What is Nowruz?
What does it mean?
What is the origin of this festival?
Nowruz (Noruz, Norooz, Nevruz, Newruz, Navruz), also referred to as eyd-i sar-i sal and eyd-i sal-i now) or new day, is the celebration of spring equinox. It is the most cherished of all the Iranian festivals and is celebrated by all. This occasion has been renowned in one form or another by all the major cultures of ancient Mesopotamia. What we have today as Noruz with its’ uniquely Iranian characteristics has been celebrated for at least 3,000 years and is deeply rooted in the rituals and traditions of the Zoroastrian belief system in the Sassanid period.
The word “Nowruz” is a compound of two Persian words, “now” which has the same etymology as the English word “new” and means new, and the word “ruz” which means both “day” and “time.” Literally meaning the “new day,” nowruz is usually translated as “new year.” The Persian Nowruz begins on the first day of spring (usually the 21st of March). The 21st of March, therefore, is equal to the 1st day of Farvardin of the Islamic solar calendar1.
In the mind of Iranians, the word nowruz invokes colorful images which are sumptuous, elegant, and opulent as well as delightfully simple, refreshing, and cordial. Although colored with vestiges of Iran’s Mazdian and Zoroastrian past, the Nowruz celebration is neither religious nor national in nature, nor is it an ethnic celebration. Jewish, Zoroastrian, Armenian and Turkish Iranians and Central Asians celebrate the Nowruz with the same enthusiasm and sense of belonging. Perhaps it is this very universal nature of the message of Nowruz that speaks to its wealth of rites and customs as well as to its being identified as the unique fount of continuity of the Iranian culture.
This was the religion of ancient Persia before the advent of Islam in 7th century A.D. The familiar concepts of Hell, Heaven, Resurrection, coming of the Messiah, individual and last judgment were for the first time incorporated into this belief system. They still exist in Judo-Christian and Islamic traditions. In order to understand Noruz we have to understand Zoroastrians’ cosmology.
In their ancient text, Bundahishn (foundation of creation), we read that Ahura Mazda (Ahura Mazda) residing in eternal light was not God. He created all that was good and became God. The Hostile Spirit, Angra Mainyu (Ahriman), residing in eternal darkness created all that was evil and became the Hostile Spirit (The word “anger” in English comes from the same origin). Everything that produced, protected and enriched life was regarded as good. This included all forces of nature beneficial to humans. Earth, waters, sky, animals, plants, justice, honesty, peace, health, beauty, joy and happiness belonged to the good forces. All that threatened life and created disorder belonged to the hostile spirits.
The two worlds did not have a material form but the essence of everything was present. The two existed side by side for 3,000 years, but were completely separate from each other. At the end of the third millennium the Hostile Spirit attacked the good world. This was the beginning of all troubles we face today, according to Zoroastrian world view.
In order to protect his world, Ahura Mazda created the material world Gaeity, (geety in modern Persian). This material world was created in seven different stages. The first creation was the sky, a big chunk of stone high above. The second was the first ocean at the bottom. Earth a big flat dish sitting on the ocean was the third. The next three creations were the prototypes of all life forms. The first plant, the first animal a bull and the first human Gayo-maretan (Kiomarth, in common name for males in modern Persian), both male and female. The seventh creation was fire and sun together.
The struggle between Good and Evil continues for 12,000 years. There are four periods, each 3,000 years long. At the last phase several saviors appear, and the last one Saoshyant will save the world. When he comes there is Resurrection, walking over the Chinvat bridge (Sarat bridge in the Qoran) and Last Judgement. We recognize this figure as the Lord of Time (Imam Zaman) in Shi’ite Islam.
In order to protect his creations, Ahura Mazda also created six holy immortals (Amesha Spenta), one for each of his creations in the material world. Khashtra (Sharivar), the protector of the sky, Asha-Vahishta (Ordibehesht in modern Persian) protected fire. Vahu Manah (Bahman) for all animals, Haurvatat (Khordad) protected all waters, Spenta Armaiti (Esphand) a female deity became protector of mother earth and Ameratat (Amurdad or Mordad) supported all plant life. Ahura Mazda himself became the protector of all humans and the Holy Fire.
There was one problem with this material world: it did not have a life cycle. The sun did not move. There were no days or nights and no seasons. The three prototypes of life were sacrificed. From the plant came the seeds of all plants. The bull produced all animals and from the human came the first male and female. The rest of humanity was created from their union. The cycle of life started. The sun moved, there was day, night and the seasons. This was the first Noruz.
The oldest archaeological record for Noruz celebration comes from the Achaemenian (Hakhamaneshi) period over 2,500 years ago. Achaemenians had four major residences one for each season. Persepolis was their spring residence and the site for celebrating the New Year. Stone carvings show the king seated on his throne receiving his subjects, governors and ambassadors from various nations under his control. They are presenting him with gifts and paying homage to him. We do not know much about the details of the rituals. We do know that mornings were spent praying and performing other religious rituals. Later on during the day the guests would be entertained with feasts and celebrations.
We also know that the ritual of sacred marriage took place at this palace. An ancient and common ritual in Mesopotamia, the king would spend the first night of the New Year with a young virgin. Any offspring produced from this union would be sent back to the temples and they would normally end up as high-ranking religious officials. There is no evidence that this was practiced in later periods.
What we have today as Noruz goes back to the Sassanid period. They formed the last great Persian empire before the advent of Islam. Their celebrations would start ten days prior to the New Year. They believed the guardian angels (forouhars or farvahars) and spirits of the dead would come down to earth within these ten days to visit humans. A major spring-cleaning was carried out to welcome them with feasts and celebrations. Bon fires would be set on rooftops at night to indicate to the spirits and the angels that humans were ready to receive them. This festival was called Suri.
Modern Iranians still carry out the spring-cleaning and celebrate Chahar-Shanbeh Suri (Wednesday Suri). Bon fires are made and all people will jump over the fire in the evening of the last Tuesday of the year. This is a purification rite and Iranians believe by going over the fire they will get rid of all illnesses and misfortunes. This festival did not exist before Islam in this form and very likely is a combination of more than one ritual.
The ancient Zoroastrians would also celebrate the first five days of Noruz, but it was the sixth day
that was the most important of all. This day was called the Great Noruz (Noruz-e bozorg) and is assumed to be the birthday of Zoroaster himself. Zoroastrians today still celebrate this day, but it has lost its significance for other Iranians. In the Sassanid period, the New Year would be celebrated for 21 days and on the 19th day there would be another major festival. At all times there were feasts, prayers, dance, plays and jokers. Haji Firouz might be what is left of the ancient festivities. Men color their face black, dress in colorful outfits and appear in public dancing and singing joyful and merry songs.
Modern Iranians celebrate the New Year for 13 days. It is customary for all to take a bath and cleanse themselves thoroughly before Noruz. This is a purification rite but has lost its meaning in modern times. New garments are worn to emphasize freshness. This is very important since Noruz is a feast of hope and renewal. Families stay home and wait for the start of the New Year which starts at the exact time of the spring equinox— called Sal Tahvil — between the 19th and 21st of March. The first few minutes are spent around an elaborately prepared spread known as the Haft Seen (originally called Haft Cheen) with several items and objects that beging with the letter “S”. More religious people will read or recite verses from the Qoran, before the start of the New Year.
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