The Ridvan festival (21st April-2nd May) is the most sacred time of the year, and the holiest of all Baha’i festivals.
The word Ridvan is an Arabic word that broadly means “Paradise”. It commemorates the twelve days Baha’u’llah spent in a garden in Baghdad while preparing to leave for Constantinople (the capital of Turkey, now Istanbul), wishing farewell to its residents. It was then that He first told people of His station as a Manifestation of God.
There are no exact details on how this happened. It is generally believed that Baha’u’llah probably chose to tell just a few close companions , first hand accounts come from His son and daughter, Abdu’l-Baha and Bahiyyih Khanum and it seems He asked them to keep it a secret at this stage, in order to introduce people gradually to the reality of His station.
It had been ten years since Baha’u’llah’s first banishment from Tehran in Persia to Baghdad in modern-day Iraq. In that time He had, in the face of immense challenges, succeeded in uniting the Babi community as well as winning the respect and admiration of the local government and populace. While in Baghdad almost all of the surviving leaders of the Babi Faith went to visit Baha’u’llah and endorsed Him as the (unofficial) leader of their community.
When the officials of the Persian government exiled Baha’u’llah to Baghdad, it was to stamp out his growing popularity. After ten years, they realised this wasn’t working, and pressured the Ottoman government to move Him much further away to Istanbul (then known as Constantinople) the capital of the Ottoman Empire. Baha’u’llah had become a very highly respected figure in Baghdad society, and the summons had to be offered as a polite invitation.
Baha’u’llah pitched His tent in a garden outside the city, over the river Tigris, on 21st April, so He could bid farewell to visitors in a place other than His house so it was easier for His family to pack. The next day He left His House in Baghdad for the last time a day later and travelled to the garden. A crowd had gathered to see Baha’u’llah leave – Babi and non-Babi alike – and lined the streets as He walked. There was a tumultuous display of grief from the gathered crowd with people crying and chanting. Once camped in the garden he received a constant throng of visitors and well-wishers. The roses were in bloom and each morning, hundreds of fresh-picked roses would lie in piles in the tents, and the visitors would be given these roses as gifts.
Most Baha’i elections are held during Ridvan, a practice which started in Abdu’l-Baha’s lifetime. You might well be in a community electing its Local Spiritual Assembly round about now, for instance. The National Spiritual Assembly is also elected in Ridvan, at National Convention, and so is the Universal House of Justice, every five years. The House of Justice writes a letter to the Baha’i World every Ridvan, summarising the year’s progress and setting future challenges.