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Nowruz: An Ancient Festival Which We Should Know About

HaftseenSome people say that it’s the 5774th time that Iranians across the world are celebrating the ancient Persian New Year festival, Nowruz. However, some history experts believe that Nowruz has been enshrined and observed for more than 15,000 years, even before the official establishment of the Persian Empire. Like Christmas, Nowruz is a pleasurable, elaborate and delicate festival which brings millions of people together, but it seems that there are certain elements in Nowruz which make it a distinctive, matchless and everlasting tradition, and one of these important elements is its historicity.

Cyrus the Great, the first king of the Persian Empire, came to throne in 550 BC, but since almost 2000 years before him when In-Su-Kush-Siranna was the ruler of the Kingdom of Aratta, Nowruz has been celebrated in the Greater Iran which was consisted of several provinces that currently constitute modern countries like Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan, Armenia, Pakistan, Iraq and parts of India and Turkey.

Nowruz is considered as the most important national holiday in Iran as it marks the beginning of a new solar year and the arrival of spring. According to the Persian calendar, Nowruz begins exactly on the moment when the center of the Sun is in the same plane as the Earth’s equator and the tilt of the Earth’s axis is inclined neither away from nor towards the Sun. That’s why Nowruz, which signifies the commencement of vernal equinox, starts on March 20 or 21 but a different time each year. The reason is that the moment the sun crosses the celestial equator and equalizes night and day is not the same every year, but the beauty and wonderfulness of Nowruz is that it starts on a unique moment each time and people excitedly and breathlessly wait for the announcement of what is known as the moment of the transition of the year. This moment is astronomically and mathematically calculated according to the Jalali solar calendar in a precise manner and officially inaugurates the New Year.

Unquestionably, Nowruz is one of the prominent and outstanding hallmarks of the Persian culture and Iranian civilization. It represents the glory and magnificence of ancient Iran and manifests a sense of national pride and dignity for all the Iranians around the world. In his long epic poem Shahnameh, the 10th century Iranian poet and philosopher Ferdowsi talks in detail about the origins and roots of Nowruz. He says that when the legendary, prehistoric Iranian king Jamshid Jam conquered the world and ascended to throne, he declared that day, which fortuitously coincided with the first day of spring, as Nowruz and the beginning of Iranian New Year. On that day, Iranians from across the country would come to visit Persepolis (the ancient capital of the Persian Empire) to hold festivals, celebrate Nowruz, receive rewards and gifts from the king, enjoy eating festive meals, dried nuts, fruits and sweetmeat, singing happy songs and performing plays.

Nowruz is important in that it comes exactly after the winter ends, and that is why Iranians believe Nowruz is a feast of rebirth and rejuvenation that injects fresh and warm blood into the veins of the frosty and frozen nature. Iran, which is famous for its climatic diversity and unique nature, becomes very beautiful and eye-catching in the spring, and especially during the 13 days of Nowruz festivals. Fragrant flowers and attractive plants grow in large quantities in northern, central and southern parts of Iran and the weather is predominantly mild and moderate in the majority of the cities all around the country.

Nowruz is celebrated from the Farvardin 1 to 13 (Farvardin is the first month of the solar calendar whose name is taken from the Zoroastrian word “Faravashis” meaning “the spirits of the dead.” Iranians believe that the spirits of their deceased beloved ones will return to the material world in the last 10 days of the year.) One of the common traditions of Nowruz that the Iranians are strongly committed to is paying visit to the elderly and meeting the other members of the family. In such meetings, the Iranian families entertain each other with delicious Iranian cuisines, spring fruits, dried nuts, candies, confections, deserts, rice-cakes, pastries and other cookies.

Setting the “Haft-Seen” table is also one of the customs of Nowruz which is seen as a quintessential and typical part of the New Year celebrations. Haft means “seven” in Persian, and “seen” stands for the sign of the 15th letter of Persian alphabet which sounds “s”. The Haft-Seen table is named so because there are seven items on this table whose name start with the Persian letter “seen”. Each of these seven items signifies a certain idea, concept and meaning. These items include “Senjed” that is the sweet, dry fruit of the lotus tree or “silver berry” and denotes love and affection, “Sumaq” or what the English call “sumac”, that is the crushed spices of berries and symbolizes sunrise and the warmth of life, “Seeb” or red apple that stands for health and beauty, “Seer” or “garlic” which indicates good health and wellbeing, “Samanu” which is a sweet paste made of wheat and sugar and represents fertility and the sweetness of life, “Sabzeh” or sprouted wheat grass which is a sign of renewal of life and rebirth of the nature and “Sonbol” or the purple hyacinth flower that represents prosperity and goodwill in the New Year. However, the majority of Iranian families put more than 7 items on their “Haft-Seen” table settings. The additional things are “Sekkeh” or coins which herald wealth and affluence, “Serkeh” or vinegar that symbolizes age, patience and the toleration of hardships and “Sangak” which is a plain whole wheat sour dough flatbread that characterizes blessing and good luck. Iranians also put colored eggs and a bowl of goldfish on their traditional Haft-Seen table and consider these two elements as signs of fertility, welfare and happiness.

Of the other elements placed on the beautiful Haft-Seen table is mirror. Mirror is a symbol of purity, reflection and honesty and the Iranians never forget putting a beautifully adorned and decorated mirror on their traditional table setting. They also put a copy of the Holy Quran on their Haft-Seen table which they believe will guard and protect their life in the coming year.

In an elaborate and well-researched article about Nowruz published on Iran Review website, the cultural researcher Firouzeh Mirrazavi writes, “The festival, according to some documents, was observed until the fifth of Farvardin, and then the special celebrations followed until the end of the month. Possibly, in the first five days, the festivities were of a public and national nature, while during the rest of the month it assumed a private and royal character.”

Since Nowruz was historically celebrated in Iran’s ceremonial capital Persepolis [Takht-e-Jamshid] in the southern city of Shiraz, every year thousands of Iranians travel to Shiraz to take part in the national celebrations of Nowruz. Even the foreign tourists who travel to Iran to take part in the celebrations prefer to visit Shiraz or Isfahan during the 13 days of Nowruz.

But why is Nowruz extended for 13 days? According to the ancient belief of the Iranians, 13 is an inauspicious and ominous number. In the 13th day of Farvardin, Iranian families gather in parks, gardens, farms and other green places, eat cuisines which contain certain local herbs, talk to each other in a friendly manner and throw their sprouted wheat grasses into rivers and waterways and believe that by leaving the “Sabzeh” in the rivers and canals, they throw away the bad luck and misfortune associated with the number 13 and the 13th day of the year and this way, they guarantee their New Year and prevent the hardships and calamities from spreading into their life. They think that the Sabzeh which is pitched in the rivers will take the bad luck with itself to an undisclosed and unknown destination.

In Nowruz, the senior members of the family such as the father, mother, elder sisters and brothers, uncles, aunts and grandparents pay the younger members certain amounts of cash as a gift for the New Year. This reward is called “Eidi” and is not usually spent during the whole year but saved and kept as a token of blessing and wellbeing.

With all of its beauties and splendor, Nowruz is now considered a global festival as it was officially recognized and registered on the UNESCO List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in February 2010. The same year, the UN General Assembly recognized March 21 as the International Day of Nowruz, describing it as a spring festival of Persian origin which has been celebrated for over thousands of years.

Nowruz is a relic of the past days, a remnant of the very first years when the human civilization took shape. It removes the religious, cultural, lingual and national boundaries and connects the hearts of millions of people who want to take part in a unique and unparalleled ceremony marking not only the beginning of New Year, but the end of the distressed winter and arrival of the delightful spring. It’s not simply a source of honor for Iranians who observe and celebrate it, but an opportunity for the congregation and solidarity of all the peace-loving and peace-making nations around the world.

Kourosh Ziabari is an Iranian freelance journalist and writer and a member of World Student Community for Sustainable Development.

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