Nowruz ushers in the Persian New Year and the summer solstice – a time for feasting, music, and watching buzkashi, offering visitors the ideal opportunity to immerse themselves in local culture.
Text by Sophie Ibbotson
The Great Pyramid at Giza, the Taj Mahal, and the Great Wall of China stand testament to the vision and technical prowess of ancient civilisations. But though these structures are vital parts of our world heritage, our shared cultural treasures are not always tangible. Our dances, songs, and festivals have evolved through the generations, shaped by a myriad influences, and are arguably of equal or greater value.
And so it is with Nowruz, the ancient festival celebrated on the vernal equinox, which marks not only the first day of spring, but also the Persian New Year. For more than 3,000 years, communities from Turkey and the Caucasus and across Eurasia to the Indian Subcontinent have joined together to welcome in New Year, keeping alive the rituals of their ancestors and entreating blessings for the year ahead. The occasion is enshrined by UNESCO as part of our intangible, living cultural heritage, something to be safeguarded for future generations to enjoy.
The history of Nowruz
We don’t know exactly when the first Nowruz celebrations took place, though numerous archaeo-astronomical sites across the world prove that ancient people were generally aware of the equinoxes and solstices, and considered them to be events of great significance. It’s likely, however, that the first celebrants were Mithraists (followers of the sun god Sol) or Zoroastrians (the world’s first monotheistic religion). Both of these religions were prevalent in ancient Iran and spread across the region under the Achaemenid Empire.
It is thought that the Hundred Columns Hall in Persepolis might well have been built to house Nowruz celebrations, and certainly by the early decades of the first millennium, Nowruz was celebrated as an official holiday through Central Asia.
Nowruz is one of the few pre-Islamic traditions to have survived the Arab Conquest of Iran and Central Asia in the late 600s. The renowned 11th-century philosopher, mathematician, and poet Omar Khayyam described the celebrations vividly in his book Nowruznama, detailing not only which gifts should be given, but also the feasting and suitable blessings for
the new year: “May thy soul flourish; may thy youth be as the new-grown grain; may thy horse be puissant, victorious; thy sword bright and deadly against foes; thy hawk swift against its prey; thy every act straight as the arrow’s shaft.”
Nowruz was celebrated along the Silk Road, but as trading links declined (first due to maritime trade and then the arrival of the railway) so, too, did shared cultural ties. Small disparate communities still welcomed the vernal equinox with spring cleaning, bonfires, feasting, music, and dance as they had always done, but by the mid-20th century it was only in Iran that Nowruz remained an official holiday in the calendar. The Soviet Union, which covered nearly all of the Caucasian and Central Asian states, had done away with what it saw as an outdated, superstitious ritual.
Since the fall of the Soviet Union, however, and the birth of independent states, Nowruz has been experiencing a significant revival. Reconnecting with their heritage, countries from Albania to Afghanistan, Kosovo to Kazakhstan have declared it a national holiday. You’ll also find it celebrated wherever there are large populations of Zoroastrians (also known as Parsis) or expat Iranians, including in Canada, the US, and India. The festival’s name has many variations: In Kazakhstan, it is Nauryz Meyramy; in Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, it is Nau-Roz Bayrami; and in Iran it is most popularly called Jamshedi Noruz. However, the essence of the festivities is the same, and they can last for many days.
Preparations for Nowruz start with a good spring clean. You must do away with the dirt of the old year to be ready to face the new one. Everything in the home is washed, and walls are often repainted. Families make or buy new clothes and display fresh flowers – particular tulips and hyacinths – which remind them that Nowruz is the time when Nature wakes up after the long winter. Zoroastrians in particular will decorate their windows and doorways with garlands of flowers, and make colourful patterns with powdered dyes.
The most common motifs are fish, flowers, and stars, all of which are considered to be auspicious. The first night of celebration is Chaharshanbe Suri, the festival of fire, or Red Wednesday. Historically, fire was believed to have purifying qualities, so it’s an occasion to light bonfires and fireworks. The bonfires are typically small so that people can jump over them, cleansing themselves symbolically in the flames.
As you do so, you recite the Persian words: zardi ye man az to, sorkhi ye to az man (which translates to “my yellow is yours, your red is mine”). You are casting off your sickness and your problems, and replacing them with the heat and energy of the fire.
The New Year’s Eve is an occasion for feasting. The table is set with Haft Seen, seven symbolic dishes which start with the letter “S”. Each dish correlates with a planet in our solar system, the sun, or the moon. Coins, mirrors, painted eggs, a bowl with a goldfish in it, and a sprinkling of rose water decorate the table. Anticipation builds as the family gathers: They cannot eat until the exact moment of the spring equinox.
Nowruz is a time for family, and people take the chance to return home to their villages. Across Central Asia, and especially in Kazakhstan, it’s the one occasion when historic nomadic traditions are revived. Felt yurts are erected in town squares, and in each one a dastarkhan (feasting table) is set.
Once again, there are seven dishes, including meats and dairy products, but here they represent not the planets, but human virtues: health, wealth, joy, success, intelligence, agility (essential for a horseman on the steppe), and security. The music is riotous, and the dancers are bedecked in magnificent costumes and jewellery; it really is quite a spectacle.
But arguably the greatest excitement is reserved for when the buzkashi games start. The most famous of these is in Afghanistan’s Mazar-i Sharif, where thousands of spectators gather, but smaller matches are played across the “Stans”. In Kazakhstan the sport is called kokpar; in Tajikistan it is ulak tartysh.
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This chaotic, dangerous horseback rugby is the more energetic forerunner of modern polo. Teams can be as many as 100 riders strong, and they are competing for the glory of their tribe or clan. Matches have been known to last for several days, and they can be exceptionally aggressive, although etiquette dictates that you should not deliberately whip other riders, or knock them from their horses. A goal is scored when a rider manages to throw the headless goat carcass (a weighty but readily available alternative to a ball) into the kazan (goal). The crowds roar with delight; and their energy spurs the riders on.
For 3,000 years, Nowruz has marked a new beginning. That moment when the days and nights are of equal length is a fitting time to look back and remember our ancestors and our traditions, but it also the time to look forward to the year ahead.
For more stories and photographs from this issue, see Asian Geographic Issue 128, 2017