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Nowruz and Iran (the former Persia)

Contributing Author:


Davood N. Rahni

The Norooz Festival is immortalized in the Decree of Cyrus the Great, founder of the Persian Achaemenid Empire, granting national, cultural and religious freedoms to the peoples of Babylon and beyond in 542 B.C.E.:

“When I entered Babylon (on Norooz) and other lands I conquered, I did not allow anyone to terrorize the land or its people... I kept in view the needs of Babylon and all its sanctuaries to promote their well-being. The citizens of Babylon... I lifted their unbecoming yoke (slavery). Their dilapidated dwellings I restored. I put an end to their misfortunes.” ...Thus said the Lord to his anointed, to Cyrus, whose right hand I have holden (Isaiah, XLV-1-3).

Norooz, the new day or the New Year in Persian is the cyclical celebration of the Spring Equinox. Instituted by the Zoroastrians, it is the most cherished and celebrated of all Iranian festivals; it has been observed by all peoples of the broad Iranian plateau for millennia. Commemorating the periodic rebirth and rejuvenation of nature, Norooz has been observed, in one form or another, since 3,000 BCE by all the major cultures of ancient Mesopotamia, and southwest and south central Asia, namely, the Akaddians, the Assyrians, the Babylonians, the Chaldeans, the Elamites, the Medes, the Sumerians, and the Persians.

Today, Norooz is still celebrated annually in a wide arc of territory extending from the Aral Lake and Indus River to the east, the Caspian Sea to the north, the Black and Mediterranean Seas to the west, and the Persian Gulf to the south. Iranian peoples (Persians, Azeris, Kurds, Lurs, Tajiks, Baluchis, Bakhtiaris and Gilanis) as well as other peoples in the proximity (e.g., Armenians, Assyrians, Afghanis, Kazakhs and Kashmiris) all participate in the Norooz celebration. It is interesting that the first day of spring was also observed by Europeans throughout the Middle Ages, and also the American pilgrims during the early 18th century as the “common” New Year.

The roots of Norooz can be traced to Zoroastrianism, which is believed to be the world’s first monotheistic religion. Zoroastrianism considers Nowooz as the last day of the seven day creation epoch; thus the ritual of the Haft Sin, or the seven life-related, mostly plant based, symbolic heralds, all beginning with the letter “S” in the Persian language. During the Norooz holidays, families and friends visit each other, pay their respect to the elderly, reach out and reconcile with adversaries, visit the resting places of the deceased, and make donations to the impoverished and the sick. They give and receive presents during the thirteen day period that ends on April 1st (April fool’s day) when everyone spends the whole day in the country dancing, singing and playing. The commemoration of Norooz recalls the seventh day of creation, when homage is paid to the Creator or Mother Nature, with rest, play and party activities.

Norooz celebrates the Lord of Wisdom and the holy “halo” fire in anticipation of the Spring Equinox. The oldest archaeological record for Norooz celebrations comes from the recordings of over 2500 years ago. An inscription on Persepolis Palace, the Achaemenid dynasty summer capital depicts the Persian Monarch, Darius, accepting gifts from diverse peoples who lived in a federation of territories, stretching from Asia to Europe and North Africa. His father Cyrus the Great is cited as the world’s first true supreme emperor who ruled his vast realm with compassion and justice, a legacy acknowledged by the Greek historian Herodotus. His declaration of Human Rights on a clay tablet is kept at the UN.

Historically speaking, back in 1821 a young Englishman, following his passion for unearthing the lost world of the ancient east, came upon a peculiar monument in the heart of the Iranian plateau. He wrote in his diary:
The very venerable appearance of this historical ruin instantly awed me. I found I had no right conception of it. I sat for near an hour on the steps contemplating it until the moon rose on it, and I began to think that this, in reality, must be the tomb of the best, the most illustrious, and the most interesting of Oriental sovereigns.

The resting place of Cyrus the Great, the founder of the Achaemenid Empire in 550 BC had been identified. This was followed by the identification of ancient Passargädae, the capital of the Empire, in the nearby plain. The few sources on Cyrus portrayed him not just as an empire builder, but a man possessing rare qualities, deeply rooted in his ancestral sportsmanship of horseback riding, with an appreciation of earth’s bounties, the cultural diversity of humanity and the celestial objects in the sky. In the Bible (Old Testament) for instance, the Book of Ezra tells of Cyrus’s liberating the scattered Jews of Babylon, restoring their temple which had been destroyed by Assyrian king Nabopolassar. Cyrus invited the scattered Jews back to Jerusalem to freely practice their cultural and religious rituals without fear of persecution.

Iranian (from the Satem branch of the Indo-European), Medean and Persian tribes had settled in the Iranian plateau as late as the eleventh century BCE. This plateau has always been regarded as a crossroad between East and West for cultural, scientific, and technological discourse. The name Iran is derived from the ancient Iranian genitive plural aryanam, meaning [land] of the Aryans. It is interesting to note the appearance of the same terminology in Europe such as Ireland, again meaning the land of the Aryans.

Cyrus’s ultimate dream of unifying nations from south Asia to Asia Minor and North Africa was finally realized during the reign of his successor, Darius. In Choga Zanbil, a “ziggurat” or sacred city multi-level high rise urban structure, built by the Elamite king Untash-Gal around 1250 BC, substantiates the vast contributions of these inhabitants. Going further back, one can discern the existence of organized tribes of hunters/gatherers in northwestern Iran dating as back as 12,000 years ago. There have been a plethora of discoveries of early successive settlements built atop one another. These have been excavated in northwestern Iran’s Godin Tepe, a region dating back to at least 8,000 years ago. Iran has been a unified cultural and historical entity for at least 2500 years.

In recent times, although there have been sporadic numbers of Iranians who have immigrated to Europe and North America starting in the 19th century, a mass exodus has occurred since the 70's due to political changes in Iran. There are an estimated three million Iranians living abroad today. According to the US census and other independent think tanks, the Americans of Iranian ancestry are among the most educated and the most affluent communities in the US, and have substantially contributed to the US economy in the hundreds of billions of dollars, and thus immeasurably to the US quality of life. For instance, one can hardly find an American university or college, medical, business or civil sector, and artistic area where Iranian- Americans are not well represented. The Iranian-American Community of one million strong is found in every corner of the US and Canada. There are large communities in the New York metropolitan area, Boston, Washington D.C., Los Angles, San Francisco, San Diego, San Jose, Dallas, Houston, Atlanta, and in Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal. The total number of peoples of Iranian ancestry worldwide, including 70 million in today’s Iran, is estimated at 150 million.

Davood N. Rahni ©. Pictures by Ali Afshar and Behzad Ahandoost.

"Cyrus’s ultimate dream of unifying nations from south Asia to Asia Minor and North Africa was finally realized during the reign of his successor, Darius."
Iran-Dokht

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