Worship
(Source – Chupin.ru Archive)
Shown Above: Interior of the House of Worship
(Source – Chupin.ru Archive)
You can find many more images of the House of Worship here on Chupin.ru Archive.
A Historic Community
When the Russian revolution saw the rise of communism and the systematic abolition of religion in Russian society, the Baha’i Faith saw many setbacks. Obedient to the law of the land, the community handed over their beloved House of Worship, which became an art gallery before its demise in the earthquake of 1948. Eventually many members of the community were expelled, imprisoned and some even exiled to Siberia.
Despite its short life, the community of Ashkhabad has special historic significance for Baha’i history. It was the first sizeable, concentrated community that lived free of persecution, and flourished. In a short space of time it was the launching point for the Baha’i Faith spreading out of Iran, and a place where Baha’is practiced and expanded their faith in peace and harmony.
Moojan Momen has written a wonderful article on the community of Ashkhabad, on which much of this one is based. If you are interested in a more in depth exposition of the events and people of this period of our history, I highly recommend it as a short but fascinating read.
And if you’d like to see modern day Ashkhabad, then check out The Atlantic’s beautiful photo essay.
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