Blessed be Nowruz,
the arrival of Spring and the start of the Iranian New Year
Together with the rest of the nation, we at the Land of Turquoise Domes are busy preparing for the ancient Iranian New Year celebration, a ritual dating back to at least 6thc BC. The festivity which ushers in the Spring is celebrated by most Iranic people and in particular is popular amongst Persian speakers. Nowruz, Nowrouz, Nooruz, Navruz, Nauroz or Nevruz are all regional variations of the Persian word Nowruz which simply means ‘new day’. This historic ritual is practised in many of the countries along the Silk Road: Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, India, Iran, Iraq, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Turkey, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.
This celebration coincides with the Spring equinox which falls on or around 21st March. In 11th and 12th centuries renowned Iranian scholars and scientists such as Abu Rayhan Bīrūnī (973-1048), Mahmud Kashgari (1005-1102), and Omar Khayyam (1048-1131) focused on establishing the precise time of a year’s complete rotation, from Spring to Spring, within the 4 yearly cycle to the leap year, to calculate the exact time of the change of the year, an hour so precisely calculated that the celebrators await its culmination to the minutes and seconds. This year the change of the year in Iran falls on Tuesday 20th March at 19:45:28. The origins of the festivity are lost in the mist of time. Zoroastrianism regards the day as one of the holiest days in the calendar. The return of Spring is seen to have great spiritual significance, symbolising the triumph of good over evil and joy over sorrow.
Nowruz is also associated with a great variety of local traditions, including the legend of Jamshid, a king in Persian mythology. To this day in Iran, Nowruz celebrations are sometimes known as Nowruz e Jamshidi. According to myth, Jamshid was carried through the air in a chariot, a feat that so amazed his subjects that they established a festival on that day.
People of different ethnicity have adapted and changed the ritual and traditions to suit their temperaments, religions and environmental influences, but the main tenet remains the rite of Spring.
In most regions, symbolic preparations with fire and water take place before the festival, and ritual dances involving leaping over fires and streams are performed. In Iran, these dances take place on the last Wednesday before Nowruz, known as Chārshanbeh Sūrī or Chārshanbeh-e Ātash, while in Azerbaijan, this practice is carried out over the four Wednesdays preceding the celebrations.
On the day of Nowruz, there is much feasting, visiting family members and friends and exchanging gifts. A wide range of cultural performances and traditions also take place. Children are often given small toys allegedly given to them by Amoo (uncle) Nowruz.
In Iran, Nowruz is tied with the tradition of setting the “Sofreh-ye Haft Sin”, a ceremonial spread of symbolic objects including water (often with live gold fish), candles, dishes of green sprouts of wheat and pulses, a traditional dish made of germinating wheat, a mirror, the Quran, painted boiled eggs, apples, bitter oranges, garlic, vinegar, a few coins, sumac, a hyacinth, tulips and other Spring flowers and blooms. These objects symbolise purity, brightness, abundance, happiness and fertility for the New Year. Seven of the displayed objects start with the Persian letter ‘sin’, hence Haft Sin.
In recognition of the importance of this ancient rite, Nowruz was inscribed on UNESCO’s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2009. Moreover, in 2010, the United Nations General Assembly proclaimed 21 March International Nowruz Day.