More than 300 million people celebrate Nowruz every year. When is it celebrated and how will it be affected by the coronavirus pandemic?
Nowruz is the national New Year festivity celebrated in Iran, Afghanistan, and the Kurdish regions of Iraq, Turkey and Syria, and throughout Central Asia.
It is a springtime celebration whose activities symbolise rebirth and the link between humans and nature. The Iranian poet Saadi (1210-1291) wrote: “Awaken, the morning Nowruz breeze is showering the garden with flowers.”
While the two-week celebrations centre on seeing relatives, picnicking, travelling, and eating traditional food, Nowruz itself – which is Farsi for New Day – is steeped in ancient myths and fiction, as well as traditions and symbols.
When is Nowruz?
It begins at the spring equinox – the moment when the sun crosses the equator and day and night are of equal length.
Usually, this is between 19-21 March, depending on astronomical calculations. This year, it is due to begin on 20 March a little after 7am Tehran local time.
Who celebrates Nowruz?
It is part of Zoroastrianism, a Persian religion that predates Christianity and Islam to the first millennium BC. It is both monotheistic – Ahuramazda, the supreme deity, is the creator of all things good – and dualistic in its teachings. In Zoroastrianism, fire and water are considered symbols of purity.
It was founded by Zoroaster (also known as Zarathustra), whose religious teachings are the foundation for Zoroastrianism.
His collections of writings are known as the Avesta.
When was Nowruz first celebrated?
Described by 11th-century Persian astronomer and poet Omar Khayyam as “the renewal of the world”, Nowruz dates back thousands of years.
It is not known exactly how far back Nowruz goes, but current estimates are that it is at least 3,000 years old, when the Persian empire extended beyond the borders of modern Iran. It is not mentioned in the Avesta.
Over the centuries, this age-old rite has developed and expanded. Gradually, the celebrations accumulated more social, religious and cultural influences as they spread along established trade routes and among an estimated 300 million people.
It has survived centuries of conquests, from the seventh- and eighth-century Arab forces which invaded the Persian world to governments in the former Soviet republics in Central Asia; from the Taliban in Afghanistan to secular authorities in Turkey, Syria and Iraq, which have tried to curtail Kurdish cultural identity.
How do you prepare for Nowruz?
While specific traditions vary from country to country, as different cultures add their own elements, the central theme is the same: a celebration of spring and a time for rebirth and renewal.
In Afghanistan, for example, the main event is Guli Surkh, or the Red Flower Festival in the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif, where the buzkashi tournaments, a national sport similar to polo, are held during the first 40 days of the year. A goat carcass is used instead of a ball.
A commonality across the Central Asian countries is the 24-hour preparation of sumalak, a thick pudding made from wheatgrass, as women sing folk songs while stirring huge pots. Open-air festivals showcase nomadic traditions and sports, such as horse racing, wrestling, and archery.
Preparations for Nowruz celebrations in Iran begin weeks before the start of spring, including house-cleaning (khaneh takani). Families also grow sabzeh (wheat, barley, mung bean or lentils) in a dish.
When the greens sprout after a couple of weeks, the dish is placed on the Haft-seen table, which is the focus of Nowruz observance. It is joined by six other symbolic items which start with the Persian letter “seen” or S. That makes seven, a sacred number in Zoroastrianism. They include:
- seeb (apples) – symbol of health and beauty
- senjed (dried oleaster berries) – wisdom and rebirth
- samanu (wheat pudding) – strength/justice
- somaq (sumac) – patience
- serkeh (vinegar) – age/patience
- seer (garlic) – cleansing of body and environment
The Haft-seen spread also includes other items such as a mirror, symbolising reflection; coloured eggs, for fertility; and goldfish in a bowl, which represent life.
There is usually also a book by the Persian poet Hafez (1315-1390), or the Quran. They reflect Nowruz’s power to blend its ancient roots with more recent religious and cultural traditions.