From Tehran to Isfahan to Mashad to Shiraz, businesses, shops and government offices are getting ready to close as Iran sets out to celebrate the country’s New Year, called Nowruz.
Iranians are currently traveling all over the country to visit relatives or just to see the country’s picturesque scenery to mark the start of the celebration in a week’s time.
In Tehran alone, hundreds of thousands of people have been out and about in recent days as Nowruz shopping kicks off and the Bazaars shift into high gear.
So, as the UN Security Council members are working away to pressure Iran into accepting its demands over the country’s peaceful nuclear program, here Nowruz is coming and the spirit of celebration has infused the country.
NOWRUZ (IRANIAN NEW YEAR)
Nowruz, new day or New Year as the Iranians call it, is a celebration of the spring Equinox. It was celebrated by all the major cultures of ancient Mesopotamia. The Sumerians, (3000BC), Babylonians (2000 BC), the ancient kingdom of Elam in Southern Persia (also 2000BC) and the Akaddians all celebrated it in one form or another. What we know today as Now Ruz has been celebrated for at least 3000 years and is deeply rooted in the traditions of Zoroastrianism.
Zoroastrianism was the religion of Ancient Persia before the advent of Islam 1400 years ago. It is known as the mother religion in the area. The familiar concepts of Heaven, Hell, the Resurrection, the coming of the Messiah, the concept of the individual and final judgment were incorporated into the Zoroastrianism belief system. They still exist in Judo-Christian and Islamic traditions. In order to understand Nowruz we have to know a little about this religion.
Zoroastrians believed (and believe – there are some left) in two primal forces. According to their ancient text, Bundahishn, the foundation of creation, the Lord of Wisdom residing in the eternal light, was not God. He created all that was good and became God. The Hostile Spirit, Angra Mainyu (Ahriman), residing in the eternal darkness, created all that was bad and became the Hostile Spirit (The word anger in English comes from the same origin as the word angra).
Everything which produced, protected and enriched life was regarded as good. This included all the forces of nature beneficial to humans. The earth, water, sky, animals and plants were all good. Justice, honesty, peace, health, beauty, joy and happiness were regarded as belonging to the good forces. All which threatened life and created disorder belonged to the hostile spirits.
These two created worlds did not have a material form, but the essence of everything was present. The two existed side by side for three thousand years, but were completely separate from each other. At the end of the third millennium the Hostile Spirit saw light, wanted it and attacked the good world. This was the beginning of all the troubles we face now.
The Lord of Wisdom in order to protect his world created the material world and called it “Gaiety”.
The material world was created in seven stages. The first stage was the creation of the sky, which was a big chunk of stone on high. The second creation was the first ocean, below the sky. Earth, a big flat dish sitting on the ocean, was the third. The next three creations were the prototypes of all life forms. Plant, followed by the first animal (a bull) and the first human Gayo-maretan (Kiomarth), who was both male and female. The seventh was fire and sun created together.
The struggle between light and dark is to continue for 12000 years, with four periods lasting 3000 years each. During the last phase, several saviors will come, and the last one, Saoshyant, will save the world. When he comes there is resurrection, walking over the Chinvat Bridge (Sarat Bridge in the Quran) and last judgment.
We recognize this figure as Imam Zaman in Shia Islam.
In order to protect his creation the Lord of Wisdom also created six holy immortals or Amesha Spenta, one for each creation. Khashtra (Shahrivar) protected the sky and Asha-Vahishta (Ordibehesht) protected fire. Vahu Manah (Bahman) was the protector of all animals, Haurvatat (Khordad) protected all the water, Spenta Armaiti (Esphand) was a female deity who protected mother earth and Ameratat (Amurdad) 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. So the three prototypes of life were allowed to evolve. 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 began. The sun moved and there was day, night and the seasons. This is known as the first Nowruz.
The Lord of Wisdom also created guardian angels (forouhars) for all living beings. Every human has one as long as they stay with the good forces. This is explained in the myth of Azydahak in the Zoroastrians’ holy book Avesta. Azydahak is known as Zahak in modern Persian.
A Prince, he chose the Hostile Spirit as his protector. He was made a king, ruled for 999 years and became immortal.
Zoroaster (Zardosht), the architect of this belief system, introduced many feasts, festivals and rituals to pay homage to the creations and the holy immortals. There are seven important celebrations. They are known as Gahambars or feasts of obligation. The last, and most elaborate, was Nowruz, celebrating the Lord of Wisdom and the holy fire at the time of spring equinox.
The oldest archaeological record we have for the Nowruz celebration comes from the Achaemenian (Hakhamaneshi) period over 2500 years ago. They created the first major empire in the region and built the world famous Persepolis complex (Takhte Jamshid) in central Iran. This magnificent palace was destroyed by Alexander the Great in 334 BC.
The Achaemenians had four major centers, 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, as well as governors and ambassadors from the various nations under his control. They are depicted presenting gifts and paying homage to him. We do not know too much about the detail of the rituals, but we do know the mornings were spent praying and performing other religious rituals. Later on in the day guests would be entertained with feasts and celebrations.
We also know 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 woman. Any offspring produced from this union would be sent back to the temples and would normally end up as a high-ranking religious official. There is no evidence that this was practiced later on and was part of the New Year rituals.
What is known today as Nowruz goes back to the Sassanid period. This was the last great Persian Empire before the advent of Islam 1400 years ago. Their celebrations would start five days prior to the New Year. They believed the guardian angels (Fourohars) would come down to earth during these five days to visit their human counterparts. A major spring-cleaning was carried out in preparation for welcoming them with feasts and celebrations. Bonfires would be lit on rooftops at night to indicate to the guardian angels the humans were ready to receive them. This was called the Suri Festival.
Modern Iranians still carry out spring-cleaning and celebrate on the Wednesday of Suri.
Bonfires are still built and everyone jumps over them on the last Tuesday of the year. This is a purification rite and participants believe by passing over the fire they will get rid of all their illnesses and misfortunes. Wednesday Suri did not exist before Islam and is very likely to be a combination of several different rituals.
The ancient Zoroastrians would also celebrate the first five days of Nowruz, but it was the sixth day that was the most important of all. It was called Great Nowruz (Nowruz-e bozorg) and is assumed to be the birthday of Zoroaster himself. Zoroastrians still celebrate this day, but it has lost its significance for the rest of the country. In the Sassanid period the New Year would be celebrated for 21 days, with another major festival held on the 19th day.
Modern Iranians celebrate New Year for 13 days only. The first few days are spent visiting older members of the immediate family, other relatives and friends. Gifts are exchanged; sweets and feasts consumed. On the last day, the 13th of the first month, everyone leaves their homes to go to parks or out into the countryside to spend a day with nature. Again it was not celebrated in this manner historically and might be several rituals combined into one. A major part of the New Year rituals is setting a special table with seven specific items present, Haft Sin (Haft chin, seven crops before Islam). In ancient times each of the items corresponded to one of the seven creations and the seven holy immortals protecting them.
Today it is slightly different but some items have kept their symbolism. All seven items start with the letter ‘S’; this was not the same in ancient times. Wheat or barley representing new growth is still present. Fish, the most easily obtainable animal, and water are present. Lit candles are a symbol of fire. Mirrors are used today, but the reason is not known. These were expensive items in ancient times and were made from polished metal. It is unlikely all households would have had one. Zoroastrians today place the lit candle in front of the mirror. Wine was always present. Today it is replaced by vinegar since alcohol is banned in Islam.
Eggs, a universal symbol of fertility corresponding to the mother earth, are still present. Garlic is used to warn off bad omens. This is a modern introduction. There is no evidence that it was used in this context before. Ancient Iranians did grow seven different herbs for the New Year, and garlic might have been one of those. Samano, a thick brownish paste, is present today. It is a nutritious meal and could have been part of the feasts. It is also possible it has replaced Haoma.
Haoma is a scared herbal mix known for its healing properties. It was a major cult on its own with many rituals and ceremonies. It is still performed by the Zoroastrians today, but not by the rest of Iranians. Coins symbolizing wealth and prosperity, fruits and special meals are present as well.
Why has this festival survived? There have been major attempts by the Muslim rulers over the centuries to minimize it, ban it or get rid of it once and for all. The reasons for their failure should be looked for in the spirit of this festival. Contrary to the Islamic traditions where death and martyrdom mark all the major rituals, Nowruz is a celebration of life.
In ancient times people were dominated by forces of nature beyond their control. So they formed a union with these forces in order to protect themselves. Through this union they created a balance and maintained the cosmic order Asha. Without it there would be chaos, the world of the Hostile Spirit (Ahriman). The Zoroastrians were, and are, required to have the same mind, the same voice and act the same way as their god the Lord of Wisdom.
They are expected to only think good thoughts, speak good words and do good deeds. More than a thousand years ago, Iran’s most celebrated poet Ferdousi translated Avestan mythology (virtually single handedly) into modern Persian. As a Zoroastrian, he was persecuted all his life because of his religion. He starts his book in the name of the Lord of Life and Wisdom. The Lord of Life and Wisdom was Ahura Mazda’s title in the Avestan texts of the Sassanid period.
Lord or not, life and wisdom are what makes us humans. We are the only beings who are aware we have a life and what we do with our lives depends on this wisdom. At the beginning of a new millennium, with the mess this planet is in we need such wisdom more than ever. Creating a balance with nature and maintaining order are very relevant. These are the lessons we can learn from such a wonderful and ancient tradition. Joy and happiness were regarded as major forces for defeating the hostile spirits. This is why Iranians are still celebrating this occasion after 3000 years.
Numerous New Year traditions are performed by the people of Persia. These rituals are performed with the same devotion and enthusiasm today as thousands of years ago.
People start cleaning their homes many days before the New Year. This tradition is called “shaking your house”. People buy new domestic goods and new clothes for this time.
It is traditional for Iranians to meet relatives and older family members from the first day until the 12th day of New Year. Gifts and other precious items are given and received. It is considered very important to resolve personal disputes, otherwise it is believed to bring bad luck. Children pay homage to their elders and receive Eidi which is money given to them as a New Year’s gift.
Another tradition is the planting of wheat or lentil seeds, used to make Sabzeh which are considered highly auspicious. People perform these rituals with sincerity and devotion. It is supposed to symbolize rebirth.
A popular tradition is placing something sweet outside the home, on the night before the New Year. The next morning, the first person who comes into the house brings in the sweets. It is supposed to bring a good year.
The herald – Hajji Firuz
The traditional messenger of Nowruz is called Hajji Piruz or Hajji Firuz. He brings good news for the people. He is related to the rebirth of the Sumerian God of Sacrifice, Domuzi, who was killed at the end of the year and is supposed to be reborn at the beginning of the New Year. Hajji Piruz sings and dances through the streets wearing dark make-up and red clothes.
On the first day of Nowruz, all family members sit around a table and pray for each others’ good health and prosperity. Then they hug and kiss each other. A special meal is eaten. It includes sabzi polo (rice with fresh herbs), fish and kuku sabzi (herb quiche).
The 13th day of the New Year is called Sizdeh Bedar. On this day, nobody stays indoors as it is considered unlucky. People throw the sabzeh (which has been grown at home) in running water to remove all the bad luck from their home. At the end of the day, people eat a special noodle soup. It is also customary for unmarried young ladies to tie the leaves of the sabzeh to make sure they are wed before next year’s festival.
After performing the rituals, it’s time for the people to really celebrate by going to huge parties and balls. Many host New Year parties to spend time with their nearest and dearest.
Original article here