By Aynur Jafarova
Azerbaijani people are celebrating festive Novruz Holiday -- the symbol of winter's end and the advent of spring, an affirmation of life in harmony with nature, indication of equality and fraternity and renewal of nature.
Novruz is an old holiday which reflects the culture, national and spiritual values of our people and popularizes them in the world. Stressing that Novruz has ancient roots and always lives in the heart of our nation, great leader Heydar Aliyev succeeded in celebrating this holiday at a high level even during the harsh imperial regime.
After the restoration of independence, Azerbaijanis began to celebrate Novruz more solemnity. In addition to attaching nationwide importance to Novruz, Heydar Aliyev always stood by his people over the holidays, congratulated and called on them to live in unity and accord.
This most cherished holiday of the Azerbaijani people has an ancient history. It is often linked to Zoroastrianism, the oldest of the monotheist religions. Scientific researches relate the Novruz Holiday to the period of prophet Zardush, which dates back 3,500 to 5,000 years.
Azerbaijan is a country of oil, gas and mud volcanoes. Spontaneous fires on the Absheron Peninsula have attracted fire-worshippers who revere these places as holy. This laid the foundation of the Novruz customs and traditions related to fire.
In the ancient times Novruz in Azerbaijan was celebrated for seven days. The number seven is still reflected in the tradition of having seven different dishes on the holiday table.
Another theory suggests that Novruz dates back to ancient Mesopotamia. This holiday was celebrated in the ancient Babylon in Nisan (March, April) and the celebrations lasted 12 days, with each having their ceremonies and performances.
Houses and yards are cleaned, trees are pruned and fields cleared on Novruz eve.
Celebrations of Novruz begin a month before the actual holiday date. Novruz is related to four elements of nature -- water, fire, earth and wind. A legend goes that God created man from earth and water, gave him warmth and ordered the wind to wake him up.
Novruz Tuesdays are considered sacred. The four Tuesdays are named after these elements and called Su Chershenbesi (Water Tuesday), Odlu Chershenbe (Fire Tuesday), Hava Chershenbesi (Wind Tuesday) and Ilakhir Chershenbe or Torpaq Chershenbesi (Earth or Last Tuesday).
According to the folk belief, water purifies and stirs; fire, soil and wind awaken the nature, the trees begin to blossom. All these symbolize the coming of spring.
Novruz is associated with many traditions. On Ilakhir Chershenbe everybody should jump over bonfires seven times saying "My yellowness is for you, your redness - for me", which means "take away my diseases and give me your strength". The fire should not be put out with water as it is better to let it burn out.
On Ilakhir Chershenbe or in the Novruz evening, one can make a wish and go to the neighbor's doors at sunset. This tradition is called "gapipusdu". In front of each door, one drops a key onto the ground and overhears. The first two overheard words will indicate whether or not the wish will come true.
Novruz is a favorite holiday because every year traditional sweets of the national cuisine such as pakhlava, shakarbura, shorgogal and badambura are cooked and served at the festive table. Also "govurgha" (toasted wheat) is mixed with nuts (mainly walnuts, hazelnuts, almonds and chestnuts) and placed on the table along with the sweets.
The decoration of the festive table is khoncha, a big tray with "samani" -- freshly sprouted wheat and a symbol of hope for an abundant harvest in the coming year. The tray is placed in the center with candles and dyed eggs by the number of family members around it. The candles are lit and must not be blown out ahead of time.
The table should be set with seven dishes. Sour or bitter food is not included on the khoncha. Pilaf (rice) is one of the main dishes for the Novruz dinner.
One of the interesting traditions of Novruz is "papagatdi": children knock at the neighbors' doors and leave their caps, hats or a little basket waiting for candies, pastry and nuts.
Young men place handkerchiefs under the doors of their beloved ones. If the man's feeling is reciprocal, the girl should put sweets into the handkerchief.
Novruz in Azerbaijan is associated with the beautiful green color and is symbolized by the growing of "samani".
A few weeks before Novruz, women take wheat seeds, water them and sing the traditional song 'Samani, protect me, and I will grow you every year.'
It is traditional to plant a tree on Novruz. One of the golden rules of Novruz is that people should not curse, lie, swear or gossip -- they should not do any bad things. It is a rule that people who have quarreled with one another should renew the relationship and forgive one another. Everyone should celebrate Novruz at their own home with family members.
An ancient Novruz tradition is to burn "uzerlik" (rue), which provides protection from the evil eye and negative energy. According to the folk tradition, at the moment the new day of the New Year arrives, you should go out of the house into the yard or stand at an open window and make a wish.
Musical gatherings take place at Novruz: folk singers sing songs, public games such as the comic Kos-Kosa show are held, tightrope walkers demonstrate their skills, the wrestlers test their strength and shows are staged on public squares.
During Novruz people give each other a holiday portion called "Novruz payi". Holiday cakes, samani and candles are put on a tray and given to the neighbors and friends. Acording to the belief, the tray should not be returned empty or the house will no longer be prosperous. Benevolence and charity for those in need are also a Novruz tradition.
The number of weddings increases during Novruz. According to an ancient belief, a family started during Novruz will be happy. Babies born during the holiday are named in honor of the holiday: boys are given the name Novruz while girls are called Bahar, which means spring.
The largest samani in Azerbaijan are grown on top of the ancient Maiden Tower in Baku. A local beauty, Bahar khanim or Miss Spring, chosen by the people, lights the torch on top of the tower and welcomes Novruz.
The Novruz holiday was included into the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO in 2009 thanks to the efforts of the President of the Heydar Aliyev Foundation, UNESCO and ISESCO goodwill ambassador, First Lady Mehriban Aliyeva.
Some people say that it’s the 5,774th time that Iranians across the world are celebrating the ancient Persian New Year festival, Nowruz. However, some history experts believe that Nowruz has been enshrined and observed for more than 15,000 years, well before the official establishment of the Persian Empire. Like Christmas, Nowruz is an elaborate festival that brings millions of people together, but there are certain elements in Nowruz that make it a distinctive tradition, and one of these important elements is its historicity.
Cyrus the Great, the first king of the Persian Empire, came to throne in 550 BC, but for almost 2000 years before him, when In-Su-Kush-Siranna was the ruler of the Kingdom of Aratta, Nowruz had been celebrated in Greater Iran, which consisted of several provinces that currently constitute modern countries like Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan, Armenia, Pakistan, Iraq, and parts of India and Turkey.
Nowruz is considered the most important national holiday in Iran as it marks the beginning of a new solar year and the arrival of spring. According to the Persian calendar, Nowruz begins on the vernal equinox, which starts on March 20 or 21. The beauty and wonderfulness of Nowruz is that it starts on a unique moment each time and people excitedly and breathlessly wait for the announcement of what is known as the moment of the transition of the year. This moment is astronomically calculated according to the Jalali solar calendarand officially inaugurates the New Year.
Unquestionably, Nowruz is one of the prominent hallmarks of the Persian culture and Iranian civilization. It represents the glory and magnificence of ancient Iran and manifests a sense of national pride and dignity for Iranians around the world. In his long epic poem, Shahnameh, the 10th century Iranian poet and philosopher Ferdowsi talks in detail about the origins and roots of Nowruz. He says that when the legendary, prehistoric Iranian king Jamshid Jam conquered the world and ascended the throne, he declared that day as Nowruz and the beginning of Iranian New Year. On that day, Iranians from across the country would come to visit Persepolis (the ancient capital of the Persian Empire) to hold festivals, receive rewards and gifts from the king, enjoy eating festive meals of dried nuts, fruits, and sweetmeat, sing happy songs, and perform plays.
Nowruz is important in that it comes as winter ends, and that is why Iranians believe Nowruz is a feast of rebirth and rejuvenation that injects fresh and warm blood into the veins of the frosty and frozen nature. Iran, which is famous for its climatic diversity and unique nature, is very beautiful in the spring, and especially during the 13 days of Nowruz festivals. Fragrant flowers and attractive plants grow in large quantities in northern, central, and southern parts of Iran, and the weather is predominantly mild and moderate in the majority of the cities all around the country.
Nowruz is celebrated from the Farvardin 1 to 13 (Farvardin is the first month of the solar calendar whose name is taken from the Zoroastrian word “Faravashis” meaning “the spirits of the dead.” Iranians believe that the spirits of their deceased beloved ones will return to the material world in the last 10 days of the year.) One of the common traditions of Nowruz that the Iranians are strongly committed to is paying visit to the elderly and meeting the other members of the family. In such meetings, Iranian families entertain each other with delicious Iranian cuisines, spring fruits, dried nuts, candies, confections, deserts, rice-cakes, pastries, and cookies.
Setting the “Haft-Seen” table is also one of the customs of Nowruz that is seen as a quintessential part of the New Year celebrations. Haft means “seven” in Persian, and “seen” stands for the sign of the 15th letter of Persian alphabet which sounds “s”. The Haft-Seen table is named so because there are seven items on this table whose name start with the Persian letter “seen”. Each of these seven items signifies a certain meaning. These items include “Senjed”, or silver berry, the sweet, dry fruit of the lotus tree, which denotes love and affection; “Sumaq”, or sumac, the crushed spices of berries, which symbolizes sunrise and the warmth of life; “Seeb”, or red apple, which stands for health and beauty; “Seer”, or garlic, which indicates good health and wellbeing; “Samanu”, a sweet paste made of wheat and sugar that represents fertility and the sweetness of life; “Sabzeh”, or sprouted wheat grass, which is a sign of renewal of life; and “Sonbol”, or the purple hyacinth flower, which represents prosperity and goodwill in the New Year. However, the majority of Iranian families put more than 7 items on their “Haft-Seen” table settings. The additional things are “Sekkeh”, coins that herald wealth and affluence; “Serkeh”, vinegar that symbolizes age, patience, and the toleration of hardships; and “Sangak”, a plain whole wheat sour dough flatbread that characterizes blessing and good luck. Iranians also put colored eggs and a bowl of goldfish on their traditional Haft-Seen table and consider these two elements as signs of fertility, welfare, and happiness.
One of the other elements placed on the beautiful Haft-Seen table is a mirror, a symbol of purity, reflection, and honesty. Iranians never forget to put a beautifully adorned and decorated mirror on their traditional table setting. They also put a copy of the Holy Quran on their Haft-Seen table, which they believe will guard their life in the coming year.
In an elaborate and well-researched article about Nowruz published on the Iran Review website, the cultural researcher Firouzeh Mirrazavi writes, “The festival, according to some documents, was observed until the fifth of Farvardin, and then the special celebrations followed until the end of the month. Possibly, in the first five days, the festivities were of a public and national nature, while during the rest of the month it assumed a private and royal character.”
Since Nowruz was historically celebrated in Iran’s ceremonial capital Persepolis [Takht-e-Jamshid] in the southern city of Shiraz, every year thousands of Iranians travel to Shiraz to take part in the national celebrations of Nowruz. Even the foreign tourists who travel to Iran to take part in the celebrations prefer to visit Shiraz or Isfahan during the 13 days of Nowruz.
But why is Nowruz extended for 13 days? According to the ancient belief of the Iranians, 13 is an inauspicious number. On the 13th day of Farvardin, Iranian families gather in parks, gardens, farms, and other green places to eat cuisines containing certain local herbs and have friendly conversations. They also throw sprouted wheat grasses into rivers believing that by leaving the “Sabzeh” in the waterways, they throw away the misfortune associated with the number 13 and the 13th day of the year, and this way, they guarantee their New Year and prevent hardships and calamities from coming into their life. They think that the Sabzeh that is pitched into the rivers will take the bad luck with itself to an unknown destination.
In Nowruz, the adults in the family pay the younger members certain amounts of cash as a gift for the New Year. This reward is called “Eidi” and is not usually spent during the whole year but saved and kept as a token of blessing and wellbeing.
With all of its beauties and splendor, Nowruz is now considered a global festival as it was officially recognized and registered on the UNESCO List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in February 2010. The same year, the UN General Assembly recognized March 21 as the International Day of Nowruz, describing it as a spring festival of Persian origin which has been celebrated for thousands of years.
Nowruz is a relic of past days, a remnant from the dawn of human civilization. It removes religious, cultural, lingual, and national boundaries and connects the hearts of millions of people who want to take part in a unique ceremony marking not only the beginning of New Year, but the end of the distressed winter and arrival of the delightful spring. It’s not simply a source of honor for Iranians who observe and celebrate it, but an opportunity for the congregation and solidarity of all the peace-loving and peace-making nations around the world.