The spirit of Nowruz is the real Iran

  • Themes: Iran

For Iranians, increasingly suffocated by the cultural austerity of the Islamic Republic, Nowruz is a stubborn reminder of who they really are.

Relief of dignitaries addressing a Nowruz celebration, 5th century BC.
Relief of dignitaries addressing a Nowruz celebration, 5th century BC. Credit: PRISMA ARCHIVO / Alamy Stock Photo

Attending the lavish festivities for the Persian New Year in Tehran in the middle of the 19th century, the British diplomat Edward Eastwick reflected that: ‘The ancient Persians taught… that the New Year begins, not in the dead of winter when Nature herself is dead, but at the vernal equinox when she revives – and I think they were right.’ The festival of the ‘new day’ – Now Ruz – is celebrated with as much if not more vigour today by Iranians (along with their cultural brethren in the wider Persianate world), as a mark of distinction, not only in the Muslim world, but of their identity as a civilisation of ancient pedigree.

The festival, which marks the moment the sun enters the vernal equinox, is calculated each year and as such falls at different hours, usually on 20 March. This year it fell at 6:36am in Tehran and 3:06am in London, with the consequence that the vernal equinox was reached on 19 March in the United States. Celebrations start a week earlier when small bonfires are lit, through which individuals jump, symbolically cleansing themselves of all that is wicked and old in preparation and anticipation of the good and the new – a form of spiritual spring cleaning. The day itself is spent with family when new things are adorned, and the young festooned with gifts – a royal edict from 1576 proclaimed for example that at Nowruz children should be given ‘appropriate suits of clothes’ – and the holidays conclude thirteen days later (this year on 1 April) with family picnics and excursions to the countryside.

The celebration has accrued traditions, not all of which have archaic origins – the haft sin display of seven items starting with the letter ‘s’, which Iranians prepare and display religiously for the New Year, is unlikely to have quite the historical pedigree that many assume. But the festival itself is rooted in the ancient past and has persisted, in its various forms, as a stubborn bedrock of Iranian distinctiveness. The foundation of the festival is credited to the mythical king Jamshid, who ordered the world and established the calendar. It was he who built his ‘throne’ at what we now know as Persepolis, where the new year could be commemorated with sufficient pomp.

The friezes that adorn the ancient Persian capital at Persepolis commemorate the festival as the king’s subjects queue to offer gifts and allegiance. The ‘Immortals’ that grace the stairways, are not there to strike fear into the king’s enemies, but to enhance the majesty of the commemorations. This year, Iranians, prevented from seeing in the New Year at the tomb of Cyrus the Great at Pasargadae, chose instead to drive in their multitudes to Persepolis in a clear signal to the authorities of the Islamic Republic.

If some more zealous members of the Islamic Republic have sought to downplay the importance of Nowruz, most have understood the futility of such a move, with attention focused instead on the more explicitly Zoroastrian elements of the commemorations – jumping over fires, for example. This night, which has acquired the flavour of ‘Bonfire night’ in England, is now complemented with fireworks and other similar projectiles, that the authorities find unsettling. Even attempts to curtail this have failed, and the evening has regularly turned into a ‘protest’ against the Islamic impositions of the current Iranian state.

The authorities of the Islamic Republic might have learnt from the experience of history. When the early Caliphs realised that attempts to ban the festival were going nowhere, they opted instead to tax it, but before long they adopted the festival as one of their own and celebrated it as lavishly as the Sasanian Persians, who they had overthrown. As the Caliphate fragmented and local Turco-Iranian dynasties emerged, toleration turned to enthusiastic endorsement such that by the 11th and 12th century the calendar was recalibrated to ensure that the New Year did fall as intended at the vernal equinox. The solar calendar inherited from the Sasanians had not incorporated systematic intercalation, with the consequence that abrupt adjustments were regularly required. The new calendar, credited to the poet-astronomer, Omar Khayyam, set matters straight and allowed for a measure of consistency going forward. In the early 20th Century the Iranian state adopted the solar calendar as the official state calendar complete with month names derived from Zoroastrian mythology – a change that has survived the Islamic revolution.

Awkwardness might arise if the New Year coincided with a Muslim commemoration, which did occur from time to time. If it happened to be a joyous occasion, these would simply be combined, if not, a period of mourning was demanded. Discretion has often proved the better part of valour and the new year festivities have simply been delayed by a day. Today there are rarely such qualms, and if this year the New Year fell slap in the middle of the Holy month of Ramadan, there was little doubt which had priority in the affections and loyalties of Iranians. As Sir John Malcolm noted in 1815, ‘the Eed-e Nou Roze (sic)… is to this day observed with as much joy and festivity as by the ancient Persians. This single institution of former days has triumphed over the intolerant bigotry which destroyed the religion it was grounded on; and the [Muslims] of Persia have chosen rather to be upbraided with the impious observance of what their enemies term a usage of infidels, than to abolish a feast so cherished by their ancestors’. What was true of 1815 is doubly true today. For Iranians, increasingly suffocated by the cultural austerity of the Islamic Republic, Nowruz is a stubborn reminder of who they really are.


Ali Ansari