It’s fair to say that Nowruz نوروز (literally meaning ‘new day’) is the most quintessentially Persian celebration of them all. In this blog post we will explore Nowruz’s origins, and look at how, 3,000 years on, the Persian New Year is celebrated by millions of people around the globe.
Nowruz has always been a celebration of early spring, and we can say with certainty that the spring equinox has been commemorated in some form by the Persian people since at least 1000 BC. In Old Persian this celebration was called Navasarda ‘the new day’. It is natural to want to mark this change in seasons with a distinct celebration: a festival to honour overcoming the dark and cold of winter; a celebration of the renewal and rebirth brought by spring. Its origins contain elements of animism, meaning ‘the practice of finding the divine and the spiritual within the essence of things in the natural world around you’. This is closely linked to the Zoroastrian concept of اَمِشَه سْپِنتَه Amesha Spenta ‘the divine spirit(s)’ which unite the material and the ethereal worlds. That being said, although Nowruz has its early origins within the Zoroastrian faith, for the majority of people, and indeed for the majority of its history, it has predominantly been a secular festival. In the present day, Nowruz is something that unites all Persian-speaking people, regardless of their faith or origin.
Some believe that the Persepolis complex, built in 487 BC by Darius the Great, was constructed specifically for Nowruz celebrations. The walls of this vast royal complex do in fact depict scenes of celebration which could be Persian New Year celebrations, but there is no mention of Nowruz or New Year in any of the Achaemenid inscriptions found at the site.
Somewhat surprisingly, Nowruz is not mentioned in the early Avesta texts. We have to look at early Pahlavi texts to find our first written mentionings of the festival, where it is termed nōg rōz ‘New Day’. However, hints towards a spring celebration are found in the Young Avesta texts, through the reference to six feast days, each taking place at a different key point throughout the year. These six feast days lead up to a final and principal seventh feast which took place around the spring equinox (a.k.a. Nowruz). Furthermore, during an Achaemenid calendar reform, which took place sometime between 481 – 478 BC, the month of Fravardīn (فَروَردین farvardin in Modern Persian) was made to coincide with the spring equinox.
The first detailed description of Nowruz festivities comes from the Parthian era (247 BC – 224 AD), told through the romantic epic poem of ویس و رامین vis-o rāmin ‘Vis and Rāmin’. This poem is believed to be a re-telling of an ancient Parthian tale which was written down in Classical Persian, and thus preserved for future generations, by the poet Fakhruddin As’ad Gurgāni in the 11th century. The tale of Vis and Rāmin allows us to take a look at life and culture during pre-Islamic Parthian times, albeit through the slightly skewed lens of the poet Gurgāni. This epic poem begins with a description of a lavish banquet scene, which is taking place outside under the blossoming trees. This celebration is termed both نوروز nowruz and بهارجشن bahār-jashn ‘spring festival’. Moving into the Sassanid period, starting with the reign of Ardashir I Pabakan in 224 AD, we can find evidence of Nowruz consistently being celebrated.
همیشه روزگارش بود نوروز
به هر کاری همیشه بود پیروز
Hamishe ruzegāresh bud nowruz
Be har kāri hamishe bud piruz
‘It is always at the time of Nowruz,
That one is always victorious in everything.’
– Excerpt from Vis and Rāmin by Fakhruddin As’ad Gurgāni
Mythical stories regarding the origin of Nowruz abound in folklore and popular culture. They normally feature King Jamshid, or Jam, from the mythological Pishdādiān dynasty referenced in Ferdowsi’s Shāhnāme. In the Shāhnāme, King Jamshid is described as wanting to save mankind from the darkness of winter. He ordered the construction of a mighty bejewelled throne, which he sat upon as he was raised up above the Earth to the heavens. He sat there on his throne, shining like the sun, and the creatures of the world declared it to be a bright ‘New Day’ and thus the end of winter. This excerpt from the Shāhnāme encapsulates the moment perfectly:
جهان انجمن شد بر آن تخت او
شگفتی فرومانده از بخت او
به جمشید بر گوهر افشاندند
مر آن روز را روز نو خواندند
سر سال نو هرمز فرودین
بر آسوده از رنج روی زمین
بزرگان به شادی بیاراستند
می و جام و رامشگران خواستند
چنین جشن فرخ از آن روزگار
به ما ماند از آن خسروان یادگار
‘The world assembled round his throne in wonder
At his resplendent fortune,
And then the people scattered jewels upon him,
and bestowed upon the day the name of New Year’s Day,
The first of the divine Farvardín and of the year,
When limbs repose from labour, hearts from strife.
The noble chieftains, the great and the good, held a festival,
They called for the goblet, wine, and minstrels,
And ever since that time that glorious day
Remained for us as the memorial of those kingly lords.’
The great historian Abu Reyhān Biruni, in his work آثار الباقیة āthār ul-bāqiyah ‘Chronology of Ancient Nations’ from 1000 AD, when discussing Nowruz festivities, writes that ‘Jam rose on that day like the sun’. The 10th century writer Tha’alibi ثَعالِبی sa’ālebi also wrote about Nowruz, and from his writings this excerpt is of particular interest:
‘It was the day of Ohrmazd of the month of Fravardīn, the first day of Spring which is the beginning of the year, the renewal when the earth revives from its torpor. […] And they made this day, which they called Nowruz, their chief festival…’
A key theme of Nowruz is starting the New Year with a fresh outlook. For this reason, it is tradition on the days leading up to Nowruz to ‘shake down the house’ خانهتَکانی khāne-takāni (meaning ‘a spring clean’ in Persian) and to buy a new set of clothes for the New Year. These new clothes can be bought many days before Nowruz, but it is important that they are not worn until the day of the spring equinox/New Year’s day itself.
‘Shaking down the house’ خانهتکانی khāne-takāni involves washing all the carpets, doing any painting jobs, decluttering the garage/attic/backyard, and having a general clear-out. This spring clean is closely linked to the act of دید و بازدید did-o bāz-did ‘New Year familial visits’, because you cannot invite people into your home at Nowruz with a dirty or cluttered house! After all, Nowruz is the time to clear out the old and make way for the new.
For the occasion of Nowruz, it is traditional for Persian families to prepare a special سُفره sofre ‘tablecloth’ which is adorned with seven special objects representing the New Year, these objects are called the هفت سین haft sin ‘7 S’s’. This carefully decorated سُفره sofre represents much more than just a tablecloth; it is the central gathering place for the Nowruz festivities. Each family takes the task of decorating their own sofre very seriously – also it can be seen as a chance for a family to showcase their own personal aesthetic and creative flair. Over the coming days, family members and friends will visit each other’s Haft Seen displays: these visits are called دید و بازدید did-o bāz-did (literally: ‘visits and revisits’). During the visit, it is customary for older family members to give money to their younger relatives. Giving money during the New Year is called عیدی دادن eydi dādan ‘giving a reward’. In the past it was tradition for grandparents to give gold and silver coins to their grandchildren, although in present times these are much harder to come by!
What are the seven components of the Haft Seen?
|Sabze ‘sprouts’ (usually wheatgrass, lentils, barley or mung)||Represents rebirth||سَبزه|
|Samanu ‘a sweet paste made from wheatflour’||Represents strength||سَمَنو|
|Senjed ‘dried fruit from the oleaster tree’||Represents love||سِنجِد|
|Serke ‘vinegar’||Represents patience||سِرکه|
|Sib ‘apple’||Represents beauty||سیب|
|Sir ‘garlic’||Represents health||سیر|
|Somāq ‘sumac’||Represents the sunrise||سُماق|
The table above outlines the seven principle components of the Haft Seen, but there are usually a few additional items which are placed upon the sofre. For example, it is common to place a book of personal significance upon one’s tablecloth, such as the Divān of Hāfez, the Qur’ān, the Shāhnāme, or the Avestā. It is also common to find a mirror, a goldfish in a bowl, candlesticks, and/or painted eggs placed on a family’s sofre. Finally, there are three more S’s that can optionally be included in the Haft Seen. These are: سِکّه sekke ‘coins’, سُنبُل sonbol ‘hyacinth’, and ساعت sā’at ‘a clock’.
Some will talk of an older, more traditional, هفت شین Haft Sheen, which used objects beginning with the letter ش sh instead of س s. It is thought that this practice was changed due to its inclusion of شراب sharāb ‘wine’ as one of the objects, which is forbidden in modern-day Iran. However, this remains highly disputed, for many reasons, but from a linguistic perspective we can see that the word شراب sharāb is an Arabic loan word, so that damages any argument that the word sharāb could have been used in a pre-Islamic Zoroastrian setting.
The Haft Seen stays in the home for 13 days after Nowruz. The 13th day of the holidays is called سیزده بدر Sizdah Bedar. This day marks the official end of Nowruz celebrations, and Iranian families spend this day outside with a picnic. For this reason, Sizdah Bedar is sometimes called روز طبیعت ruz-e tabi’at ‘Day of Nature’.
One of the staple foods for a Sizdah Bedar picnic is the simple but tasty کاهو و سِکَنجَبین kāhu va sekanjabin ‘lettuce leaves dipped in vinegar-honey dressing’. Barbeques, آشِ رشته āsh-e reshte ‘thick noodle soup’ and آشِ دوغ āsh-e dugh ‘yoghurt soup’ are also common Sizdah Bedar picnic food. At the end of the picnic lunch, it is customary to take the سبزه sabze from one’s Haft Seen, and throw them into running water. This completes the springtime cycle of rebirth and regrowth, by giving back one’s sabze to nature.
The day of Sizdah Bedar often coincides with April Fool’s Day. For the Persian people, this day is also a popular day for prank-playing, and دروغِ سیزده dorugh-e sizdah ‘a Sizdah lie’ can be considered the Persian equivalent of an April Fool’s trick, or a French poisson d’avril.
Nowruz is celebrated by many cultures and countries around the world, including: Afghanistan, Iran, Azerbaijan, Iraq, Georgia, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, some communities in Pakistan and India, Albania, by minority groups in Western China, by some of the Turkic republics of Russia, by minority groups in Syria, and by diaspora all around the world, especially in the USA, Canada, Bahrain and Western Europe. In this section we want to give the reader a little insight into the different ways Nowruz is celebrated by region. Of course, for the sake of brevity we had to be selective, so we have looked at three examples below in greater detail. In recognition of the breadth of this celebration and its importance for so many different people, since 2009 Nowruz has been included on UNESCO’s list of ‘Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity’.
In March 2022, following the Taliban occupation of the country a few month’s earlier, the Taliban’s Ministry of Vice and Virtue declared that there would no longer be any official Nowruz celebrations in Afghanistan, due to its apparently ‘pagan’ nature. Despite this ruling, many Afghan people this year are continuing to celebrate Nowruz, or نوی کال newai kāl as it’s called in Pashto, from behind closed doors.
During Nowruz it is tradition in Afghanistan to prepare a special dried fruit and nut mix called هفت میوه haft mewa ‘7 fruits’, consisting of, you guessed it, seven different kinds of fruit and nuts. The exact combination varies from family to family, but usually includes: کشمش kishmish ‘raisins’, سنجد sanjid ‘oleaster’, پسته pista ‘pistachio’, چارمغز chār-maghz ‘walnut’, بادام bādām ‘almond’, زردآلو zard-ālu ‘apricot’, فندق funduq ‘hazlenut’, and/or سیب seb ‘apple’. The seven ingredients are then washed, peeled, mixed together, and soaked in water. Sometimes the haft mewa is scented with rose petal or cardamom, before being served with syrup. In previous years, family members in rural areas would send the dried fruits and nuts to their relatives in the cities, but this year many Afghans have been affected by food shortages, and people are forced to prepare the haft mewa with less than the traditional seven ingredients.
The city of مزارِ شریف Mazar-i-Sharif is famous throughout Afghanistan during the Nowruz period for its میلۀ گلِ سرخ mila-i gul-i surkh ‘red tulip festival’, where many people would gather around Mazar-i-Sharif city to witness the blooming of the beautiful red tulips. The Balkh region, where Mazar-i-Sharif is located, is the spiritual homeland of Zoroaster, the founder of the Zoroastrian faith, so it is fitting that a celebration which has its roots in Zoroastrianism is celebrated extensively throughout this region of Afghanistan.
Nowruz, or نهورۆز Nawroz in Kurdish, is a very important festival for the 30 million+ Kurdish people living around the world, including the 9 million living in Iran. The Kurds believe that Nowruz was first established by the blacksmith Kāve (Kāwa in Kurdish), an important character in the Shāhnāme. According to legend, the cruel king Zahhāk, whose long-lasting tyrannical rule had cast the world into darkness and despair, was finally defeated by the mighty blacksmith Kāve on the eve of Nowruz. After Zahhāk’s defeat, Kāve is said to have set fire to the nearby hillside to celebrate his victory and announce to everyone that they are free from Zahhāk’s oppression. It is said that the very next day, spring finally returned to the land, thus beginning the tradition of celebrating the Persian New Year.
It is clear that fire is a very significant element of Nowruz for the Kurdish people. In the Iraqi city of Akre, famous for being the ‘Nowruz Capital’ of the Kurds, thousands gather every year on the eve of the New Year and light lots of fires all over the hillside, in order to reenact the story of Kāve. After dusk, the people of Akre parade through the hills carrying torches of fire and celebrate with traditional music and dancing late into the night.
During the Soviet Union, celebrating Nowruz was strongly discouraged and was even banned for many years, due in part to the fact that the Soviets wrongly believed it to be a religious (Islamic) festival. Since gaining their independence in the 1990s, the Central Asian nations have reclaimed celebrating Nowruz as being an important part of their traditional cultural identity and helping them to break away from their Soviet-colonial past.
In Kazakhstan, Nauryz is celebrated by erecting felt yurts in town squares, where traditional fairs, dances and exhibitions are held. In each yurt an intricate دسترخوان dastarkhān is laid down on the floor (the Central Asian term for a سفره sofre). A traditional holiday soup, called a Nauryz Kozhe is prepared by families. This soup recipe varies a lot from family to family, but almost always includes seven key components. (You can see that the number seven has a special significance for many people during the Persian New Year!)
In Kyrgyzstan, it is customary to fill all the vessels in your house with water on the eve of Nowruz. This is thought to bring abundance and good fortune for the coming year. To welcome in the New Year, the Kyrgyz people prepare a beef stew called Chon Kedje.
You’ve reached the end of our Nowruz blog! We hope that wherever you are in the world, this week has been an opportunity to reflect, celebrate and of course eat lots of delicious food!
We wanted to end with a few lines from a beautiful spring hymn called ‘Now the Green Blade Riseth’ which we believe nicely sums up the spirit of the Nowruz holiday season:
‘Now the green blade rises from the buried grain,
Wheat that in the dark earth many years has lain;
Love lives again, that with the dead has been:
Love is come again, like wheat that springs up green.’
‘When our hearts are saddened, grieving or in pain,
By Your touch You call us back to life again;
Fields of our hearts that dead and bare have been:
Love is come again, like wheat that springs up green.’
Mary Boyce, “NOWRUZ i. In the Pre-Islamic Period,” Encyclopædia Iranica, online edition, 2016, available at http://www.iranicaonline.org/articles/nowruz-i (accessed on 10 March 2023)
UNESCO, ‘Nowruz: Celebrating the New Year on the Silk Roads’ (accessed here https://en.unesco.org/silkroad/content/nowruz-celebrating-new-year-silk-roads on 10 March 2023)
NPR, ‘Nowruz is banned in Afghanistan, but families continue to celebrate’ (accessed here https://www.npr.org/2022/03/21/1087296594/nowruz-is-banned-in-afghanistan-but-families-continue-to-celebrate on 10 March 2023)
The Nauryz (Spring) Collection, from the Russian & Slavic Studies department of the University of Arizona (accessed here https://russian.arizona.edu/event/nauryz-spring-celebration on 10 March 2023)