What is Nowruz? Nowruz is the Iranian New Year celebration, nowadays celebrated throughout the Greater Iranian world, from Anatolia to Xinjiang. Nowadays, it is celebrated near around the time of the Spring Equinox, in late March. A very common tradition of Nowruz is the “Haft Sin” or “Seven S’s,” which are items arranged around a table or display that signify Nowruz and the spring. The Haft Sin is a fairly modern tradition, but Nowruz itself traces itself back to the earliest Iranian dynasties. But to really understand Nowruz in the ancient world, we have to take a step back and look at the calendars these ancient peoples were using first.
Ancient Iranian calendars
The ancient Iranian calendar is a 365 day calendar, perhaps inspired from Egyptian models, and has its roots in the middle of the Achaemenid dynasty, between the 6th and 4th Century BC. The naming of days, months, and festivals may have been much older, however, and were preserved in various versions of the ancient Iranian calendar. The calendar was split into 12 months of 30 days, and 5 extra days added to the end. The quarter-day was not always accounted for, and it was only during the Sasanian era (and within Sasanian territories) that it was accounted for by adding an extra month every 116 years. As a result, Nowruz drifted, and by the 6th – 8th Centuries AD, it had moved from the start of spring to the middle of summer. Iranian calendars are well attested, and Biruni compiled detailed descriptions of calendars and festivals. Finds from Sogdiana and Xinjiang have given us a good evidence base from which to reconstruct the Sogdian calendar.
The ancient Nowruz festival lasted over several days of the first month of the year, known variously as “Frawardin” or “Nausardh” across various parts of the Iranian world. “Frawardin” was known in Iran, whereas “Nausardh,” or variants thereof, was used in Sogdiana, Bactria, and Khwarazm. The earliest description of Nowruz festivities dates from the Arsacid era, particularly in the Parthian epic “Vis o Ramin.” The current edition of the story dates to the 11th Century AD, but a large part is derived from an Arsacid era original. Banqueting features prominently here. It is possible that during the Arsacid era, Nowruz and a separate spring festival were separated, to allow for the drift of the Iranian calendar. The Sasanian Kings, as well as banqueting, were presented with several gifts, including birds of prey, and a white hawk was set free – white being the pure colour, in Zoroastrian symbolism.
As well as banqueting, which features commonly in Sogdian Nowruz scenes (and other pieces of Iranian art), there were a number of other customs surrounding Nowruz throughout the ancient Greater Iranian world. Biruni mentions that people gave each other gifts of sugar – in accordance with a legend held by the priests of Baghdad, that sugarcane was first discovered during the reign of Jamshid on the day of Nowruz. Jahiz, writing in the 9th Century, recounts a similar custom, whereby on Nowruz, singing girls would present a gift of an embroidered belt and some sugar to their lovers. A vessel of white sugar is presented to the Sasanian Kings in Pseudo-Jahiz’s account of Nowruz, writing several centuries after the fact.
The Haft Sin (Seven S’s) also may have some tentative roots in pre-Islamic or early Islamic times. Biruni states that it was customary to sow seven kinds of grain around a plate, and to draw conclusions about the fortune of the year by looking at the way these grains grew. Pseudo-Jahiz also recounts the importance of the number seven. In his account of Nowruz, the Sasanian King was presented with twigs of seven types of trees, seven white earthenware plates, and seven white coins of the year.
Nowruz, importantly, was the date of coronation of Iranian kings, following in the footsteps of the mythological Jamshid.
Nowruz and the Sogdians
The Sogdians celebrated Nowruz, along with other Iranian peoples, and they celebrated it in the middle of summer. The first month of the Sogdian year is named “Nausardh,” and Nowruz was called “Nogroc.” The most famous Sogdian depiction of Nowruz is from the Afrasiyab paintings (Samarkand), dated to the reign of Varkhuman in the 650s AD. Sogdiana at the time was part of the Tang Chinese protectorate, and Emperor Gaozong sent an envoy to Sogdiana to hold an official investiture. The square “Hall of Ambassadors” in Afrasyiab contains four scenes – a Chinese scene showing the Chinese Emperor hunting a leopard and the Chinese Empress on a boat; a largely lost Indian scene; an investiture scene; and a royal parade. The investiture and parade scenes feature Varkhuman himself prominenltly, wearing a red silk tunic made in a decorated polychrome brocade, and carrying a sword and bowcase made of leopard from his hip.
Nowruz occurred very shortly after Frawardigan, which was the Zoroastrian holy day commemorating the dead, often celebrated by burning juniper for the scent, and took place at the end of the year. The Sogdians may have merged elements of Frawardigan with Nowruz, as described by the Chinese Suishu and Tong Dian, which state:
“South east of the capital a building has been erected, in the middle of which a throne has been set up. On the sixth day of the first month and the fifteenth day of the seventh month, a gold urn containing the bones of the King’s ancestors is placed on the throne and the court parades are held around it, strewing incense, flowers, and various kinds of fruits. When the ceremony is over, the King and his wife go outside to a separate tent where the ministers arrange themselves by rank and all sit down to a feast.”
This particular ritual may be pictured on the Parade scene at Afrasiyab. The wall painting shows a procession led by a queen mounted in an elephant, followed by her ladies in waiting mounted on horseback riding sidesaddle. Following her ladies are the Zoroastrian clergy, riding camels and carrying wooden sceptres. Additional members of the clergy lead a saddled, riderless horse which may be being led to the sacrifice, and a number of geese. Following the clergy is Varkhuman himself, depicted larger than life, wearing his elaborate brocade coat and carrying a bowcase made of leopard skin. Following Varkhuman are the representatives of the eight Sogdian principalities, also dressed in elaborate silks and carrying banners.
Tabari also mentions duels between horsemen taking place on Nowruz, and the Chinese Tongdian has an interesting anecdote about archery on Nowruz:
“They make the first day of the sixth month the beginning of the year; when this day arrives, the King and the people all dress in new clothes and cut their hair and beards. At the foot of a forest east of the capital, a bow is drawn for seven days; and when the last day arrives, a gold coin is placed on a sheet of paper to serve as a target. Whoever hits this target has the right to be king for a day.”
Nowruz today is one of the most important Iranian holidays, celebrated across the Iranian and Central Asian worlds. With that, we hope you had had an excellent day yesterday, and please do send us pictures of your Haft Sin spreads!