Nowruz in History

What is Nowruz?

Nowruz, literary “New-day”, is the traditional Iranian new year celebration.  It has been celebrated in Iran for over two thousand years by all the people regardless of ethnicity, religion, or language.  It’s non-ethnic, non-religious characteristic is the precise reason for the fact that it is still prominent outside the political boundaries of modern Iran and is celebrated by people of Central Asia, Caucasus, and many other places in West Asia.  It has also been adopted as the official New Year feast of the Baha’i faith, due to their roots in Iran.

Although our oldest knowledge of Nowruz goes back to the Pre-Islamic, Zoroastrian history of Iran, there is no reason to believe that it is a religious celebration.  To the same effect, Islamic adaptations into the Nowruz traditions have more to do with the intimate feeling of Nowruz as a traditional festivity than any religious beliefs.  It’s timing, at the exact astronomical start of the spring, makes it a natural choice for celebrating a New Year, having similar parallels in other cultures.

Historical Background of Nowruz

The name of Nowruz does not occur until the second century AD in any Iranian records.  We have reasons to believe that the celebration is much older than that date and was surely celebrated by the people and royalty during the Achaemenid times (555-330 BC).  It has often been suggested that the famous Persepolis Complex, or at least the palaces of Apadana and Hundred Columns, were built for the specific purpose of celebrating Nowruz.  However, no mention of the name of Nowruz exists in any Achaemenid inscription, a fact that can point to its non-Indo-European roots.

Our oldest records of Nowruz go back to the Arsacid/Parthian times (247 BC-224 AD).  There are specific references to the celebration of Nowruz during the reign of Arsacid Emperor Vologases I (51-78 AD).  Unfortunately, the lack of any substantial records about the reign of the Arsacids leaves us with little to explore about the details of Nowruz during their times.

After the accession of Ardeshir I Pabakan, the founder of the Sasanian Dynasty (224 AD), consistent data for the celebration of Nowruz were recorded.  Throughout the Sasanian era (224-650 AD), Nowruz was celebrated as the most prominent ritual during the year.  Most royal traditions of Nowruz such as yearly common audiences, cash gifts, and pardon of prisoners, were established during the Sasanian era and they persisted unchanged until the modern times.

Nowruz, along with Sadeh that is celebrated in mid-winter, were the two pre-Islamic celebrations that survived in the Islamic society after 650 AD.  Other celebrations such Gahanbar and Mehragan were eventually side-lined or were only followed by the Zoroastrians who carried them as far as India.  Nowruz, however, was most honoured even by the early founders of Islam.  There are records of the Four Great Caliphs presiding over Nowruz celebrations, and during the Abbasid era, it was adopted as the main royal holiday.

Following the demise of the Caliphate and re-emergence of Iranian dynasties such as the Samanids and Buyids, Nowruz was elevated into an even more important event.  The Buyids revived the ancient traditions of Sasanian times and restored many smaller celebrations that had been eliminated by the Caliphate.  Even the Turkish and Mongol invaders of Iran did not attempt to abolish Nowruz in favour of any other celebration. Thus, Nowruz remained as the main celebration in the Iranian lands by both the officials and the people.

Roots of Nowruz

Nowruz is commonly perceived as the most “Iranian” of all celebrations, emphasising an Aryan/Indo-Iranian root for the celebration.  However, the lack of any mention of Nowruz or the traditional, well-known celebrations associated with it in Achaemenid inscriptions as well as the oldest parts of the Avesta, the Old Iranian hymns of Zoroastrianism, can point to the non-Iranian roots of the celebration.

We know that the Sumerian and Babylonian calendars of the Mesopotamia were based on the changing of the seasons.  The sedentary agriculture of Mesopotamia that served as the backbone of Babylonian economy greatly depended on the changing of the seasons and the amount of yearly downpour.  Subsequently, the beginning of the spring mattered greatly in Mesopotamia and was celebrated accordingly.  There also existed an annual ritual in Babylonia when at the beginning of the spring the king was required to make a journey to the temple of Marduk and receive the regal signs from the god and give royal protection to the great god of Babylon.  The yearly renewal of this mutual support seems to symbolize the renewal of life marked by the beginning of the spring.  We have decisive records of the adoption of this ritual by the Iranians when Cyrus the Great invaded Babylon and appointed his son, Cambyses, as his deputy there.

On the other hand, the life style of Iranian tribes prior to their settlement in Iran was nomadic and greatly depended on cattle raising instead of sedentary agriculture, thus devoid of the need to keep exact track of seasonal change. Their homeland, in the central Asian steppes, possessed either very cold winters or scorching summers and the arrival of spring seldom had the same effect as it does on the more temperate lands to the south.

As a result, it is possible to conclude that the original roots of Nowruz laid in the Mesopotamian celebration of the arrival of spring and was later adopted by settled Iranian tribes, probably as early as the reign of the first Achaemenid emperor.  It should be pointed out that if we accept this theory of adoption, we should not forget the certain Iranian characteristics that shaped this celebration into a distinctly Iranian custom.

Among the most prominent of these characteristics is the adaptation of Iranian world-view into the rituals of Nowruz.  Although we have evidence that in the mid years of the Sasanian period, due to the neglect in maintaining the calendar, Nowruz was sometimes celebrated in the early summer or mid-winter, we should remember that the original place of Nowruz was always at the beginning of the spring.  Different branches of Iranian Gnosticism that were popular in the late Sasanian and early Islamic era, most prominently displayed in Manichaeism, saw the world as a place of battle between the forces of good and evil.  Manichaeism, and its Iranian roots in the religion of the Magi, defined darkness and cold as the signs of evil and lightness as the force of rightness.  In fact, the most obvious characteristic of the Manichean deities is their extraction of light, a fact that later even influenced Christianity and its concept of halo.  Thus, it was easy for most people to associate winter with forces of evil and see spring as the rebirth of light.  Subsequently Nowruz was seen as the triumph of light over dark and the beginning of the rejuvenation of the world.

Nowruz Today

Today Nowruz is the main celebration for many people of West Asia.  It is also the beginning of the official calendar for the people of Iran and Afghanistan.  The calendar, based on the Sasanian solar calendar and perfected by the famous mathematician, Omar Khayyam, as one of the most accurate calendars in existence today, was barely used after the 13th century AD.  After many centuries of confusion about the calendars and even the loss of ancient names of the months, at the beginning of the Twentieth century, the old month-names were restored and Nowruz was designated as the first day of the month of Farvardin.

Nowruz is preceded by Chaharshanbe Suri, another celebration with roots in agricultural tradition, and lasts for Thirteen days.  Its official end is the Sizdah Bedar, a national day of picnic when everyone goes out to the nature to enjoy the beauty of the revitalized world.  The common and popular roots of Nowruz mean that it is free of any official or religious rituals, although as the official New Year, it is marked by Bank Holidays.  The thirteen days of Nowruz are spent visiting relatives, giving gifts, and enjoying the company of family and friends.  Nowruz has survived many attempts made against its existence exactly because of its deep roots in the traditions of people of Iran and its multi-ethnic and extra-religious quality.  Nowruz is also the natural rebirth of nature and despite its Iranian characteristics can easily be celebrated by all the people in the world!  Happy Nowruz!

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