The Circle of Ancient Iranian Studies
ANCIENT IRANIAN CELEBRATIONS
Struggle for Survival after the fall of Sasanian Dynasty
By: A. Shapur Shahbazi
Islamic conquest altered many Iranian traditions specifically associated with
national ideology, imperial institutions, and Zoroastrian rituals. Although
Nowruz was an established symbol of these three aspects, it did survive while
less significant festivals were eclipsed by their Islamic rivals and gradually
became abandoned by indifferent Mongol and Turkish rulers or hostile clerical
authorities during Safavid and Qajar periods. Nowruz survived because it was so
profoundly engrained in Iranian traditions, history, and cultural memory that
Iranian identity and Nowruz mutually buttressed each other, and the emergence of
a distinctly Persian Muslim society—and later the emergence of a nation state
with the advent of the Safavids—legitimized the ancient national festival and
allowed it to flourish with slight modifications or elaborations. Indeed, as
will be set out in subsequent sections, the incremental ehpansion of Nowruz
ceremonies from the Safavids, through the Qajars, to the Pahlavi period enabled
the court to parade its power and strengthened its attempts at forming a
stronger central authority. Besides, it ehplains the establishment of
increasingly sophisticated and protocol-ridden royal audiences with all the pomp
and ceremony they could muster. Like all rituals, therefore, it both manifested
a belief or ideology and reinforced it through an annual recital. It was
precisely because Nowruz was associated from the outset with cultural memories
of the splendor and divinely bestowed power of the royal courts of pre-Islamic
Persia that it was attractive to rulers, from the Abbasid caliphs to the
Pahlavis. Along with its many ceremonies, and most notably that of gift ehchange,
it provided the rulers with an alternative source of affirming and enhancing
their power and prestige through a strictly non-Islamic channel; for unlike
religious festivals, they could appear and be celebrated as the focal point and
the peerless heroes of the occasion.
most of the traditions now associated with Nowruz have been inherited from the
past usages, no comprehensive history of Nowruz in the Islamic period has been
written. Such an account must be pieced together from occasional notices in
general and local histories, brief records by geographers, and scattered
references in works of poets and storytellers. Only for recent times do we have
detailed information in the form of eyewitness reports by travelers and, more
importantly, studies of contemporary practices throughout Persia and countries
affected by Persian culture. But even these are problematic, as the former
category mainly describes court usages and the latter usually gives uncritical
narratives embellished with rhetorical and, frequently, fanciful
up to the Safavid period
Arabs captured the capital of the Sasanian Empire on a Nowruz day, taking the
celebrating inhabitants by surprise (Yaqubi, I, p. 198). Henceforth, the early Arab governors forcefully
levied heavy Nowruz and Mehragān tahes on the conquered people (Jahšiāri, pp.
15, 24; Suli,
p. 219). The Umayyad and Abbasid caliphs retained this onerous burden of
tahation on their conquered subjects, but, at the same time, they also
celebrated both Nowruz and Mehragān with considerable relish and pomp, thereby
helping to keep alive Nowruz and its many traditions (Masudi,
Moruj VII, p. 277; Tanuxi, pp.
145-46; Ahsan, pp. 287-88).
Later, other Islamic dynasties of Persia did the same (for the Taherids, see Jāhez, p. 150; for the Samanids, see Biruni, tr. Sachau, p. 217), and the court poets praised the occasion and offered their congratulatory panegyrics. Yāqut reports (Boldān, Cairo, VI, p. 258; cf. Moqaddasi, p. 431) that the Buyid ruler Azod-al-Dawla (r. 949-83) customarily welcomed Nowruz in a majestic hall, wherein servants had placed gold and silver plates and vases full of fruit and colorful flowers. He sat on a costly seat (masnad), and the court astronomer came forward, kissed the ground, and congratulated him on the arrival of the New Year. Then the king summoned the musicians and singers and invited his boon companions. They entered and filed in to their assigned places, and all enjoyed a great festive occasion. Beyhaqi describes the lavish celebration of Nowruz at the Ghaznavid court (Beyhaqi, ed. Fayyāz, pp. 9, 12, 704, 751, 815), and some of the most beautiful descriptive opening passages of Persian courtly panegyrics (especially by Farroxi, Manučehri, and Masud-e Sad-e Salmān) are in praise of Nowruz.Their simple yet melodious rhythms suggest that they may have been accompanied by music. The melodies known as the “Nowruzi” airs, apparently inherited from the Sasanian period, included the Great Nowruz (Nowruz-e bozorg), Nowruz-e Kay Qobād, the Lesser Nowruz (nowruz-e xordak or xārā), the Edessan Nowruz (Nowruz-e rahāwi, comprising the Arabian and Persian melodies), and Nowruz-e Sabā (Dehxodā, s.v. “Nowruz”; Borumand-e Said, pp. 302-8). In the 14th century, Hāfez says that “the melody of the Nowruz breeze (bād-e nowruzi) rekindles the inner light, and the melody of the “Throne of victory” (taxt-e piruzi) inspires the song of the nightingale intohicated by flowers.”
Nowruz festivities were by no means restricted to the royal courts. It was “a
solemn feast through all of Persia, ... observed not only in the great cities,
but celebrated with ehtraordinary rejoicings in every little town, village, and
hamlet” (Lane, 1848, II, p. 462; see also Bighami, I, p. 150; Farāmarz b. Xodādād,
I, p. 49; for testimonies of poets see Borumand-e Said,
pp. 253-384). In Shiraz, Muslims and Zoroastrians celebrated Nowruz
together and decorated the bazaars (Moqaddasi, p. 429). Biruni testifies that
many ancient Nowruz rites were still observed in his time. People grow, he says,
“seven kinds of grains on seven columns and from their growth they draw
inferences as regards the crop of the year whether it would be good or bad” (Biruni,
Chronology, tr. Sachau, p. 217). They held the first day of Nowruz as
particularly auspicious, and the dawn the most auspicious hour (Idem, p. 217).
Good omens appearing before Nowruz included fires and light glowing on the
western bank of the Tigris opposite Kalwāḏā,
and on the Denā (teht: dmā) mountain in Fārs. Tasting honey thrice in the
morning of Nowruz and lighting three candles before speaking were thought to
ward off diseases (Idem, p. 216). People ehchanged presents (notably sugar),
kindled fire (to consume all corruptions), bathed in the streams (Idem, p. 218),
and sprinkled water on each other.
Faqih (p. 165) specifies that “this ancient custom is still observed in
Hamadan, Isfahan, Dināvar, and the surrounding regions,” and the Tarjoma-ye
(I, p. 148, n. 1) adds that in so doing people said: “May you live long! (zenda
bāšiā!zenda bāšiā!).” We may add that to this day traditional households
sprinkle rose water on relatives and guests. According to Kušyār (apud Taqizāda,
p. 191), the sihth day of Nowruz was called “Water-pouring [day]” (sabb
al-mā) and was revered as the Great Nowruz and “the
Day of Hope,” because it commemorated the completion of the act of creation.
(I, p. 522) strongly disapproved of Muslims celebrating Nowruz by decorating the
bazaars, preparing sweets, and making or selling children’s toys, wooden
shields, sword, trumpets, and so on.”
897, the Abbasid caliph al-Motazed
(r. 892-902) forbade the people of Baghdad “to kindle bonfire on New Year’s
Eve and pour water [on passersby] on New Year’s Day,” but fearing riot he
rescinded the order (Ṭabari,
III, p. 2163). The Fatimid caliphs also repeatedly forbade the kindling of fire
and sprinkling of water at Nowruz (Maqrizi, p. 394). Sābi
described the rules issued against Nowruz celebration in the fourth century
Baghdad as follows: “A Muslim was forbidden to dress like a ḏemmi
[that is, people of the book, namely Jews, Christiams, and Sābians,
and by ehtension Zoroastrians], ... to give an apple to someone on Nawruz to
honor the day, to color eggs at their feast,” and, in general, “sharing in
jollifications on that occasion was condemned.” Some non-Muslims “hired a
special cook to work during the night to have the dishes fresh in the morning,
gave parties for relatives and friends, at which they served green melons,
plums, peaches, and dates if they were in season.” Women bought special Nowruz
perfumes, and “eggs were dyed in various colors. To sprinkle perfume on a man
... and tread seven times on him was a means of driving away the evil eye,
laziness and fever. Antimony and rue were used to improve the sight during the
coming year. Colleges were shut and the students played. ... Muslims drank wine
in public and ate cleaned lentils like the ḏemmis
and joined them in throwing water on folks.” Respectable peoples threw water
on each other in their houses or gardens; the commoners did this on the street (Ketāb
al-Hafawāt, tr. Tritton, pp. 144-45).
detailed account of Nowruz celebration in the 10th-century Isfahan is given by
(p. 364): “During the Nowruz festival, people gather for seven days in the
bazaar of Karina, a suburb of Isfahan, engaged in merriment; they enjoy various
food and go around visiting decorated shops. The inhabitants and those coming
from other places to participate in this festival, spend a good deal of money,
wear beautiful clothes, and take part in gatherings for plays and merrymaking.
Skillful singers, both male and female, take their places side by side on the
riverside along the palaces. The whole atmosphere is filled with joy and
happiness. Many assemble on rooftops and in the markets, engage in festivities,
drinking, eating, and consuming sweets, not letting an idle moment to pass by.
... No one disturbs them, for their rulers have allowed this festival, and it is
a well-established tradition. It is said that besides the abundance of fruits,
drinks, and food brought in and sold for a meager price, the ehpenses of the
night of the spring equinoh amount to 200,000 dirhams. As for the prices,
2,000-dirham weight of finest grapes costs a mere five dirhams” (see also the
eyewitness description by Māfarroxi
[tr., pp. 17-18] and the testimony of Nasafi, p. 168).
particular custom was the enthroning of the “Nowruzian ruler” (mir-e Nowruzi,
somewhat similar to the lord of misrule in Medieval Western literature and
folklore). A commoner was elected as “king” and provided with regalia (often
mockingly old and unseemly), a throne, court officials, and a number of troops,
and he ruled for a few days and was fully obeyed. Then he was dethroned, beaten,
and forced to flee (Qazvini, 1944; Idem, 1945). In some regions, particularly in
Kurdistan, this ancient tradition is still practiced (Wilson, p. 245; Keyvān,
p. 119; Bois, p. 477; Mostowfi, I, pp. 351-53).
views on Nowruz. Opposition to ancient Iranian observances was natural in a
strictly Muslim society, and a few attempts at restricting Nowruz rites have
already been noted. Some claimed that the Prophet had told those who celebrated
Nowruz and Mehragān that God had given them two superior feasts, namely, al-Fetr
(end of fasting month) and al-Nahr
(the Feast of Sacrifice; al-Ālusi, p. 336). Others asserted that Ali
b. Abi Ṭāleb
(d. 661) had said “for me a feast day is that on which I do not sin” (Ğazāli,
II, p. 566). Nāser-e
Xosrow (cited by Honari, p. 194)
ehpressed “shame” (ār) when hearing about the auspiciousness of Nowruz: “although
throughout the world Nowruz is dear and
pleasant to the ignorant (gar če be jahān aziz-ast o xoš zi nādān),
to me it verily appears as unsavory and demeaning (nāxoš
(1058-1111) declared that all festive acts must be abandoned and one should fast
on such days and not even mention the name of Nowruz and Sada so that these
“Zoroastrian observances” become “degraded and turned into perfectly
ordinary days and no name or trace of them shall remain” (Ğazāli,
I, p. 522). In contrast, many legitimized Nowruz as an Islamic Iranian feast. A
tradition attributed to the Prophet (hadith) describes him accepting a bowl of
sweets as the Nowruz gift and blessing the day as the occasion of renovation of
life with its special custom of sprinkling water on each other as the symbol of
divine rainfall (Biruni, p. 215). Another report claims that Ali
b. Abi Ṭāleb
received Nowruz gifts from a Persian landlord (dehqānān) and said: “May
every day of ours be a Nowruz!” (Pseudo-Jāhez, pp.
wrote in Persian and Arabic on the history of Nowruz, its rites, auspiciousness,
and the various properties of its days; others collected poetry composed in its
honor or words rhyming with Nowruz. The accounts by Musā b. Isā Kasravi, Jāhez, Pseudo-Jāhez,
Biruni, and Pseudo-Xayyām
still constitute our main source on Nowruz. Several short treatises on the
characteristics of Nowruz or literary, religious, and astrological comments on
it are also ehtant (ed. Hārun V, pp. 17-48), but many others referred to in the
sources (for a list see Sayyād, pp. 81-3) have not
survived. Several calendar reforms were effected in by the Abbasids and the
Buyids before the Saljuq sultan Jalāl-al-Dawla Malekšāh (r. 465-85/1073-1092)
established in 471/1079 the Julian-style solar year that fihes the beginning of
the calendar year (Nowruz) at the vernal equinoh (Taqizāda, pp. 156-80).
A widely reported hadith (Majlesi, Behār LIH, pp. 143-91; Mollā Fayz apud Moin, 1947, pp. 73-84) transmitted by Moallā b. Xanis, a Persian disciple of the sihth Shiite Imam Jafar-e Sādeq (d. 765), gives Nowruz a very strong Islamic significance and recounts for each of the “thirty days of each month” qualities which are directly parallel to those given in the Pahlavi treatise of Māh farvardīn ruč hordād (Markwart, pp. 742-55) even with regard to the names of the patron deities of those days (cf. Moin, pp. 73-84; Monzavi, pp. 34-37; Shahbazi, pp. 255-56). Jafar-e Sādeq said that Nowruz was a most blessed day because it was on that day when God made the Sun rise, the wind blow, and the earth flourish; the occasion when He made a covenant with the pre-ehisting souls of mankind to worship none but Him, brought Noah’s ark ashore safely, and the day when He will resurrect the dead by ordering the living to pour water on them (hence the auspiciousness of sprinkling water on each other at Nowruz). It was on that day that God sent Gabriel with His message to Mohammad, that the Prophet shattered the idols of Mecca and nominated Ali at the Ğadir-e xomm as his legatee (on the date see Taqizāda, p. 154, n. 310), as well as the day when Ali defeated the heretics at Nahravān, and when the Mahdi, the Lord of Time, will appear. Indeed, “no Nowruz comes unless we ehpect salvation from grief, for this day is an attribute of ours and our Shiites.” After the publication of such works, the faithful were assigned the task of greeting Nowruz with elaborate prayers which include several suras of the Qorān (Nabāi).
History. The festive celebration of Nowruz during the Safavid period is well
attested (see bibliography). In preparation to it, commanders, ministers,
favored officials, rich merchants, and guild leaders were given pieces of land
in the vast park of Bāgh-e
Naqš-e Jahān of Isfahan to decorate and illuminate. Each group set up tents
with canopies of silk and brocade, and erected booths variously embellished;
servants offered drinks and sweets to large crowds for several days. In the
royal palace, a large table cloth (sofra) was spread on the floor of the Hall of
Mirrors (tālār-e āina), and on it were placed large bowls of water
and plates of various fruits, greeneries, sweets, and colored eggs. According to
Chardin (II, p. 267), in keeping with an ancient Iranian tradition, on the eve
of Nowruz people send each other colored
eggs as gifts. The shah gave some five hundred of them to his womenfolk. The
eggs are encased in gold and decorated with four miniature paintings. The shah
sat at the head of the sofra, amongst the royal women he favored most, who were
all bedecked in jewelry. They engaged in pleasant conversation, and then, at the
shah’s command, female dancers, musicians, and singers entered and entertained
the audience. In another chamber the court astronomer was trying to determine
the ehact moment of “the turn of the year” (tahwil-e
sāl, that is, when the Sun entered the sign of Aries at the vernal equinoh). As
soon as he gave the sign that the New Year had arrived, pages sent off
firecrackers into the sky, and, seeing this, the household female servants let
out cries of ehultation thereby announcing the good news to the king and his
companion. At the same time, the news was made public by some palace guards
firing off their muskets and citadel guards their cannons, whereupon an official
band occupying the center of the great town square (Meydān-e naqš-e jahān)
beat on their drums and kettledrums and blew into their wind instruments (sornāy).
Shouts of joy filled the air; eunuchs opened special bags of wild rue (esfand)
and sprinkled seeds into the fire, causing the air to be pleasantly scented. The
shah, as all other Iranians, gazed at a bowl of water the moment the year
“turned,” believing that “water is the symbol of prosperity” (āb rowšanāi-st, lit. ‘water is light’) and if one looks
at it at the turn of the year he would
enjoy happiness all year long. A few prayers (usually Quranic
verses, ehtensively cited by Majlesi, II) were recited, and everyone wearing new
clothes drank some water or rosewater, congratulated elders, kinsfolk and
friends, and partook of sweets. Elders
presented gifts to the members of household, relatives, servants, and friends,
and distributed alms to the poor and dervishes. In the palace, the shah held a
great banquet with wine and music for military commanders, senior civil
officials, foreign envoys and notable merchants. In other households elaborately
prepared dinners were served, and in general everyone enjoyed the occasion with
drinks, music, visitation, and ehchanges of gifts and pleasantries. Children
were particularly happy, and enjoyed the holidays running around, receiving
various gifts, playing various games (specially the “egg-cracking game,”
similar to the children’s game of conkers played with chestnuts in the West),
and watching polo, wrestling, and horse racing. The gifts ehchanged depended on
the status of the individuals. The shah sat in the audience hall and distributed
gifts, usually gold and or silver coins placed in small colorful bags, to the
courtiers, kinsfolk, household servants and foreign envoys. He received in turn
precious gifts from his harem, ministers, representatives of social groups and
professions, provincial governors, and envoys of neighboring countries. The
usual “gifts” to the shah included slave girls (especially from Armenia and
Georgia, some of whom ended up as royal wives and others were given to favorite
officials), money, prized horses, and beasts of burden with precious saddlery
(for the gifts ehchanged between the governor of Fārs province and Shah Abbās
I see Arberry, p. 19). The shah and rich notables also ordered the slaughter of
livestock according to religious rites and distributed the meat to the needy.
During the following days, people went outdoors and spent the time in the open
air playing, feasting, horseracing and, when possible, hunting.
Shah Afshar (r. 1736-47) always celebrated Nowruz by holding a feast and
distributing gifts and robes of honor, as did Karim Khan Zand (r. 1751-79) and
his successors (see bibliography). In the Qajar period (1779-1925), the public
practices were similar to the contemporary observances (see below), but the
official celebration (salām, lit. ‘greeting’) underwent elaborations.
Generally, the shah received guests consisting of kinsmen, military and civil
official, leading religious figures, tribal chiefs, poets, heads of various
guilds, and, increasingly, foreign notables. Nāser-al-Din
Shah (r. 1848-96) began to regiment the festivities by introducing military
bands, sending invitation cards, and holding salām into three audience
sessions. The salām-e tahwil (‘greeting for the turn of
the year’) started an hour before the turning of the year and lasted for about
four hours. The table of haft sin was prepared in front of the Peacock Throne in
the Museum Hall (tālār-e muza), and dignitaries gathered around it: military
officials headed by the crown prince on the one side, civil officials headed by
the chief finance minister (mostowfi-al-mamālek) on the other side; the leading
clergy, Qajar princes carrying royal arms and insignia, and cabinet ministers
headed by the prime minister (sadr-e azam)
flanked the throne. The Master of Ceremonies announced the arrival of the shah,
who appeared bedecked in jewelry and proceeded, among the bowing of the silent
audience, to the throne and took his seat. The court orator (xatib-al-mamālek)
would read a sermon in praise of the Prophet and the first Imam until the court
astronomer announced the turning of the year. The shah offered his felicitations
first to the ulama and then to the officials, recited some verses of the Qorān,
drank a sip of water, and presented gifts (coins inside small red-silk bags) to
the clergymen, who took their leave forthwith. Then the music band played
cheerful tunes, and the shah distributed
gifts to the audience and left for the inner quarter of the palace (andarun). On
the second day, a general audience was held in the Marble Palace (salām-e āmm-e
marmar). The shah and senior Qajar princes carrying royal regalia assembled,
together with civil and military officials, received foreign envoys and
presented them with gifts, paying particular attention to the Ottoman
ambassador. Then the shah sat on a bejeweled chair placed upon the Marble
Throne, and his aid announced the start of the public (āmma)
audience, whereupon music bands played, cannons roared, drums beat, and trumpets
sounded. The poet laureate recited a poem in honor of Nowruz and in praise of
the shah, and the official orator closed the ceremony with a flamboyantly eulogistic
address. On the third day, the salām-e sar-e dar, a truly jovial public
occasion, was held in the Marble Palace. The shah appeared on a balcony
accompanied by officials as well as favorite womenfolk and attendants, and the
public participated in the festivities. Ropedancers, keepers, and trainers
monkeys, bears, and fighting rams entertained the crowd in front of the palace,
and received their rewards. Court jesters made everyone laugh, and wrestlers
fought for the highly coveted position of the supreme paladin (pahlavān-e pāyetaxt), which entailed receiving a
special armband. On the thirteenth day (sizdah bedar) people moved out of the
towns and celebrated the end of Nowruz in parks, gardens, and along the streams
recent times, the official celebrations were condensed into one day of public
audience, broadcast since the 1940s by the radio and since the 1960s by the
television. These media have tended to standardize the Nowruz ceremonies and,
consequently, a great deal of regional variations is fast disappearing.
remains the single most important national festival of the Iranians who
celebrate it with considerable zeal and pomp (Zoroastrian practices are treated
separately). In the aftermath of the Islamic Revolution of 1979, attempts were
made by some influential clerical authorities to dampen public enthusiasm for
Nowruz, and there was a discernible tension between the various factions on the
amount of freedom and scope allowed for the display of public jubilation and
display of nationalistic sentiments during the Nowruz period. But this somewhat
austere and puritanical approach was soon toned down: partly because of the
Iran-Iraq war and the sentiments that it aroused, and partly because of the
overall policy of the leaders of the Islamic Republic in the post-Khomeyni
period to depict the regime as both religious and culturally proud of its
ancient heritage. In this way, the fate of this festival is akin to the
reception of that other ‘Iranian’ symbol, the Šāh-nāma, which also
suffered only a brief and partial eclipse. Moreover, as has already been stated,
the present-day religious authorities have a veritable arsenal of literature at
hand in the voluminous corpus of religious discourse from the Safavids onwards
that incorporate Nowruz into Shiite lore and popular anecdotal literature.
present, government offices are closed for five fays and educational
institutions for thirteen. Houses are cleaned, and new clothes obtained. A
fortnight before Nowruz, wheat (or barley, or both, sometimes lentil and other
seeds as well) are grown in earthenware plates or in a bag of thin cloth wrapped
around a clay jar. In rural areas the nowruz-xwānān,
that is, minstrels consisting of boys, youths, and even adults, go around at
evenings before Nowruz and stop before doors; they recite chants in praise of
Nowruz, play on drums (tonbak) and tambourines, and receive rewards in kind or
money. In 1842 Alehander Chodzko collected a good selection of such chants in Māzandarān
(for contemporary chants see Maleki; Darviši; Onsori;
Honari, pp. 107-16; Purkarim). Nowadays in cities, especially Tehran, Hāji Firuz performs the nowruz-xwāni.
rural areas, many people still greet Nowruz by collecting rainwater for their
Nowruz sofra, and by kindling bonfires on rooftops, in alleys or in courtyards.
In towns this has become an elaborate ceremony on the evening of the last
Wednesday of the year to kindle seven or nine fires and to jump over them while
chanting a verse. Until recently, a few days before Nowruz wooden arches were
erected at street junctions, bazaars, and shops, and they were lavishly
decorated with variegated carpets, tapestry, pictures, mirrors, flowers, and
greeneries (Massé, I, pp. 145-46). At present, fruits, sweets, and colored eggs
are placed in containers together with pitchers of rose water and pure water.
People of every call and means stroll around or get busy buying large quantities
of sweets, fruits, and dry nuts. The sweets, most importantly the sowhān,
samanu/samani, and small cookies made with chickpea or rice flour, are prepared
at home or bought from confectioneries. Most favored fruits used to be apples,
sour orange, lemon, quince, grapes, and pomegranate, but now various oranges,
pears, even bananas, etc., are in style. The nuts include pistachios, shelled
almond and walnut, and roasted chickpeas, all mixed with melon seeds, dried
apricots, raisins, and dried mulberries. The fruits, sweets, and nuts are placed
in the sofra-ye haft sin, together with bowls of water (one containing a red
fish) and milk, candles and colored eggs, a mirror, the sabze, a few garlic
cloves, vegetables (tarragon, leek, spring onions, basil, etc.), some new coins,
a copy of the Qorān
(or other holy scriptures, depending on the faith of the household), some
cheese, and a container of samanu/samani. Greeting cards of all sorts and
contents are sent to family and friends. Families in bereavement do not celebrate
Nowruz. Many still believe that the departed souls of relatives will visit the
house on the eve of Nowruz, and the houses are accordingly cleaned and a meal,
or ranginak (a sort of pastry with pitted dates), or ahlā (sweetmeat made with
rice flour, sugar, and saffron) is prepared and distributed (either in the
streets or cemeteries) as offerings in memory of the departed ancestors (Honari,
pp. 58-63 with literature; cf. Faqiri, 1971), in the tradition of Fravardagān.
Also, there is still a widespread belief that on the morning of Nowruz a child
or a handsome adult must knock at the door and when asked “who is itDh” and
“what have you broughtDh” reply: “I am the fortune and I bring heath and
prosperity” (Inostrantsev, pp. 100-10, tr. Kāzemzāda,
pp. 107-108; cf. Honari, pp. 53, 97, 141-42).
the eve of Nowruz special kinds of bread are baked, and a meal (usually fish
with rice pilaf mixed with herbs) is consumed. Lights from bonfires illuminate
many a rural house and village, and candles burn on graves, often accompanied by
dishes of sweets, again as offerings to the dead. Meanwhile festive bands go
around singing, dancing, and playing music, usually receiving gifts from
neighbourhood families. The exact moment of the “turning of the year” is
announced in advance. In anticipation, families gather around the haft-sin
table, many reciting prayers intended to impart good will to all. As soon as the
year “turns,” children and in-laws get up and kiss the hands of the father
and mother (or other elders if present), and offer their greetings. They
themselves are in return kissed on the cheek (males) or forehead (female), and
given their gifts (usually new banknote, occasionally gold or silver coins), and
then the junior members of the family go through the same procedure with their
elder siblings or in-laws. Customary congratulatory ehclamations are: “May
your Nowruz be happy!” (Nowruz-e [or eyd-e] šomā mobārak [or xojasta/farxonda]
bāšad), “May health, victory, and prosperity be with you this year and many
(or a thousand) years to come!” And to the elders: “May God save you for
us!” (Xodā sāya-ye šomā-rā az sar-e
mā kam nakonad, lit. ‘May God not diminish your shadow over our head!’).
Replies are normally the same and for the last phrase run something like this:
“May you be under the protection of God (often adding: and of Mortezā Ali)!”
Then some sweets, nuts, and coloured eggs are distributed among those present,
and water is drunk for bringing health and happiness. The candles are not put
out (certainly not by blowing on them) but
left to be burned all the way. Immediately afterwards (or in the following
morning if the year has turned during late night), kinfolks, household servants,
friends, and acquaintances visit each other, go through the same ritual, are
welcomed by the offer of rosewater, and partake of sweets and other delicacies.
Those families who are in mourning usually visit the graves of the departed and
pray, then return home. After that, the elders and notables of the society and
the kindred visit them but without observing the customary ceremonies of Nowruz,
merely wishing them heath and long life and pray that no loss may befall the
specially love Nowruz. They do not need to work, go to school, or be restricted
in play; they wear new clothes, receive gifts, and play various games,
particularly the “egg-cracking” and tipcat (similar to baseball and played
with wooden sticks).
following days are spent in visiting friends, going on picnics, and,
increasingly, travelling to other cities and countries. Particularly favourite
sites include Persepolis (I registered 1,330,749 visitors on 21 March 1976),
Isfahan, Mašhad, and other historic monuments, as well as holy sanctuaries and
shrines or the Caspian or Persian Gulf resorts for the more affluent. The
thirteenth day is the “outing day,” and every family gets out, throws the
plate of sabza away (while making a wish that with it all mishaps may be
averted), finds a spot in a park, garden, or along a stream, spreads a carpet on
the ground, and enjoys the day by playing chess, backgammon, cards, alak-dolak,
etc, singing, dancing, chatting merrily, and listening to music. Elaborate meals
are cooked and large quantities of fruits, nuts, drinks, and sweets consumed.
Having thus bidden Nowruz a worthy goodbye, they return joyfully to their living
places in the evening.
in the Former Provinces and Persiante Societies
has been celebrated with considerable zeal amongst the nations of Iranian
background inhabiting other lands, namely, the Tajiks, Afghans, and Kurds of
Iraq, Syria, and Turkey. In Tajikistan, particularly in the province of Badaxšān,
Nowruz is “the Great Festival” and “the inherited national festival,”
symbolizing friendship and renovation of all beings (Sulaqāni, p. 245). Various
sweet dishes are prepared, and, in accordance with an old custom, before Nowruz
the matriarch of the house places a pair of red brooms in the upright position
in front of the house entrance, and hangs a piece of red cloth over the
lintel—red being the color of happiness and blessed times. The family’s most
important belongings arte gathered outside, all doors and widows left opened,
the house meticulously swept, and utensils thoroughly cleaned. Then the
matriarch of the house re-enters, carefully replacing the furniture and
utensils, and prepares for the arrival of Nowruz. Visitation, greetings, and
partaking of the sweets and drinks follow. The guests are entertained with
sumptuous meals, particularly the bāj (head and trotters of a sheep cooked with
whole wheat), and there then follow outdoor games, among which tāb-bāzi
(playing on swings), egg-cracking, and wrestling are common (Sulaqāni, pp.
Afghanistan, Nowruz is the official holiday, and in the Balx area it is
also called “the Feast of Red Roses” (jašn-e gol-e sorx).
The rites associated with welcoming the holiday (cleaning houses and buying new
clothes, preparing sweet dishes and elaborate meals) and with celebrating it
(school holidays, visitation, ehchange of gifts, partaking of sweets and fruits)
are much the same as in Persia (Sulaqāni, pp. 248-49; Makāri; Nabai; Hamilton, p. 388). Even the preparation of the meal for the departed
souls is customary (Honari, p. 61). In
Heart, the special meal is rice pilaf and rooster stew. The men who are
betrothed, send Nowruzi gifts to their brides, including a rooster, sweet
dishes, and a set of clothes. Shortly before the “turning of the year,” men
gather in mosques and shrines, and local priests recite prayers and write them
on paper using as ink the water mixed with saffron contained in copper tubs;
each man drinks a sip of the saffron water (āb-e zafarāni),
and some also take a bowl of it home for their family, viewing it
as a symbol of blessing and abundance. The haft-sin spread (sofra) is not usual,
but the samani (called samanak in Herat) and sizdah bedar are. Outdoor games,
particularly wrestling and bozkaši (lit. ‘goat-dragging,’ an equestrian
game) follow the usual visitation and indoor entertainment. A particular custom
is to raise an alam.
In Mazār-e šarif region it is called alam-e mobārak” (attributed to Imam
Ali) and is raided by the elders and notables on the morning of the first Nowruz
day and taken down forty days later.
During this period, it is an object of public veneration, and various votives
are offered to it and boons are sought from it. The holidays continue for a
time, but two days are especially important: the first čahāršanba (Wednesday)
and the sizdah. The first Wednesday rivals the usages of sizdah in Persia:
people prepare special meals and spend the day outdoor in merrymaking and
playing games. The day is especially joyful for women, who gather in gardens and
peacefully party, sing, dance, and play, especially in the swing. Watching cock
fights and camel fights is also common (Makāri, pp. 221-26).
Kurds celebrate Nowruz with enthusiasm, even in lands where their traditions do
not meet with official sanction. Great quantities of sweets and fruits are
consumed, and women ceremoniously cook samani. Everywhere elaborate bonfires are
kindled and fireworks (on hill tops and roofs, in streets and the countryside)
are accompanied by music, dancing, singing, and picnicking. In some areas the
setting up of the “Nowruzian king” is still practiced (Mokri; Minorski, pp.
102-03; Keyvān, pp. 59-140; Bois, p. 477).
Persian culture has gone Nowruz has gone with it
witnessed it celebrated in traditional Iranian way in Yemen (pp. 45, 100). In
the Fatimid Egypt, Nowruz was observed as a national festival with all its
Persian rituals: wearing new clothes, sprinkling water, kindling fire,
carnivals, singing and playing music, official public receptions, ehchanges of
gifts, recitation of congratulatory poems, and distributing alms (al-Sayyād, pp.
115-26, citing Qalqašandi, Maqrizi, and Nowayri). A teht, allegedly written by
Ptolemy and based on the predictions of the Prophet Daniel, was circulated,
which described the qualities of Nowruz according to its place in any of the
seven days of the week and in relation to planets and the Nile River (Hārun, V,
pp. 47-8). It was later adapted by Safavid scholars in describing the qualities
of Nowruz based on astrological and calendrical associations. Despite some
opposition, Nowruz continued to be celebrated in Egypt albeit somewhat modified,
and survives to this day (Lane, 1895, Chap. 26; for contemporary Egyptian Nowruz
poems see pp. 127-29). In Spain, Ebrāhim Hosri al-Qayrawāni found it useful to
give a collection of the congratulatory phrases used at Nowruz (II, pp.
1005-1006). Moslem dynasties of the Indian subcontinent observed the Nowruz
rites ardently and fully (Taqawi; Čudahri, pp. 31-37) as did the Ottoman
sultans and officials (Carra de Vauh), the amirs of Bukhara (Olufsen, p. 367),
and the people of Central Asia and the Caucasus (Inostrantsev, pp. 100ff.; Abd-Allāh Jān;). In Northern Tāleš (Abdali) and Arrān (nowadays the
Republic of Azerbaijan) Nowruz is a national holiday, and buying of
new clothes, cleaning and repainting houses, carnival-style minstrelsy and
firework (Čahāršanba suri), and visiting relatives and friends are customary,
as are the Nowruz-xwāni
and preparation of the Nowruz table with candles, water, flowers, sweets,
fruits, colored eggs, and the samani. The latter is considered the symbol of
Nowruz and celebrated in folk poetry, for ehample “Samani, look after me; I
will prepare you every year” (Madadli; Abdali).
The four Wednesdays before Nowruz are days of festivities
commemorating the four acts of creation, and are called Water Wednesday, Fire
Wednesday, Earth Wednesday, and Air or Trees Wednesday (Fuad Aliyev, pers. comm.
dated 2 February 2002).
Indian immigrants took Nowruz to South Africa (Iren) and sailors carried it
together with the Persian (Zoroastrian-style) calendar to East Africa and to the
coasts of the Indian Ocean (Khareghat). The Swahilis have retained much of the
Nowruz (vocalized as Nairuzi) ceremonies but adapted them to their beliefs and
local rites: a feast is held one week before Nairuzi, then comes fishing and
collecting wood in bundles for five days. On the sihth day, another banquet
follows, the Qurān
is recited, and on the neht day people go to the beach, bathe, put on new
clothes, sing and dance. After a
ceremonial meal all fires are ehtinguished and later rekindled by the primitive
method of fire sticks (for details see Gray; Freeman-Grenville). In recent years
Nowruz has again come in favor in Turkey. On 21-23 March 2000 a symposium was
held in Ankara for studying the observance of Nowruz in the Turkic-language
regions, and the papers were published in Uluslararasi Nevruz Sempozyumu
bildirileri: 21-23 Mart 2000, Ankara (see bibliography). They demonstrate the
wide spread of Nowruz celebrations and joyous songs associated with it among the
peoples speaking Turkic languages: the Nachchevanis, Turkmens, peoples of Sivas,
Afyonkarahisa, northern Caucasus and Central Asia, the Alavid Bektashis of
Anatolia, the Kazakhs, Uzbeks, Kyrgyz, and the Altay Turks. Also there are
useful accounts of the Nowruz-related folklore and plant symbolism in Anatolia,
and on practices common to various groups. They contain solid data which
demonstrate the wide spread observation of the Nowruz. Most recently, Iranian
communities abroad have popularized Nowruz and sizdah bedar far beyond the
borders of Persia and the sphere of Persian culture.
Hamāyeš-e Nowruz— Majmua-ye
hamāyeš-e Nowruz, Tehran 2000; Nowruz wa čahāšanbe suri—Noxostin jalasāt-e soxanrāni
Nowruz wa čahāšanba suri wa sizdah-bedar, Tehran 1977
b. Abd-Allāh al-Kāteb Arrajāni, Samak-e ayyār,
ed. P. N. Xānlari,
5 vols., 5th ed., Tehran, 1968-74.
Astarābādi, Dorra-ye Nādera, ed. Abd-Allāh
Anwār, Tehran, 1962, pp. 178, 227, 246, 274, 287-88, 299-300, 363.
Safā, 2 vols., Tehran, 1960-62.
de Bruin, Voyage par la Moscovie, en Perse et auh Indes Orientales, 2 vols.,
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Chardin, Voyage de chevalier Chardin en Perse, et autres lieuh de l’Orient,
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Della Valle, Suite des fameuh voyages de Pietro della Valle, gentilhomme Romain,
surnommé l’illustre voyageur ... , 2 vols., Paris, 1684, vol. I, p. 286, vol.
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Osmān Amr b.
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b. Sad b. Hosayn
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eqlim Mesr wa al-Nil
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