Nowruz, known as the Persian new year, is one of the most ancient celebrations in history and has been celebrated for around 4000 years in what is now Iran and in the extended cultural area known as Greater Iran. It is an ancient celebration with the spring equinox as the main event occurring on 20 or 21 March every year. During ancient times, Persian kings greatly emphasized the importance of this event and invited people from around the empire who were of different ethnicities and followers of different religions, to the royal court for celebrations and receiving gifts. After thousands of years, Nowruz remains to be the most important celebration for Iranians as well as for around 300 million people in the neighboring countries of Iran, who together celebrate the arrival of spring and the rebirth of nature.
Mythical and Historical Origins of Nowruz
Nowruz is the Persian name of the Persian new year consisting of two words; Now or no meaning new and ruz or rooz meaning day, which when put together means new day. This celebration and its associated events has been celebrated for thousands of years by the people of Iran and the people of Central Asian countries, former parts of ancient Persian empires. Nowruz emerged as people of these areas of the world left the nomadic life and established settlements which started a new phase in human civilization. Today, it is the world’s only event which is celebrated at the exact same moment throughout the world. The celebration is not connected to religion and is based on astronomical celestial events even though Nowruz is deeply rooted in Zoroastrianism, the ancient Persian religion.
In 1725 BC, the world’s first philosopher and prophet of the Zoroastrian religion named Zarathushtra, improved the ancient Indo-Iranian calendar. The Zoroastrian year starts with this date. Zarathushtra established an observatory in the modern day province of Sistan in southeastern Iran and with his knowledge in astronomy he was able to establish a solar calendar consisting of 365 days, 5 hours and 48 minutes.
During the 6th century BC, the magush who were the priests of the Zoroastrian fire temples, acted both as fire keepers and astronomers. These priests calculated the spring equinox of the northern hemisphere to occur on March 20 or 21 and this date marked the first day of the Persian solar calendar. The priests were closely associated with the events at the city of Parsa, also known as Persepolis. This city, founded by the Persian king Darius the Great in 515 BC, was the ceremonial capital city of the Achaemenid Persian empire and the spring residence of the kings. The kings invited noblemen from all of the provinces of the empire to Persepolis, regardless of ethnicity and religious beliefs, to celebrate Nowruz. During the morning hours, priests prayed and performed rituals which were followed by feasts and entertainments in the evenings and nights. Even to this day, one can see the ruins of the royal palaces with reliefs depicting governors and ambassadors bringing precious gifts to the King of Kings and paying homage to him.
During the reign of the Sassanid kings between 224 – 651 AD, preparations began 25 days before Nowruz. Craftsmen and builders of the royal court constructed twelve mud-brick columns and various seeds were sown on top of each column. Each column was symbolic and represented a month. By the time it was Nowruz, the seeds had grown into majestic decorative plants. The king held a public speech in front of a noble audience followed by greetings from the highest priest of the empire. Government officials also greeted the king. Every invited person gave a gift to the king until the sixth day of Nowruz, when members of the royal family visited the royal court. During Nowruz, an official amnesty was put in order for convicts of minor crimes. People throughout the empire celebrated this event for thirteen days.
Even though Nowruz is a celebration of a celestial event, it is deeply rooted in the mythology of the Persians. Nowruz focuses on the philosophical aspects of light conquering darkness, good conquering evil, the warmth of spring conquering the cold winter. According to ancient mythical stories written in the Persian epic Shahnameh, Nowruz was introduced during the reign of the mythical king named Jamshid. Jamshid defeated the evil demons and made them his servants as he captured their treasures and jewels. He then became the ruler of everything on earth except the heavens, while the world was devastated after the war between him and the demons. The trees were dead and had lost all their leaves. Earth had turned into a dark and lifeless place. For reaching the heavens, Jamshid ordered the demons to build him a throne made out of the jewels he had captured. When the throne was finished, he sat on it and commanded the demons to lift him high up into the sky. As he was sitting on his throne, sun rays hit the jewels of his throne and the sky was illuminated with all the world’s colors. The rays beaming from Jamshid revived all trees and plants and turned them green and full of leaves. Life on earth began to thrive as Jamshid rose like the sun. People were amazed by the sight of Jamshid and overwhelmed him with even more treasures and jewels. This day of celebration was named Nowruz and it marked the first day of the year. Jamshid later rescued his people from a harsh winter that would have killed all creatures on earth. Mythological survival stories with Jamshid as the main character is considered to be mythical symbols regarding the historical events of when Indo-Iranian Aryans abandoned their neolithic lifestyles as hunters-gatherers and became settlers on the Iranian mainland. Settlements were profoundly dependent on their crops and in turn dependent on the outcome of the seasons. The spring equinox therefore marked an important event in the lives of ancient Iranians.
Illustration of Zarathushtra (mythological.fr)
Traditional Practices Associated with Nowruz
On the night of the last Tuesday and the following morning of the last Wednesday of the year, a fire festival called Chaharshanbe Suri is arranged which translates as the red Wednesday. On this night, seven bonfires are lit and people gather around to jump over each bonfire as they say “my yellowness for you and your redness for me”, metaphorically meaning that one gives their sickness to the fire and receives health and warmth. People also sing and dance while lighting fireworks and eating food. A character called Haji Firuz, dressed in red clothes with a dark-painted face, sings, plays instruments and entertains people. During ancient times, this pre-celebration was arranged in order to announce people that Nowruz was near.
Prior to Nowruz, Iranian families start the yearly spring cleaning of their homes. This occasion is called khaneh-tekani in Persian, translated as house-shaking. After the household work is finished, the ceremonial Nowruz spread is prepared. This spread is called Haftsin, meaning seven S’s. Symbolic items whose names begin with the letter “S” are put on the spread together with other complementary items. The number seven has a sacred meaning in Persian philosophy and permeates many elements of the culture. A description of the symbolic meaning of the seven items follows:
Sabzeh – Sown wheat symbolizes the rebirth of nature.
Samanu – Sweet pudding made of wheat sprouts symbolizes the sweet moments of life.
Sib – Red apple symbolizes beauty.
Senjed – Sweet silver berry symbolizes love.
Sir – Garlic symbolizes health.
Sumaq – The color of this Persian spice symbolizes the color of dawn prior to sunrise and the victory of light over darkness.
Serkeh – Vinegar symbolizes old age and patience.
Ceremonial Haftsin spread in the White House (photo source)
Among the additional complementary items is either the epic book of Shahnameh, poetry of Hafez or the holy book of Zoroastrianism named Avesta all three symbolizing wisdom, a mirror symbolizing the sky and mindful self-reflection, candles symbolizing the good light and divinity, coins symbolizing wealth, goldfish symbolizing life and the last month of the Persian calendar, hyacinth flowers symbolizing a heavenly scent with the arrival of spring and painted eggs symbolizing fertility and creation.
On 20 or 21 March, all members of the family gather around the Nowruz spread and wait for the moment of the spring equinox which happens at the exact moment the sun crosses the equator of the earth. On this moment, hugs and kisses are shared and gifts are exchanged. Traditional food is prepared and eaten. Instruments are played and the home is full of joy.
The Nowruz celebrations ends on the thirteenth day with an event called Sizdeh Bedar meaning the thirteenth outdoors. On this day, families arrange picnics and spend time in parks and in the nature while enjoying the arrival of spring. It is also tradition to bring the sown wheat of the Haftsin and throw it into a river or a lake while making a wish.
Nowruz highlights the fundamental contrasts of good and bad and the appreciation of good thoughts, good words and good deeds which are the holy words of Zoroastrianism. It is an ancient philosophical belief which has shaped the ethics and morals of mankind since the dawn of human civilization. Contrasts makes the world beautiful by allowing man to appreciate life when life itself is given. Nowruz Piruz!
Ruins of the Apadana palace in Persepolis, Iran (photo source)
Featured image: Darius the Great receiving greetings and gifts from governors and ambassadors. Relief from Persepolis, Iran (livius.org)
Nowruz Festival – Available from: http://nowruzfestival.org/about-nowruz-festival/
Nowruz in the Pre-Islamic Period – Encyclopedia Iranica. Available from: http://www.iranicaonline.org/articles/nowruz-i/
New Year at Persepolis – Culture of Iran. Available from: http://cultureofiran.com/newyear_at_persepolis.html/
Nowruz (New Day): The New Year of the Iranian Peoples – The Circle of Ancient Iranian Studies. Available from: http://www.cais-soas.com/CAIS/Celebrations/noruz.htm