The Deep Roots of Nowruz


March 19, 2024

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How a Zoroastrian celebration of the Persian New Year grew into a broad symbol of cultural resilience and political resistance


Children dance at a Nowruz celebration in Lafayette, Colorado

Maggie Phillips | Tablet

Mark Leffingwell/Digital First Media/Boulder Daily Camera via Getty Images

Tablet talks about Judaism a lot, but sometimes we like to change the subject. Maggie Phillips covers religious communities across the U.S.—from Christians to Muslims, Hindus to Baha’i, Jehovah’s Witnesses to pagans—to find out what they’re talking about.

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On March 19 at exactly 11:06 p.m., spring will begin. Along with over 300 million people around the world, Iranian Americans will count down to this precise moment, which marks the start of Nowruz, the Persian New Year. Thirteen days of visiting friends and exchanging gifts will commence to celebrate the vernal equinox, when the Earth is exactly halfway around the sun. Celebrants will set a table with seven items, in accordance with tradition. While every family’s table, called a haft seen, is different, the unifying theme is words beginning with the letter “S,” or seen in the Persian alphabet—a sweet pudding, garlic, a piece of fruit, sumac, olives, and vinegar. The seventh item, sabzeh, or lentil sprouts, are taken on the final day of Nowruz to the nearest running body of water. Young and old alike commend them to the stream with wishes for the year to come.

“Nowruz is like Christmas,” said Mitra Marvasti-Sitterly, who shared her Connecticut-based family’s Nowruz traditions with me in a phone interview. She explained that like Christmas, it has religious roots, but it is widely celebrated as a secular cultural holiday. For example, during Nowruz, a book of wisdom is also placed on the haft seen alongside the food. Sometimes it is a religious book—a Quran or even a Torah, for Persian Jews who also celebrate Nowruz—but not always. For Marvasti-Sitterly’s nonreligious family, it will be a book of poetry by the revered Persian poet Hafez.

More than a year into a sustained protest movement against Ayatollah Khamenei’s regime, Iran is once again making headlines as Iranian-backed militias target U.S. military assets. This year in particular, Nowruz serves as a powerful emblem of the ancient cultural history that both inspires Persian Americans (“Persian” and “Iranian” may be used interchangeably), and links them to the resistance movement in their country of origin.

Although prevalent throughout the Islamic world, and especially closely associated with Iran, Nowruz is not a Muslim holiday. It likely began as a pagan observance, commemorating the mythical Persian King Jamshid, a sort of Persian Prometheus who was said to have ascended to heaven on a brilliant, bejeweled throne. But Nowruz also has origins in the contemporary religious faith of Zoroastrianism, a pre-Islamic Persian faith that now constitutes a minority within its native Iran, having maybe only 125,000 adherents worldwide, according to some estimates.

Zoroastrianism’s founder, Zarathustra (Zoroaster in Greek), lived roughly half a millennium before the first Persian Empire of the sixth through fourth century BCE. According to Zoroastrian belief, he had been a priest in the old polytheistic religion, whose deities bore close similarities to those found in the Rig Veda. He introduced a monotheistic faith after a purported vision at around age 30, which revealed to him a single deity, Ahura Mazda, or “the wise lord.” Zarathustra advocated for radical religious reforms, which focused on an egalitarian concept of humanity, in which a final, divine judgment flattened distinctions between all people. According to legend, Zoroastrianism gained prevalence in Persia after it was adopted by the reigning monarch of Zarathustra’s time.

Its cosmology was not dualistic—spiritual and physical were not separate distinct spheres, but inextricably linked. The six aspects of Ahura Mazda’s divine nature each had a corresponding physical representation. Good governance, for example, became associated with the sky. The earth, representative of piety, was looked over by the sky. Water, a manifestation of purity, was associated with vegetation, which was associated with immortality. Beneficent animals represented the well-tended mind, and man was the physical manifestation of Ahura Mazda’s own spirit. Truth, the paramount value of Zoroastrianism, was represented by fire. Fire became Zoroastrianism’s key symbol; their houses of worship are called fire temples. In opposition to the one god was a demon, called only “The Lie” by Zarathustra. The Lie was a negation of Ahura Mazda’s absolute goodness, which sought to counteract the Truth he embodied.

It was religion as an ethical framework headed toward a decisive endpoint. This eschatology required humankind to choose between good and evil, and the eternal consequences of either reward or punishment after death. We are so used to this understanding of religion today that it is almost taken for granted. This schema was almost wholly unprecedented at the time, though. And many scholars argue that Zoroastrianism influenced not only ancient Greek philosophy, but Jewish, Christian, and Islamic theology.

Twitter (also known as X) had some fun last month, when results from a 2020 Dutch study on religious attitudes in Iran made the rounds. The chart showed Zoroastrianism nearly tying with atheism in the country (both around 8%). “ZORASTRIAN REVIVAL TIME!!!” economist Noah Smith tweeted. Others shared the chart, fantasizing about the romance of a reemergent Persian Empire.

Zoroastrianism did in fact dominate through a few Persian imperial dynasties. Indeed, the famed site of Persepolis, built under the Achaemenid Empire (the empire of Cyrus the Great, Darius, and Xerxes of Persian War fame), is believed to have been built particularly for the celebration of Nowruz. Persia became Muslim after the Arab conquest in the mid-seventh century CE, and Iranians have been predominantly Shia Muslim since Persia was invaded by the Safavid dynasty in the 16th century. While there are various shades of nuance even within the Sunni-Shia divide, the two sects’ primary difference stems from a disagreement over which descendants of the Prophet Muhammad represented an authentic continuity of Islamic leadership.

In the 2020 Dutch survey, barely one-third of respondents described themselves as Shia. It was conducted by an independent nonprofit research outfit, the Group for Analyzing and Measuring Attitudes in Iran (GAMAAN). Their methodology has some admitted difficulties. The Iranian government’s authoritarian nature means that their subjects are recruited online, through social media and existing social networks, and they self-report their own demographic information. GAMAAN contends that by exploiting the widespread use of VPN technology in Iran and the strategic use of “seeds” (recruits chosen to recruit more samples), they have been able to obtain genuine, representative samples. They weight their survey results against those on noncontroversial topics like income and education status, as well as results from their own previous surveys. Accordingly, GAMAAN maintain that they have been able to obtain usable, representative samples. If nothing else, the results of their surveys on Iranian social attitudes, conducted again in 2022 and 2023, consistently show a plurality of Iranians self-identifying as Shia. This result forms a stark contrast to phone and in-person surveys of Iranian religious attitudes, which tend to show nearly 100% of respondents identifying as Muslim.


The ‘haft seen,’ or traditional table setting for Nowruz, is set up in the home of a family in Irvine, California. The table includes seven items all starting with the letter ‘S,’ or ‘seen’ in the Persian alphabet.

Leonard Ortiz/Digital First Media/Orange County Register via Getty Image

The 2022 and 2023 GAMAAN surveys indicated smaller numbers of Iranians identifying as Zoroastrian than the nearly 8% in 2020. But that initial response inspired GAMAAN researchers to coin the term “Survey Zoroastrianism,” or a symbolic self-expression of resistance. “To self-identify as Zoroastrian is to say one is not who the state wants one to be,” they wrote in an article on the phenomenon.

Various examples from recent years, both inside and outside of Iran, suggest the enduring symbolic power of the country’s pre-Islamic past for Persians. The first took place in October 2016, when thousands of Iranians protested the fundamentalist Islamic government at the tomb of Cyrus the Great on “Cyrus the Great Day,” the anniversary of his death. Subsequently, the Iranian government began taking steps around the unofficial holiday to keep crowds away from the site. In January of last year, anti-hijab protesters appropriated Sadeh, a Zoroastrian festival marking the 50 days until Nowruz, to signal their cause. Bonfires had always been a hallmark of the holiday, given fire’s centrality to Zoroastrian beliefs. But during last year’s Sadeh celebrations, they became a symbol of anti-regime resistance.

This past October, right around Cyrus the Great Day, the son of the overthrown shah of Iran was present at the unveiling of a statue of Cyrus the Great in Atlanta. The statue celebrates Cyrus’ role as the first propagator of a declaration of human rights, an idea first put forward by the shah himself in 1968. Some scholars dispute the anachronism of projecting disinterested humanism onto an edict, attributed to Cyrus, which appears on the so-called “Cyrus Cylinder.” It is true, however, that the cuneiform writing on the sixth-century BCE cylinder, which proclaims Cyrus’ philosophy of imperial statecraft, includes a commitment to rebuild other faiths’ shrines and temples (which would include, famously, the one in Jerusalem). Historians debate whether Cyrus was Zoroastrian, and the cylinder’s writings contain no references to Ahura Mazda. However, his edict has been claimed by Zoroastrians as “a record of Cyrus’s adherence to the Zoroastrian creed of ‘good thought, good works, and good deeds.’”

Zoroastrianism is still practiced as a religious faith, both in Iran and elsewhere. But its power as a pre-Islamic, pre-Arab symbol began in the 19th century by Persian nationalists living outside of Iran. A 2023 GAMAAN article explaining “Survey Zoroastrianism” describes this movement as one of “dislocative nationalism.” It was “a politics of nostalgia,” providing “a vision of the future” by taking Persian peoplehood out of its geographic and temporal situation as just one Muslim country among many. Glorifying Persia’s Zoroastrian past imbued it with a spiritual exceptionalism and sense of destiny.

This year, in particular, Nowruz serves as a powerful emblem of the ancient cultural history that both inspires Persian Americans, and links them to the resistance movement in their country of origin.

This sense of Zorastrianism as a Persian national identifier is not merely internal. It has been adopted as a slur in the wider Sunni Arab world, where majus (or magi, a historical name for Zoroastrianism) implies Shiism is not authentic Islam.

Dislocative nationalism was not born from a particularly informed or religiously sincere consideration of Zoroastrianism, however. At times, it has served different purposes, appropriated to support either anti-Sunni or simply anti-Islamic causes. Iranian intellectuals were reviving Zoroastrian motifs at roughly the same time that European countries were developing romantic senses of nationhood and peoplehood for themselves, as well. The revival was, per the GAMAAN article, “a product of learned literary pseudohistorical imagination.” The interest in Zoroastrianism as a stand-in for a great Persian past persisted up until 1971, when the shah of Iran threw himself a huge party at Persepolis to commemorate two-and-a-half millennia of monarchy. There was no accompanying mass conversion to Zoroastrianism, but certain practices survived after the 1979 revolution: prayers taking place around a sacred fire, wedding ceremonies referring to God in pre-Islamic terms, and even in the diaspora, and decorating homes with the Zoroastrian motto “good thoughts, good words, good deeds.” People also still wear Faravahar necklaces, depicting a winged figure, and various symbolic elements representing the “thoughts, words, deeds” ethos; the ad copy for this Faravahar necklace says it is “one of the best-known symbols of ancient Persia and is often associated with Zoroastrianism,” noting that it “has become a secular national symbol, rather than a religious symbol.”

“Within the community, there is a clear understanding (and sometimes jokes) that one gift or a benefit of the Islamic Republic is that it has rid Iranians (generally those not part of religious minorities) of an inclination for or toward religion,” said Shannon Kuehn of the Public Affairs Alliance of Iranian Americans, a nonprofit Persian interest group. “You see this in the turn to reading poetry, references to the Shahnameh [the epic historic poem of Persian history] in protests and in everyday life, the wearing of the Faravahar as jewelry as well as getting tattoos of it, among other things. While the Faravahar has Zoroastrian roots, like Nowruz, it, too, has become cultural and secular in nature. It is often used to signify Iran’s former glory, pre-revolution, and this usage has become even more palpable since the ‘Woman, Life, Freedom’ [the anti-hijab protests] movement began.”

Indeed, GAMAAN observes that the self-identified Zoroastrians in its 2023 survey behaved a lot like the self-professed “nones.” They didn’t engage in formal religious practices or beliefs, and shared their disagreement with Iran’s compulsory hijab policy. The GAMAAN researchers liken these survey Zoroastrians to the over half-million survey respondents in the Anglophone world who described their religion as “Jedi” in a 2001 census. The respondents likely had little awareness that there are in fact networks of people who adhere to an ethical code derived from the Jedi knights in Star Wars. Rather, they were interested in registering their answers as a form of “soft protest“ against organized religion.

Although Marvasti-Sitterly assured me that her dad is still “very much in the picture” as a “background gopher and sous chef,” when she spoke of Nowruz, she spoke mostly of female relatives, of her mother and grandmother. Her mother left Iran when she was 14, with Marvasti-Sitterly’s grandmother. For her mother, Marvasti-Sitterly said, the holiday is linked with memories of her childhood in Iran. Although she remembers her mother being sad some years, Marvasti-Sitterly said, above all, she has seen Nowruz as an opportunity to share her culture with her daughter. And for Marvasti-Sitterly, it has been an opportunity to celebrate and share her culture with others, by inviting them to family celebrations.

“If you’re writing about the diaspora,” said GAMAAN researcher Pooyan Tamaan Arab in an email to Tablet, “it is connected to what is happening inside the country, especially in the past years that the Persian public sphere became increasingly transnational due to increased Internet penetration and other factors such as higher literacy (also in English).”

Marvasti-Sitterly describes her connection to the women’s rights protests in Iran as “absolutely massive,” a feeling closer akin to pride: “The fact that it’s woman-driven is an even more unbelievable thing. I just think it shows the strength of a Persian woman.”

She said she sees younger generations like hers continuing Nowruz traditions in “some shape or form.” Kuehn also said that there are some differences between the way younger and older generations observe (flashier additions like fireworks and lighting are a recent addition, she said). In Iran, young people are not simply custodians of tradition. They have also been leading the charge in opposing Iran’s theocratic regime. Whether it’s boycotting a recent election (resulting in record-low turnout), burning hijabs, or “turban-tossing“ the headwear of Shia clerics, youth have been at the forefront.

Harking back to pre-Islamic, Zoroastrian traditions is one form of popular symbolic protest. But recently, responses to the repressive theocracy that has governed since 1979 have yielded alignments that may surprise outside observers. News reports have described non-Christian Iranians increasingly celebrating Christmas on the date observed by Western Christians (not the Jan. 6 date observed by the Orthodox Christian minority who live in Iran). Just this past Dec. 25, young Iranians thronged to a Christian church in the city of Ifsahar to celebrate (the Armenian Orthodox Church was closed). And in October, just days after the Hamas attacks on Israeli civilians on Oct. 7, 2023, soccer fans in Tehran chanted their objection to the display of Palestinian flags in the stadium. Among the Iranian diaspora in the United States, sympathy for Hamas tends to be limited, and some members even openly support Israel (Iran’s exiled crown princess, Yasmine Pahlavi, attended the pro-Israel march in Washington, D.C., last November).

Iran’s Jewish population goes back to the Babylonian exile, and today’s Iran is the historical backdrop for the events commemorated in the spring holiday of Purim. Indeed, the overlap between Jewish spring holidays and Nowruz meant that preparations for the spring holiday could often blend with those for Passover for Jews in Iran. Persian Jews began moving to the Holy Land in the 19th century in response to waves of persecution at home. But at the time of Israel’s founding, the shah of Iran was supportive: He recognized the Jewish state in 1950 and, pre-revolution, Israel was a popular destination for Iranian intellectuals. Today, estimates of the Jewish population in Iran are around 8,000, or just under 10% of what it was before the revolution.

Most Zoroastrians have left Iran, too. Today, most can be found in India, where they are known as Parsis. The Parsi community celebrates Nowruz twice annually: once in March, with the rest of the Persian diaspora, and again around August, when it falls according to the Zoroastrian religious calendar. Zoroastrian celebrations look much the same as those who celebrate it as a cultural holiday, with new clothes, rigorous housecleaning, and private celebrations with friends and family. But they will also include a visit to the Zoroastrian house of worship, the Fire Temple, to pray. North America is also home to a significant number of Zoroastrians. Today, around 30,000 Zoroastrians live in the U.S., where they worry about the future of their “microscopically small“ faith.

Population estimates for all people of Iranian descent in the U.S. number around half a million. They are concentrated in a few areas: California, the New York metro area, and in and around Washington, D.C. But Marvasti-Sitterly described her experience in Connecticut as quite different from the flashy West Coast Persian American experience depicted on Shahs of Sunset, the long-running reality TV show. Unlike the idle rich kids, real estate agents, and nightclub owners the show depicts, her milieu was engineers, academics, and doctors. “The Iranian community [in the Northeast] is very different than the one that’s in Los Angeles,” she said, “because there’s such a larger population. You can definitely find a community here, but I think it’s a community that’s been built on like a couple of families that are out here, and then like just somehow found friends in the process of it.” It’s a process that may be repeating itself elsewhere in the U.S. today. Younger, more recent waves of first-generation Iranians are increasingly heading to the South and Midwest.

“We all hope for peace and the end to suffering in Iran (and elsewhere),” Kuehn said in her email. “In jumping over the fire during Chaharshanbe Suri, a festival that takes place at the beginning of Nowruz, the person says something akin to ‘zardi-ye man az toh, sorkhi-ye toh az man,’ which means ‘take away my yellow, give me your red.’ It basically means, ‘take away my weakness and give me your strength.’”

Then, echoing Marvasti-Sitterly, she said the release of sprouts into flowing water on Nowruz’s last day represents a form of purification. “This symbolizes new beginnings, with the hope that the act will cleanse the negative energy from our lives and the new year will bring goodness and light.”

Nowruz is a holiday that has survived for millennia, through multiple regime changes. It has taken on different meanings at different times. Today, for Iranians and those of Iranian descent around the world, it symbolizes resilience.

“I think the culture is just very strong,” said Marvasti-Sitterly, “and it’s just trying to come back in the best way possible in a new way. As it always does.”

This story is part of a series Tablet is publishing to promote religious literacy across different religious communities, supported by a grant from the Arthur Vining Davis Foundations.