Out with the Old


Asian Geographic - - South Asia -


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. We don’t know ex­actly when the first Nowruz cel­e­bra­tions took place, though nu­mer­ous ar­chaeoas­tro­nom­i­cal 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 preIs­lamic tra­di­tions to have sur­vived the Arab Con­quest of Iran and Cen­tral Asia in the late 600s. The renowned 11th­cen­tury philoso­pher, math­e­ma­ti­cian,

The oc­ca­sion is en­shrined by UNESCO as part of our in­tan­gi­ble, liv­ing cul­tural her­itage, some­thing to be safe­guarded for fu­ture gen­er­a­tions to en­joy

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.

be­low Boys in tra­di­tional cos­tume play a game of toguz ku­malak dur­ing the Per­sian New Year

right Kur­dish peo­ple cel­e­brate Nowruz in Di­yarbakir, Turkey 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

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