By A.J. Cave
The memory of the first people who joyfully celebrated the coming of a lovely blossoming spring after months of a cold harsh winter is lost in the fog of obscurity.
Over time, the two seasonal festivals marking the beginning of spring (season of planting) and the end of summer (season of harvesting) took on religious significance for the ancient Iranians. Celebration of beginning of spring and end of summer became an integral part of the lives of the ancient Mazdaeans.
In Persian mythology the introduction of the great annual festival of the New Day was attributed to the mythical King Yima and later to Prophet Zarathustra (Greek: Zoroaster).
Ahura Mazda, the Wise Lord, performed the sacrifice that produced the creation at the time of Rapithwan, the lord of noon-the ideal time. When the demon of winter invaded the world, Rapithwan withdrew beneath the earth to protect the roots of plants and streams from cold and reappeared on earth in spring, foreshadowing the final triumph of warmth over cold, truth over lie, good over evil, order over chaos.
The festival of spring came to mark the beginning of the New Year, preceded by Frawardigan-Night of All Souls-dedicated to the remembrance of the spirits of the dearly departed. Houses were cleaned and food and drinks were laid out for these spirits believed to come down to earth during this time of the year to visit their homes and families and receive blessings. Timing of the six major Mazdaean seasonal feasts throughout the year was tied to and calculated from the spring festival of the New Day.
Year 559 BCE marked the start of the first Persian Empire created by Cyrus the Great (Persian: Kurus, 559-530 BCE) and the Persian Achaemenids (Hakhamaneshiya), stretching roughly from (now) India and South Russia to Egypt and Macedonia, from the Upper Sea to the Lower Sea-Mediterranean Sea to the Persian Gulf-which was unprecedented in size, diversity, wealth and power.
Following in the footsteps of Cyrus, Darius the Great (Darayavhaus, 522-486 BCE) built Persepolis (Parsa), the magnificent ceremonial seat of the Persian Empire, where the annual spring festival of the Nava Sarda (New Year) is believed to have been celebrated.
The Great Kings received Persian royals, nobles, governors, and subjects from all four corners of their vast empire who brought splendid gifts and tributes during the spring festival and pledged their loyalty to them.
They say the images of the bull and the lion on the stairways of the Apadana in Persepolis symbolized the coming of the New Year, where lion was a symbol for the Sun and strength, and the bull was a symbol for the Earth and abundance. Earth and Sun embraced and were reunited in bountiful spring after a long winter.
The Iranian Parthid (Ashkanian) Kings (247 BCE to 224 CE) probably followed the imperial Achaemenid court customs and celebrations. The evidence for the lavish New Day celebrations comes from the love story of Vis O Ramin, dated to this period.
According to Zoroastrian Denkard (Acts of Religion) written in Middle Persian (Pahlavi) language, the Persian Kings had decreed the celebration of the New Day as the start of the New Year from the beginning of the creation, as a time for restoration and renewal
The Sasanid (Sasanian) Kings of kings (Shahan Shah), who ruled from year 224 to 651 CE, created the second great Persian Empire. When they held their public celebration in honor of the New Year-called Bahar Jashn, meaning spring party, the high priests of the empire were the first to greet them, after the court astronomers announced the turning of the year. Government officials followed next. Each visitor offered a gift and received a royal gift. The Sasanid royal audience lasted for 5 days, each day for the people of a certain profession. Then on the sixth day, the Kings of kings held their special audience. They received members of the royal family and courtiers. A general amnesty was declared for convicts of minor crimes. The NowRuz festival was celebrated by all peoples throughout the Sasanid Empire. On the 16th day the New Year celebrations ended.
The Muslim Arab invasion of Sasanid Persia in the 7th century impacted many of the ancient Mazdaean and Persian traditions, but after the Arab rulers were finally replaced by the Iranian dynasties, NowRuz made a great comeback. It was now enthusiastically celebrated by all the Persians-not just the Mazdaeans and the Muslims, but the Jews and Christians and other. As Iranians spread around the globe, their NowRuz went with them.
With the re-emergence of Persia, festive celebration of NowRuz-a time of renewal, hope and joy-eventually became even more important as the marker of Iranian identity, immortalized by the famed medieval (Muslim) Persian poets.
The greater history of NowRuz has been patched together from thousands of bits and pieces in Persian prose and poetry.
In Shah Nameh (Book of Kings, around 1000 CE) by Hakim Abu al-Ghasem Ferdowsi Tusi (simply Ferdowsi or Firdausi, 940-1020 CE), the poet of Persia par excellence, the origins of NowRuz is associated with the legendary King Jamshid (Mazdaean King Yima) of ancient Iran, commemorating his ascent into the skies in a chariot built by the demons he had brought under his sway for the benefit of his mortal subjects.
In 1079, the famous Persian poet and mathematician, Hakim Omar Khayyam (1048-1131) presented a plan for calendar reform to persuade the Selchuk monarchs to renew their support for science. Jalali Calendar introduced in the 11th century was the first true solar calendar to fix NowRuz to spring equinox.
Nauruz Nama, attributed to Khayyam, was a history of the solar calendar, vividly describing the ceremonies connected with the New Day festival celebrated in the courts of the ancient Persian king-Sasanid King of kings:
“From the time of Kay Khusro till the days of Yazdgerd III, last of the Sasanian Kings of Persia, the royal custom was thus: on the first day of the New Year (Noq Roz), the King’s first visitor was the High Priest (Mowbedan Mowbed) of the Zoroastrians, who brought with him as gifts a golden goblet full of wine, a ring, some gold coins, a fistful of green sprigs of wheat, a sword, a bow and arrow, a pen and a pen-case, a mule, a hawk, and a handsome slave.”
Throughout the ages, while foreign invaders came and went, Iranians held fast to the celebration of their ancient festivals. NowRuz had become so integral to the Iranian identity that was reinvented within the Islamic tradition. Not even the invading Mongols interfered with the NowRuz celebrations.
On the heels of inclusion of NowRuz into the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) on 30 September 2009, the United Nations (UN) General Assembly recognized 21 March as the “International Day of Nowruz”.
A resolution “to recognize the cultural and historical significance of Nowruz and wish Iranian-Americans, the people of Iran, and all those who observe this holiday a prosperous new year and expresses appreciation for Iranian-Americans’ contributions to U.S. society” introduced in 2009 in the U.S. House of Representatives was passed on 15 March 2010.
Now over 300 million people all around the world celebrate the festival of NowRuz in the footsteps of the ancient Persians.
...Come fill the Cup, and in the Fire of Spring
The Winter Garment of Repentance fling:
The Bird of Time has but a little way
To fly-and Lo! the Bird is on the Wing...
Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam
translated by Edward FitzGerald
About the author: A. J. Cave is an Iranian-American writer. Her How to Nowruz like a Persian can be read online at http://www.magcloud.com/browse/issue/725253
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