What’s Nowruz? Persian New Year marks Equinox

As someone whose spirituality had strong pagan leanings in my teen years, one of the things that always stood out to me about Islam is that, because of it’s strictly lunar calendar, celebrates no holidays tied to the seasons. This makes it unusual among religions and calendars; while both the Jewish and Chinese calendars are also lunar, they are modified to follow, more or less, the four seasons, as well. But across a broad swath of the Muslim Middle East and beyond, a pre-Islamic holiday continues to be observed with gusto that honors the spring equinox, when day is as long as night and spring has arrived.

I discovered Nowruz, not through the Persian language or culture, but in my Kurdish class, which may be the first thing to say about this holiday. Some call it Persian New Year, and Westerners tend to associate the holiday with Iran, if they’ve heard of it at all, but this holiday is at least two and a half millennia older than Iran, perhaps as much as four millennia old, and celebrated across a far broader swathe of southwestern Asia than just one modern nation.

Nowruz is not considered to be a religious holiday in most of these places, but its roots are deep in the pre-Abrahamic religion of Zoroastrianism, known by some as the fire cult for the primacy of fire to its priestly rites, considered by others to be the first monotheistic religion and the first dualistic religion organized around the battle between good and evil, dark and light. Possibly, you also know Zoroastrianism as the religion of the rock icon Freddy Mercury, or know the name of its founder Zarathustra from the book by Nietzsche or the rousing anthem from the classic Stanley Kubrick sci fi film “2001: A Space oddyssey,” both titled “Also sprach Zarathustra.”

Nowruz is a rite dating back to at least the 6th century BCE, marking the new year and ushering in spring. Variously known as Novruz, Nowrouz, Nooruz, Navruz, Nauroz or Nevruz, this historic rite is observed on 21 March in many countries along the Silk Roads, including Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, India, Iran, Iraq, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Turkey, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.

Celebrating the New Year on the Silk Roads | UNESCO

The name, in the closely related languages of Persian and Kurdish, is a compound word composed of “new,” “now” or “nev,” depending on your transliteration and dialect, which means what you think it means: “new”; and “roz” or “ruz,” meaning “day.” (Among the few things I have retained from my two years of Kurdish classes a decade ago is the greeting, “Roz baş!” meaning, “Good day!”) It’s a time of beginnings, as the Middle East and Central Asia emerge from winter and begin to think about planting for a new year.

Like Easter and Passover (religious holidays with their own pre-Abrahamic pagan influences), the celebration of Nowruz is preceded by a thorough spring cleaning. On the day of the equinox, the table is set with ritual foods and items celebrating the birth of spring. Wheat sprouts celebrate rebirth; deep red sumac is the color of dawn, symbolizing light triumphing over darkness; apples for beauty, berries for love, vinegar for old age and wisdom.

A table set with the ritual foods and symbols of Newroz, arranged around the tall, green wheat sprouts in the middle.

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.

“Poetry is like the bread of life, the emotional and spiritual bread of life is poetry. So I think it belongs on a haftsin table because it sustains us through good times and bad,” says Persis Karim, a professor at San Jose State University and the co-director of its Persian Studies Program.”

The Seven Edible ‘S’ Foods of the Persian New Year, by Shuka Kalantari | KQED

The details of the Nowruz altar, like the spelling of the word and many other aspects of the celebrations on the day of the equinox and the two weeks that follow, vary somewhat from country to country, but the symbolism remains much the same.

“Nowruz is our time to start afresh,” Eftekhari tells me as she fiddles with the arrangement of the altar, smoothing out the patterned tablecloth on which the artifacts sit. “The rituals, the sofreh ye haft-seen, and the food we eat all symbolize what we want to bring in for the year ahead. It focuses on new beginnings and always gives me hope.”

Celebrating Nowruz in Iran, by Yasmin Khan

The interplay of sweet and sharp flavors, the symbolism of beginnings and endings, reminds me a bit of the Jewish Passover seder plate. One imagines that perhaps, in the Jews’ exile to Zoroastrian Babylon, their traditions influenced each other. The gathering around the table, waiting for the moment when the sun is in exactly the right place reminds me of breaking the Ramadan fast with Muslim neighbors.

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.

Nowruz – The Persian New Year and The Spring Equinox, by Mahbod Khanbolouki

And then there are festivals and games, varying across the region according to local traditions.

In Uzbekistan, Nowruz songs are performed by traditional singers and story tellers, such as the baxshishoirs and dostonchi. Similarly, in Kyrgyzstan, competitions take place between Akayns, epic story tellers or bards who improvise tales about Nowruz. A wide variety of traditional dances performed during the celebrations.

Open air festivities such as the game of Kopkari, wrestling and horse racing often take place to celebrate Nowruz in Uzbekistan, and similarly, in Kyrgyzstan, traditional horsemanship is displayed as part of the festivities, with communities coming together to enjoy horse racing, Kyz Kuumay (a race in which men chase after women on horseback), Enish (wrestling on horseback), and Jamby Atuu (shooting from horseback).. Other Nowruz traditions include local street performances, tightrope walking, called Band Bāzī, in Iran, and the sport of Buz Kashī, in which horse-riders compete for an object representing the head of a calf, in Afghanistan.

Celebrating the New Year on the Silk Roads | UNESCO

Someday, perhaps, I’ll be presented an opportunity to celebrate the spring equinox the southern and central Asian way.

And so, Nowruz Piruz! or in Kurdish, Newroz baş!

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