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New Year at Persepolis

By Massoume Price



Celebrating the commencement of the New Year is amongst the oldest and most universally observed festivals, and has a long history in Middle East and Mesopotamia. Sumerians (present day southern Iraq), the founders of the oldest city-states in ancient Mesopotamia (Bayn al-nahrayn 3000BC), celebrated their new year by growing barley in the first month of their calendar in March/April and in fact their New Year was called The Festival of the Sowing of Barley. Their successors, the inhabitants of the Old Kingdom of Babylon (2000BC), celebrated their festival on the first day of the Babylonian New Year in the month of Nisan (modern Jewish calendar still uses the same month name) and called their festival Beginning of the Year.


Darius receiving gifts


Such celebrations were closely tied in with various gods and goddesses and creation myths popular amongst ancient nations, and involved rites and ceremonies expressing jubilation over life's renewal, which is the essence of the New Year festivals. Such celebrations represented a remembrance or repetition of creation myths on the symbolic anniversary of these events in order to strengthen the bound between gods, cosmos and human communities, and therefore, ensure preserving the cosmic order essential for survival of human life.


Armenians presenting stallion

For example, the Babylonian New Year involved celebrating the arrival of the spring rains and the renewal of nature and community by reading songs and reciting the story of creation. Actors and actresses played the drama of creation and it's beginning, and how it raised out of the struggle between Marduck the god of Heaven and Tiamut goddess of the powers of chaos. The king would go through a ritual of humiliation, by moving his royal insignia by the high priest. He would spend time praying and asking for forgiveness at the major temple. By repenting his sins (and those of his people whom he represented) he would reappear again and claim his royal insignia. Ceremonies were followed to ensure that nature will support the king and therefore the community during the coming year, and then all took part in a procession of all gods. After the procession the next few days were full of chaotic activities of all sorts with feasts and jolliness.

Assyrians presentng gifts

Gradually a new theme, temporary subversion of order, emerged out of the festivities that became a constant feature of many celebrations and spread all over the continent.  Babylonians believed that the first creation was order that came out of chaos. To appreciate and celebrate the first creation, during their New Year festival, all roles were reversed. Disorder and chaos ruled for a while and eventually order was restored and succeeded at the end of the festival. Masters and servants reversed roles. The king dressed in plain clothing, and changed place with ordinary people. A mock king was crowned and masquerades spilled into the streets. As the old year died, rules of ordinary living were relaxed. Eventually at the end of the festival order was restored and all went back to normal. This tradition of temporary subversion of order was, borrowed by many, including Iranians, who eventually incorporated some of these rites into the Iranian New Year celebrations by appointing their own mock king (Meer No Ruzi).

Babylonians giving gifts

Ancient Mesopotamian New Year festivals originally influenced the New Year celebration we have as No Ruz. However No Ruz gradually evolved and by the end of the Sassanian period (7th century AD) became uniquely Iranian by incorporating Zoroastrian creation myth and other stories popular during the late Sassanian period.

A Mede carrying a pitcher

No Ruz means new day and is a celebration of spring Equinox. It has been celebrated for almost 3000 years in Iran and is deeply rooted in the rituals and traditions of the ancient Iranian religion, Zoroastrianism of the Sassanian period.  In their ancient text, 'Bundahishn' foundation of creation, it is said that The Lord of Wisdom (Ahura Mazda) created all that was good and became God. The Lord of Darkness, Angra Mainyu (Ahriman) created all that was evil and became the Hostile Spirit. The two worlds created did not have a material form but the essence of everything was present. The two existed side-by-side but separate. Then the Lord of Wisdom created the material world (Geetee). The first creation was the sky, a big chunk of stone encompassing earth. The second was the first ocean at the bottom. Earth a big flat dish sitting on the ocean was the third. Then the three prototypes of all life forms, the first plant, the first animal (Bull) and the first human (Kewmarth) were created. The seventh creation was fire/sun.


Indians with gold dust


To protect his creations the Lord of Wisdom also created six guardians or holy immortals. These are personifications of the natural forces created. They are called 'Amesha Spenta' and there is one for each creation. The first three were male deities; Shahrivar, Ordibehesht and Bahman protectors of sky, fire and animals. The other three were female deities; Khordad, Esphand and Amurdad protectors of water, mother earth and all plants. Ahura Mazda himself became the protector of all humans and the holy fire. The six immortals are the names of six of the months in the current Iranian calendar and are celebrated in Haft sin tradition during No Ruz.


Ionians presenting fabrics and yarn


This newly created world did not have a life cycle. There were no days or nights and no seasons.  Once the material world was created the Hostile Spirit saw light, wanted it and attacked the good world. He crashed in through the sky, plunged down into the waters and then burst up through the center of the earth. With the hostile spirits invading, help was needed to fight back. The three prototypes of life were sacrificed. From the plant came the seeds of all plants. The bull produced all animals and from the human came the first male and female. With the triple sacrifices the cycle of life started. This was the beginning of time. Sun moved, there was day, night and seasons. This was called the first No Ruz, meaning new day and the beginning of the cycle of life.


No Ruz procession


Zoroaster (Zardosht) the architect of this cosmology introduced many feasts, festivals and rituals to pay homage to the seven creations, the holy immortals and Ahura Mazda. Seven were amongst the most important. They are known as Gahambars, feasts of obligation. The last and the most elaborate was No Ruz, celebrating the Lord of Wisdom and the holy fire at the time of spring equinox. The festival over the time incorporated other aspects of the religion such as the feast celebrating Fravashi or guardian angels and a celebration of the soul of the dead ancestors during the Suri Festival.


No Ruz procession


The oldest archaeological record for No Ruz celebration comes from the Achaemenian (Hakhamaneshi) period over 2500 years ago. They created the first major empire in the region and built Persepolis complex (Takhte Jamshid) in central Iran. Alexander the Great destroyed this magnificent palace/temple complex in 334 BC.

Achaemenians had four major residences one for each season. Persepolis was their spring residence and the site for celebrating the New Year. Stone carvings show the king seated on his throne receiving his subjects, governors and ambassadors from various nations under his control. They are presenting him with gifts and paying homage to him. We do not know too much about the details of the rituals. We do know that mornings were spent praying and performing other religious rituals. Later on during the day the guests would be entertained with feasts and celebrations.

Scythians presenting armlets and horse

What we have today as No Ruz goes back to the Sassanian period. They formed the last great Persian Empire before the advent of Islam. There are many references with respect to the celebration of No Ruz at this time in both Zoroastrian and Islamic literature. The Zoroastrian text Zadspram mentions " a sense of renewal was now characteristic of No Ruz. New cloths were worn; food was of the new season. The day began with a mouthful of pure fresh milk and fresh cheese; all the kings of Persia took it as a blessing. The king in the morning ate white sugar with fresh Indian nuts". The same text mentions that it was the custom to sow seven seeds, to come up fresh and green on the holy day itself.

The discovery of sugar was also believed to have happened in No Ruz. The legendary king Jamshid discovered the sugar cane accidentally while riding during No Ruz, once he realized how tasty and sweet it is he ordered its production. It was also a tradition to give small sugar cones as presents to each other at this time. Small sugar cones were sold in Bazaars till very recently but they are going out of fashion. Though there not any pictures directly related to No Ruz during Sassanian period, Persepolis on the other hand with magnificent grandeur has many wall carving depicting gift giving, a major event during New Year celebrations. Representatives from all countries under Achaemenid rule are carved in their ethnic attire presenting the king with tributes and gifts, as was the custom during the New Year celebration at Persepolis.



For our ancestors No Ruz was a celebration of life with all its' glory. For modern Iranians, it is a feast of renewal and freshness and a time to cherish and renew friendship and family ties, happy No Ruz to you all.


About the author:

Massoume Price has two Masters' degrees, in Social Anthropology and Human Ecology. She is educated in Iran and England, Kings and University Colleges, London University. She is a research consultant and a writer. She has extensively researched Iranian culture and is currently writing two books on Iranian culture, and ethnicity in Iran for ABC-Clio, a major publisher of educational literature in USA. She lives and works in Canada. Some of her work on Iranian culture can be found at her website

... Payvand News - 3/20/03 ... --

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