Nowruz: A New Day for Humanity
Nowruz, literally meaning “a new day,” has through the ages lived up to its name in wondrous ways. For much of the world, it has provided the supreme occasion for renewal and rejuvenation, for new resolves and new beginnings. The power behind its inexhaustible appeal to the human mind resides in a simple truth: humans need a ritual that transcends distinct and distinguishable groups, peoples and nations to celebrate our common humanity. Nowruz does so by inviting us to contemplate nature as it puts on its most magnificent dress at springtime and to synchronize personal and communal relations with the spirit of nature. By pointing to nature’s ability to renew itself each and every year, Nowruz has evolved through the millennia the manifestation of more pressing and more intense human yearnings.
The roots of Nowruz are scattered in myth and in history; they go deep into the earth beneath our feet, all the way to the time when the settlement of the first peoples in Mesopotamia and the Caucasus, on the Iranian plateau and the steppes of Central Asia signaled a new phase in human civilization. In Persian mythology, it is King Jamshid who is credited with the founding of Nowruz as the beginning of the ancient Iranian calendar, while in Kurdish legends, the same event is said to have coincided with the victory of King Faridun over the usurper King Azhi Dehak. Celebrating the New Year at the vernal equinox may well have been an old Babylonian tradition already known before 2340 BC, as it is often mentioned in later Babylonian documents and the Achamenid King Darius I may well have built Persepolis for he specific purpose of celebrating Nowruz festivities there.
As this landmark calendric and cultural point in the revolution of the earth around the sun and the turning of seasons passes through various historical events, from the formation of the first Empires in Western Asia over three thousand years ago to the later formations of the Babylonian and Persian civilizations before Christianity and Islam. Its most significant historical function over the millennia has been to forge and foster ever-newer senses of collective identity in an ever-changing world. Thus, when the ancient civilizations gave way to Islam many generations of medieval thinkers, historians and poets worked hard to create marvelous documents and monuments that still stun the world with their beauty, their artistry, and their relevance to our world – works of literature such as Ferdowsi’s Book of Kings and Rumi’s Spiritual Couplets and monuments like the blue-tiled mosques of Balkh, Samarqand and Esfahan tried to reconcile ancient Shamanistic, Mithraic and Zoroastrian creeds with Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Thus, the indisputable fact remains that today this ancient festival is considered part of the shred heritage of various peoples in much of the Middle East, Western and Central Asia and beyond.
In recent centuries, as Empires in India, Iran and Anatolia have given way to the modern countries, this ancient feast of spring has spread its branches over an increasingly diverse world defined by languages and customs and separated by boundaries and political orders of divergent orientations and, at times, competing ambitions. It is celebrated in different ways and in accordance with myriad local customs and traditions. In Central Asia, Tartars, Uzbeks, Tajiks and others observe it differently today than they did – or could – in the times of the Soviet Union. In Iran, Nowruz occurs at the heart of a month-long series of festivities that include a Halloween-like Festival of Fire on the last Tuesday night of the old year and is capped with a day-long picnic on the thirteen day of the new year. In Afghanistan, competitions like kite-flying and Bozkashi are a regular feature of Nowruz festivities. And so on and so forth.
One thing is constant, though: every year, as much of the earth begins to blossom in new and wonderful colors, Nowruz invites us to contemplate nature’s power of renewal and rejuvenation, to look more deeply, not just into the green world out there, but at our human nature as well. Today, for the millions of peoples coming from cultures where Nowruz has been celebrated for centuries, Nowruz combines memories of the homeland with the promise of a world that can transcend all political division to make a new beginning. To the world, it offers the potential of a human community in which a race of all races would emerge to create, out of our common and inalienable humanity, a new global culture beyond all nationhood and nationality. It aspires to no less than a human community as beautiful and colorful as nature on the first day of spring. Merry Nowruz, have a truly “new day,” and may we all live to see the grand new human community-in-the-making.
Roshan Center for Persian Studies
University of Maryland
College Park, MD 20742, USA
Merry Nowruz, have a truly “new day,” and a great new century and millennium.