Nowruz: Celebrating History’s Cycle of Birth and Rebirth
In this edition of The Interview, Fair Observer talks to Afshin Marashi, professor of modern Iranian history at the University of Oklahoma.
Nowruz is the ancient Iranian celebration of the new year. Although it is difficult to say with certainty when it was first marked, there are some accounts that suggest Nowruz may be 3,000 years old. Literally meaning “new day” in Persian, Nowruz is shared by several countries in West and Central Asia, Middle East, Eastern Europe and the Balkans, as well as the Iranian diaspora across the world. At the initiative of several countries celebrating this occasion, 21 March was declared International Nowruz Day by the United Nations in 2010, and since then the the Persian New Year has been marked at the organization’s headquarters in New York.
In 2009, Nowruz was inscribed on the UNESCO’s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity and, according to the UN, “promotes values of peace and solidarity between generations and within families.”
Preparations for Nowruz begin several weeks before the commencement of the new year. Families join forces to clean their houses, and almost all the family members help out during a process called khaneh-tekani — house-shaking — during which carpets, windows, curtains and furniture are thoroughly cleaned, broken items and utensils replaced, and homes decorated with flowers. Iranian households are used to extensive shopping sprees in anticipation of Nowruz when new clothes and home appliances, as well as gifts for relatives and friends, are purchased.
Nowruz celebrations start on the day of vernal equinox and normally last 13 days, ending on the 13th day of the solar calendar, popularly known as Sizdah Bedar. On this Nature’s Day Iranian families spend time picnicking outdoors, share candies, sweetmeat and special meals, and release the sprouting greenery collected for the haft seen table into rivers, hoping that it will take away bad omens and fulfill their wishes for the coming year.
Nowruz is a festival of delicious meals, adeptly homemade cookies and confectionary, popular family reunions and philanthropy. It is a secular celebration and as a result has been loathed by religious hardliners in Iran. However, efforts to undermine the importance of Nowruz have mostly ended in vain, proving that it is impossible to eliminate the tradition from Iranian cultural practices.
In this edition of The Interview, Fair Observer talks to Afshin Marashi, a noted Iran expert and professor in modern Iranian history at the University of Oklahoma, about the importance of Nowruz, its historical roots and its role in connecting the nations that celebrate it.
Kourosh Ziabari: From a historical perspective, is it possible to determine when Nowruz was celebrated for the first time and where? Is Ferdowsi’s epic poem Shahnameh an appropriate source to trace the roots of Nowruz?
Afshin Marashi: It is unlikely that we can pinpoint an exact historical origin for the Nowruz celebration. However, we do have abundant historical evidence to suggest that it has a long history that stretches back to the earliest era of Iran’s pre-Islamic history and Zoroastrian religious heritage.
The term Nowruz literally means “new day” and became part of the ritual life of the pre-Islamic Zoroastrian religious tradition marking the vernal equinox, or the first day of the spring season. Within the Zoroastrian tradition, the association of Nowruz with the coming of spring reinforced key Zoroastrian religious teachings of light and goodness triumphing over the forces of darkness and evil. The seasonal shift from winter to spring reflected this Zoroastrian religious imagination, and Nowruz became the part of the ritual life of Iranians marking this annual transition. So the early history of Nowruz was intimately tied to a Zoroastrian religious cosmology.
And yet, despite this long and tumultuous history, the culture of Iran has managed to maintain certain essential elements. Perhaps the most important among these elements is the core belief in nature and history’s continuing cycle of birth and rebirth, of invention and reinvention, of an eternal cycle of renaissance and regeneration.
Some scholars argue that Nowruz was celebrated as far back as three millennia ago, but we can be certain that it was celebrated as early as between 500 and 100 BC in the imperial city of Persepolis in the Apadana palace complex. There is evidence for this in both the textual and archaeological sources.
There is also a literary and mythological tradition that tells the story of the origins of Nowruz. This tradition comes down to us most evocatively through an epic poem written in the early Islamic period around 1000 AD — the Shahnameh, or the Book of Kings, composed in the New Persian language by the poet Ferdowsi. In this mythological telling of the origins of Nowruz, it was the mythical king Jamshid who originated what became the Nowruz tradition. According to this legend, Jamshid was victorious in a terrible war against demonic forces.
This conflict brought about great destruction in the world. After Jamshid’s victory, a new era of rebirth and rebuilding commenced, and the Nowruz celebration became a way of remembering the great deeds of Jamshid. Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh has both mythological and historical elements, and the Jamshid legend comes from one of the earliest and most mythological parts of the Shahnameh narrative.
Ziabari: In 2010, United Nations designated 21 March as the International Nowruz Day. What’s the significance of this proclamation?
Marashi: The 2010 UN proclamation is very important because it affirms that Nowruz is important for the entire world. With the UN proclamation, March 21 will always be recognized as International Day of Nowruz. Prior to the proclamation, Nowruz was not always known by the public. It was a holiday that had a more limited and niche relevance among Iranians inside Iran and among the diaspora. The UN proclamation has turned Nowruz into a global event, and has worked to raise international awareness for the celebration. Today, it has become increasingly commonplace to hear non-Iranians say “Happy Nowruz” on March 21 as an affirmation of the beginning of the spring season. This newfound awareness of Nowruz is in large part due to the UN proclamation. It also suggests how essential elements of Iran’s cultural heritage can be in harmony with global and universal cultural values.
Ziabari: In the aftermath of Iran’s 1979 revolution, religious zealots made many efforts to downplay the significance of Nowruz and challenge its popularity as a festivity that is rooted in Iran’s ancient culture and civilization, claiming that it’s not consistent with Islam and its values. Do you think they’ve been successful? Is Nowruz at odds with Islam?
Marashi: It is true that in the immediate aftermath of the 1979 revolution, Iran’s revolutionary Islamic movement sought to eradicate or minimize expressions of pre-Islamic Iranian culture, including the Nowruz celebrations. The controversies over Nowruz following the revolution suggest how much culture and politics were and remain interconnected inside Iran. Prior to 1979, the official culture of the Pahlavi monarchy had celebrated Iran’s pre-Islamic cultural heritage as the basis of an official Iranian national identity. With the overthrow of the monarchy, this cultural basis of Iranian nationalism was contested.
The so-called cultural revolution, as Iran’s Islamic leaders proclaimed, included reimposing many aspects of Islamic orthodoxy as a way of purifying the culture from Pahlavi-era cultural policies that were often associated with idolatry. Mandatory veiling of women is one example of these cultural practices that was now reimposed; initial restrictions on music were another, [as were the] threats to Iranian archaeological sites.
We’ve seen similar examples of cultural politics in other more recent cases of Islamic activism, such as the destruction of pre-Islamic archaeological sites in Syria and Iraq by ISIS between 2014 and 2015, as well as looting and vandalism of archaeological museums and libraries in Baghdad and Mosul. The destruction of the monumental Buddhist statues in Afghanistan by the Taliban in 2001 is another stark example of how culture and politics have intersected in recent examples of Islamist activism.
The threats to Iran’s pre-Islamic cultural heritage following the 1979 revolution were part of this larger pattern and in some ways represented the first of these large-scale attacks on the culture of secular nationalism that had been promoted for much of the 20th century. In the case of Iran, however, the attack on expressions of pre-Islamic culture have diminished since the initial days of the revolution. Nowruz is today part of the annual celebrations. The leadership of the Islamic Republic is aware of how engrained the Nowruz celebration is among Iranians, and they have tried to co-opt and appropriate elements of Iran’s pre-Islamic heritage into the official culture of the Islamic Republic.
Nevertheless, expressions of pre-Islamic Iranian culture often become the basis of political challenges to the Islamic Republic. Cyrus the Great Day on October 28 has become an unofficial annual day of protest inside Iran, where thousands of Iranians have gathered at the archaeological site of the tomb of Cyrus as an expression of protest against the Islamic Republic. In 2009, during the Green Movement in Iran, thousands of protesters also gathered around the statue of Ferdowsi and invoked the name of the poet as part of a language of protest. It would not be hard to imagine how the language, symbolism and imagery of Nowruz might be used in the future as part of a movement of resistance to the current government and as an invocation for a call of “rebirth” of Iranian culture and politics.
Ziabari: Nowruz is celebrated in several countries by some 300 million people. How does Nowruz promote solidarity and friendship between nations that mark this occasion?
Marashi: Nowruz is indeed a holiday that is celebrated around the world, not only inside Iran, but in many other countries that have a history of Iranian and Persian cultural influence. These countries extend far beyond a region that one might imagine, including not only the Middle East, but also countries in Central Asia, South Asia, the Caucasus and the Balkans. In India, in particular, Nowruz has a special place as part of the culture of India’s Zoroastrian or Parsi communities. The Parsis in today’s India are the descendants of the original migrants of Zoroastrians who left Iran following the Arab-Muslim conquest of Iran in the seventh century. When they arrived in India, they brought with them much of the cultural heritage of Iran’s pre-Islamic heritage, including the Nowruz tradition.
The Parsis of India can be seen as the original Iranian diaspora community. There are other more recent Iranian diaspora communities throughout the world, most of whom emigrated from Iran following the revolution. These diaspora communities, like their Parsi predecessors, have also brought the celebration of Nowruz with them to the new parts of the world where they have settled. Today one is just as likely to find Iranian Nowruz celebrations in Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York, London and Paris as one might in Tehran, Mumbai and Dushanbe.
Ziabari: Nowruz has been a source of inspiration for many artists to create works of art revolving around the themes of renewal, birth, spring and the new year. What is about Nowruz that motivates so many artists?
Marashi: Iran has an extremely rich artistic tradition. The Nowruz celebrations have been an important source of inspiration for this distinctly Iranian aesthetic sensibility. The universal themes of renewal and rebirth that are so integral to the Nowruz celebrations provide artists with a broad range of symbols and emotions to draw from. Those who are familiar with the symbolic vocabulary of Nowruz can readily identify how artists make use of this vocabulary to express certain ideas. The deeply ingrained elements of the culture of Nowruz provides artists — whether visual, literary, musical or otherwise — with a readily available palate of aesthetic material to draw from. This is perhaps what makes Nowruz so ubiquitous in expressions of Iranian and Persianate art.
Marashi: The calendar systems that Iranians have used over the millennia have gone through many iterations and revisions. Clearly Iranians had a deep interest, born of necessity, in calculating seasonal time. This necessity had its origins in cultural changes stemming from the Neolithic concern for agriculture and in Zoroastrian religious ideas, both of which are very much interconnected. Over time, the commencement of spring became linked to the Iranian solar calendar system, with the first day of the first month of the Zoroastrian calendar, the month of Farvardin becoming designated as New Year’s Day or Nowruz.
Calculating this precise day became a major preoccupation for Iranian astronomers, mathematicians, philosophers and even poets. Abu Reyhan Biruni, the 10th-century Iranian polymath, was among those who sought to calculate a fixed moment for the advent of Nowruz. The 11th-century Persian poet Omar Khayyam, although most often remembered for his lyrical quatrains, was also an astronomer and mathematician, and his precise calendar calculations are the basis of the Iranian solar calendar known as the Jalali calendar that is still in use in Iran today. This calendar is so exact that the precise moment of the vernal equinox is calculated so that the Nowruz celebration can take place in all parts of the world as a simultaneous event.
Ziabari: How close are the modern manifestations of Nowruz and the way it’s celebrated today to its original shape and form? Was the haft seen table historically set up the way it’s prepared today?
Marashi: The haft seen component of Nowruz has become a very important element of the New Year celebration. The term haft seen, literally seven “seens,” refers to seven items that begin with the Persian letter seen. Each of these items has a symbolic meaning and is placed on a decorative table during the weeks of the Nowruz season. The items include sabzeh (wheat for rebirth), samanu (sweet pudding for wealth), senjed (fruit for love), serkeh (vinegar for age), seeb (apple for beauty), sir (garlic for medicine) and sumaq (sumac spice).
Other items such as goldfish, coins, hyacinth flowers and mirrors have also become commonplace as part of the haft seen table. While the use of these items on the haft seen table has become a ubiquitous part of the Nowruz celebrations, there is little evidence to suggest that his tradition has a long history. Scattered references to these symbols are occasionally found in the available source material, but it is only since the 19th century that the haft seen table as we know it today has become a more formal component of the Nowruz celebrations. This suggests that while the Nowruz tradition has a long history, it has also evolved and gone through multiple stages. The haft seen table that we know today is therefore only the most modern iteration of a much older tradition.
Ziabari: According to some accounts of Nowruz, this festival has been celebrated for some 3,000 years. How has Nowruz survived the passage of time over the past centuries?
Marashi: Iranian culture is not a fixed or immutable tradition that has remained stagnant and rigid throughout its history. One of the perennial features of Iran’s cultural history is, in fact, its ability to reinvent itself over the span of its many centuries. Throughout this long span of history, Iranian culture, in all its complexity and diversity, has been ruled by innumerable dynasties, conquered by multiple invading armies, has changed its religion and its language, and has experienced disintegration and dispersal.
And yet, despite this long and tumultuous history, the culture of Iran has managed to maintain certain essential elements. Perhaps the most important among these elements is the core belief in nature and history’s continuing cycle of birth and rebirth, of invention and reinvention, of an eternal cycle of renaissance and regeneration. This simple idea is what has allowed Iranian culture to persevere throughout the many stages of its difficult history. It is also this simple idea that represents the essential meaning of Nowruz.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.