The flower buds of yellow, violet, red and white crocuses of the saffron bulbs, interspersed with the blossoming daffodils, hyacinths, tulips and the Persian violets, herald the arrival of Nowruz in Iran and the broader neighboring region. The Persian New Year, signaling the rebirth, rejuvenation and reconciliations, aptly arrives at the spring vernal equinox. Spring in Iran and the wider region is the harbinger of harmonious jubilation for the earth and the sun, with pristine streams percolating down the snowcapped mountains, the greening of the prairies and the pastures, the flowering of fruit trees and the herbs, and the luscious green seedling and germinating of staple crops. Hence, it is surmised that the Nowruz celebration must have been observed at one level or the other since the inception of agriculture and domestication of animals, as far back as 10,000 years ago. Nowruz has not only been revered on the Iranian Plateau stretching between the Caspian Sea and the Persian Gulf, and Indus to Tigris Rivers, but also in Mesopotamia, the Caucasus, and central and west Asia. Nowruz is prominently praised in the mythological story of King Jamshid, credited as the first Nowruz celebrant of the Kiyanian Dynasty, & as cited in (Paradiso) Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh.
Nowruz (جشن نوروز) aka Norooz, Navroz, NowRooz, etc. (variation in dialectic and vernacular pronunciations) in Persian lingua franca literally translates as the first day [of the New Year]. It is the most prominent seasonal celebration of the solar calendar that has persisted since prehistoric era. It was conceived by the agricultural people just north of the Tropic of Cancer who have since revered the sun (Sol Invictus), fire, light and enlightenment ever since. Nowruz is preceded by Purim, the Jewish celebration of bounties as in the Torah that also began in Iran when Queen Esther married the Persian King Ahasuerus. This contrasts with lunar calendars as followed by the southern and western neighbors to Iran, who used the lunar skies and traversed through the arid hot deserts at nights. In addition to Iran, Nowruz as a national holiday transcending class, color, creed, ethnicity, race, religion, or national origin, is currently commemorated by well over a dozen countries of nearly five hundred million inhabitants in central, south and west Asia, northwestern China, Asia Minor, and the Caucasus.
In fact, the commoners and serfs in Europe and later the pilgrims landing on Plymouth Rock in the US in today’s Massachusetts also observed a New Year beginning at the beginning of spring until the mid-18th century. This jubilee holiday was acknowledged in the Gregorian calendar as well; the month of March coincides with the first month of the Julian calendar when Europe was still under the influence of Persian Mithraism from the 1st through the 5th centuries CE. Nowruz, according to the Zoroastrian Mazdayasni calendar is at 3758. Nowruz commences with the prelude festival of Chaharshanbe Suri on the last Tuesday night of the exiting year. At this Zoroastrian fire ritual, everyone jumps over fire, singing a Middle Persian poem that translates as…
“O’ sacred Fire, take away my yellow sickness and give me in return your healthy red color!”
The Haft-Seen spread at the annual Nowruz gathering in Mahwah, New Jersey hosted by Mehrangiz and Isfandiar Sayadi.
The most symbolic manifestation showcased at Nowruz is the sofreh haft-seen. Adorned on a table covered with an antique hand-woven termeh silk cloth are laid the seven plant-derived items whose Persian names begin with the letter “S”: sabzeh- wheat and lentil germinations symbolizing rebirth; senjed– the dried oleaster fruit and a close family meber to olives symbolizing love; seer-garlic symbolizing medicine; seeb-apples symbolizing beauty and earth; somaqh-sumac berries symbolizing sunrise; samanu– cooked germinated wheat for affluence, and serkeh-vinegar symbolizing ripeness, longevity, and perseverance. A round, ticking classical clock, signifying the passage of time, a fishbowl with two gold fish (added later, due to influences from China) signifying companionship and life, decorated eggs for fertility which found their ways into Easter, and a saucer of coins from the five continents to reflect prosperity are also on display. The haft-seen table is completed with daffodils, tulips and hyacinths, a triple flag of Iran’s colors green, white, and red, flickering candelabra, and an ancient book of poems, Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh the Persian epic book of the Kings, Rumi’s Mathnawi, Divan Hafez, or the Omar Khayyam’s Quatrains from which the poem The Persian Nightingale Bemoans is well known in the west.
In the U.S., presidents release annual Nowruz best wishes message and in recent years an all-day extravagant Nowruz celebration that concludes with Persian music and dance, and exquisite Persian food has been hosted at the White House (Obama, Bush and Clinton era). The UN has for some time declared the International Day of Nowruz, and celebrated it at its headquarters with a large festival and Persian foods and pastries. Spring vernal equinox 2018 was also rightly declared as the International Forest Day which we trust it will continue!
The celebration of Nowruz that was instituted by the 25,000 Iranians residing abroad back in 1979 is now commemorated by to 8 million Iranians in diaspora, whereby in every major city as in New York, there are hundreds of Nowruz congregations, each with up to over a 1000 guests, to choose from. Among the several congregations we have attended each year for decades, the grand one with 600 guests and organized and hosted by Mehrangiz and Isfandiar Sayadi in northern New Jersey with its most exquisitely expansive sofreh haft-seen and highly inclusive dance and music has remained our most favorite! It is serendipitously fortuitous that their noble Persian names means the one who pushes the last old month of the year behind, while she heralds the reverence of the loving sun forward! The nostalgic music and dance from every corner of Iran and south/west Asia including Armenian, Jewish, Tajiki, Afghani and of course American will abate any preference for the best Persian foods and pastries for the night at every Nowruz event!
Legend has it that once upon a past juncture, ZaHawk , a mythological, tyrannical, unjust, and cruel predator, ruled over Persia. Filling an ambivalent hiatus with his absolute power, he crowned himself on the Persian peacock throne as if he was immortal. He reigned with iron fist and tyranny, and coupled with hegemony and heavy taxations over the vast Persian Empire to the fatal detriment of most serf commoners. His ever expansive territory stretched from the Indus and the Oxus Rivers of the Orient, to the Nile Tigris and the Euphrates Rivers of the Occident. ZaHawk was horrified of vengeance wraths by the masses he had oppressed; consequently, he had chronic insomnia as he feared the populace would at any moment turn up against him and bring about his utter demise. In the meantime while self-sequestered, he was barely alive in a pitch black, damped and pungently odorous cavern on Mt. Damavand a volcanically semi extinct peak, so long as his lackeys fed the fresh flesh kill of a bright and beautiful young newly married couple each day to two the ugly serpent beasts rising out of ZaHawk’s shoulders. ZaHawk knew though that the two serpents could devour him in a lightning annihilation moment, before a midnight if they were not in time fed with the two newly wed before one of these sunsets.
In fact, it was a whispered knowledge amongst the masses, serfs and slaves, that while they took refuge with Spenta Mainyu, the good spirit emissary from Ahura Mazda who was the Lord of light and wisdom and his sol invictus Mithra, that ZaHawk was directed by the impure fire and filth spitting dragon Ezhdeha drawn from Angra Mainyu aka Ahriman, who lived deep in the volcanic shaft. It was Ezhdeha that had grafted the two serpents into ZaHawk’s calves so he could outpour misery, famine, disease, pain and suffering to people and mother earth.
As injustice is not to remain in place forever however, Kaveh the Ironsmith, gravely irate for the well-beings of his compatriots, hung his toughened leather apron the Derafsh Kaviani, over a javelin and marshalled forward the disgruntled after silhouette dawn of Yalda on the rebirth of the sun. His bravest diehards followed him shoulders to shoulders as a Si-Morgh (metaphorically speaking 30 birds forming one unified body at a time) up the treacherous Mountain. There, Kaveh did behead the three culprits on one body in the cave with his mighty sword strike, thus eradicating injustice and reinstated equality and happiness on mother earth. Kaveh had in reality reincarnated what his ancestors Cyrus and Darius of the Achaemenes, when they had also eradicated injustice and inequality, and reinstated love, equality, inclusivity, harmony, tranquility, and peace on earth. And so, de ja vu all over again, with Phoenix once again rising out of ashes of oblivion, the much anticipated and ever brightened and warmer SUN reemerged out of the dark chilling clouds and proudly shone as the most enlightened beacon of hope and happiness on the hill. And along with it the soil was purified and poured down into the valley and the prairie and the fresh air thinned out all around.
Ecstatically exhilarated by the short period of happiness, most had not realized that Ezhdeha, the dragon father of all miseries and the creator of now the obliterated ZaHawk, was still alive deep into the vertical volcanic shaft of Mt. Damavand. The nocturnal dragon would unexpectedly appear in his chosen communities to instigate catastrophe by kissing the two shoulders of a replacement beast for ZaHawk so two new serpents were mounted. Houshang, the newly selected king of the Pishdadian dynasty followed the Ezhdeha back into the cave, whereby he threw the biggest flint rock and killed him. The flint bounced from dead corpse and struck another rock. The resulting spark, which seeded a sacred soothing fire revered cheerfully by all down the valley, still burns eternally alive today. Hushang caught slayed in the crossfire, was replaced a bit later by King Jamshid Kiyani and crowned at Nowruz the spring vernal equinox and the birth of Zarathustra.
And so, they all lived happily thereafter when they enjoyed and shared infinite love every day. In a while though, and after the people ever became complacent again to allow their liberty denied, the Ezhdeha reincarnated with added heads reappeared again and again in the same or other regions, from within or more painfully form without, so to bring about chaos through his ever growing strong despot, enabled by his linchpins and lackeys, charlatans and shysters, and hoodlums and hooligans. Nowruz celebration was the most effective juncture year after year for the people to ward off all evil spirits including the ZaHawks and Ezhdehas, as they sprinkled rue and frankincense over glazed holly fire yielding a strongly pungent scent from which the beasts escaped from.
As narrated by Ferdowsi, the “Homer of Iran,” this tale from his Shahanameh wends its wisdom and relevance through tens of thousands of years of Iran’s history, bringing a hope of salvation from evils in altruistic acts of courage. Shahnameh the Book of Persian Kings – an epic poem composing 30,000 verses and written over the course of 30 years more than a thousand years ago, still remains alive in every Iranian’s psyche heartily.
The patron King Mahmoud who had promised the poet a golden coin for each verse broke his promise. The improvised Ferdowsi, having instead resided tranquilly in the luscious rich paraissi style (paradise the meaning of his name) of his own imagination, never saw the coins which arrived by the repented King after had died.
Anchored on trilogy of good thoughts, good words and good deeds, everyone reaffirms their commitment to by one or more of the following virtues, namely, to volunteerism, altruism, philanthropy, benevolence and above all, to advancing humanism as the pinnacles of life. The belief in the golden rule of “treating others as you would expect to be treated” anchored on the tripartite pedestal of good thoughts, good words and good deeds, conjures up in mind with the acclaimed Persian poem by the 13th century Sa’adi:
All humans are members of one frame,
Since all at first, from the same essence, came.
When by hard fortune one limb is oppressed,
The other members lose their desired rest.
If thou feel’st not for others’ misery,
A human is no name for thee!
A Nowruz holiday cycle is concluded at the Sizdah Bedar Picnic (at Bear Mountain State Park in New York), which falls on the 13th day, aka April fool’s Day. Every family spends the full day outdoor in parks, crop fields, or the orchards, when they play, sing, dance, eat and drink. Unmarried celebrants tie knots with grass blades to wish for a soulmate; the elders nostalgically compare this Nowruz with those past while remembering the deceased, and the children look forward restlessly to many more Nowruz celebrations to follow.
Nowruz Piruz, Harruz Nowruz va Khojasteh va Shad Bad!
An earlier abridged excerpt of this essay was published in National Geog. Magazine, under D. Rahni Copyright © 2019