Art & Culture
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a brief history of the nowruz tradition in pre- islamic time

Redux Extra April 3, 2021
Reading Time: 5 minutes

The new year tradition of Now-Ruz (lit. New Year) is as ancient as the history of the Iranian peoples and continues to be celebrated every March 21st (the chronology of the spring equinox) in the wider Persianate world including the Caucasus, Central Asia and by the Kurds (themselves of Iranian stock) in the wider Near East. In the spiritual sense from the Zoroastrian perspective, Nowruz is a celebration of the onset of spring concomitant with the rejuvenation, growth and power of the sun which now, in victory, ascends in the aftermath of the cold and darkness of winter. The celebration itself however goes far beyond just the acknowledgement of the change of seasons – it is also the occasion to celebrate the human bonds of families, communities and friends along with a celebratory contentment of the gifts of life and nature. Nowruz is the celestial victory of the sun over the winter. It is a victory of light (the sun) over darkness (winter) in which the followers of good battle against the followers of evil in all planes, both material and celestial. From the Zoroastrian view, this symbolic cosmic victory of the sun is the harbinger of yet more glorious victories to come with the ultimate objective being to aspire to the perfection of good as created by the supreme god or spirit, Ahura-Mazda.

While the concept of Nowruz is Iranian, the specific date of its celebration appears to have entered into this tradition as a consequence of Cyrus the Great’s (559-530 BCE) entrance into Babylon on October 29, 539 BCE. It would not be long before the Achaemenids adopted (the specific date of) Nissanu the 1st from the Babylonians as the time for the spring equinox. It is notable that the Magi of the ancient Iranians were more advanced that the Babylonians in their understanding of chronology. One example is the Magi having calculated the day as being located between two succeeding early mornings (or sunrises).

It was during the reign of the Achaemenid Empire (550- 330 BCE; known as Xšāça (“The Empire”) when the Iranian concept of Nowruz was to become an annual event for all races, religions and creeds to celebrate and reinvigorate their bonds
and pledges of amity, harmony, solidarity and comradeship. One of the most important functions of the city-palace of Parsa (Persepolis) the ceremonial capital of the Xšāça, was the celebration of Nowruz which became an integral aspect
of the imperial legacy of ancient Iran. Parsa provides visual cues as to the symbolism of the Nowruz. The concept of camaraderie and kinship transcending race, religion, languages, creed, etc. is symbolized by multiple peoples bringing
their gifts to the king of kings. The bearing of these gifts by diverse peoples (e.g. Ionian Greeks, Africans, Lydians, Egyptians, Armenians, Arabs, etc.) have been immortalized in the artworks of the wall depictions of Parsa.
Dawson’s observation of the artwork of Parsa is succinct: “Persian official art avoided the Assyrian celebration of barbarity”. In stark contrast to Parsa, Assyrian artistic representations are clear in their illustrations of barbarity
towards conquered populations who are subjected to humiliation, impalement, blinding, captivity and trampling. No such depictions are seen at Parsa. The only exception in Achaemenid arts is the Besitun depiction and inscription in
Western Iran where Darius the Great faces a series of defeated rebels whose hands are bound. This however is not an illustration of one people conquering and crushing another but a statement of Darius having defeated rebels against
this rule.

It is notable that the Achaemenids were a multi-cultural empire allowing and even subsidizing its diverse population to practice their religions and even code of laws in accordance with own cultures and traditions. The Xšāça (not just
Cyrus the Great) for example supported the reconstruction of the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem which had been destroyed earlier by the Babylonians. It is notable that the world’s first multi cultural empire, formed by the Persians and
Medes, annually celebrated its diversity with the Nowruz tradition. While the Greeks are credited with the concept of Demos-Kratus (Democracy), the Iranian realms were not only the first to dedicate their governance to the support of
diversity, but they also codified this system, as set by Cyrus the Great in his Cylinder, a copy of which stands in the United Nations today. The western world has yet to acknowledge the Cyrus Cylinder as the world’s first document
enshrining human rights within a multi-racial empire. Put simply, the Iranians made no efforts towards singularly imposing their language and theology upon subject people of the Xšāça. In a sense the Nowruz tradition at Parsa is a
manifestation of this far-sighted Zoroastrian based world-view. It is also an interesting fact is that the early Achaemenids chose to fight their battles during the day and commenced their campaigns in the spring season after the
Nowruz celebrations.

The Achaemenid system of benevolent rule was certainly practical in terms of governance as it helped foster good relations, commerce and the exchange of ideas, arts, learning and architecture throughout the Xšāça. Graf, Hirsch,
Gleason and Krefter “Belief in a heavenly afterlife for good people and torment for evildoers may have been partly responsible for the moral treatment that Achaemenid Kings accorded subject nations…”. This is certainly consistent
with the universalist and humanistic principles of the Zoroastrian faith. While Alexander of Macedon destroyed Parsa in 333 BCE, the legacy of Nowruz has resonated throughout the ages to this day. Equally remarkable is the fact that
Nowruz also survived the Arab Islamic conquests of the Sassanian Empire (224-651 CE) in the 7th century CE. According to Yaqubi, the Arab invaders broke into Ctesiphon right on Nowruz day, when the local citizens were celebrating. These
conquests challenged the very identity, history, culture, language and legacy of the Iranian world, which despite Caliphate rule, maintained its distinctiveness.

Nowruz, irrespective of the Arab and subsequent Turkic Mongol arrivals, had been (and continues to be) deeply embedded in a collective identity or psyche, which meant that it was not so easily eliminated by transient conquerors. The Caliphates certainly had no interest in supporting Iranian identity, making it ironic that they were to soon also celebrate (according to Masudi) both the Nowruz and the Mehregan. This adds further credence to the adage that even when the Iranians are conquered, they in turn conquer their conquerors by their culture and traditions. The Safavids (1501-1736), who finally achieved a unified Iranian state by the early 1500s supported Iranian traditions, notably the Nowruz, which of course had remained in place among the Iranian populace. Shah Ismail (r. 1501-1524) the founder of the Safavid dynasty was an enigmatic figure whose reign witnessed the (re) introduction of Iranian names – notably his son Tahmasp for whom the king commissioned a special edition of the Shahname epic of Firdowsi. The Alevis in Turkey (composed of both Turks and Kurds) continue to venerate Shah Ismail as an avatar and even claim that Ismail was in fact a “closet Zoroastrian”. It is certainly true that at the fatal battle of Chaldiran in 1514, women fought side by side with their husbands against the Ottomans – this is, like the Nowruz, a distinctly Iranian (and ancient
Zoroastrian) tradition. What is almost certain is that as the Safavid dynasty progressed it was to become more and more influenced by the religious clerics who were less favorable of Nowruz and other Iranian traditions. Nevertheless
as the passage of the ages has demonstrated, Iranian identity, inextricably linked to Nowruz, has indeed withstood the test of time.

BY DR. KAVEH FARROKH LANGARA COLLEGE

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