By popular count at least, the coming solar year 1400 will usher in a new century in Afghanistan. Taking this as an exceptional once-in-a-lifetime chance, AAN researcher Reza Kazemi taps into a diverse array of sources, including history, literature and folk music, to look at Nawruz in deep time and through Afghanistan as a kaleidoscopic case of its celebrations. Nawruz is an ancient festival that has – remarkably – stayed alive for millennia. Its enduring delight stems from the way that, throughout a vast cultural region, it connects people to the wonderful beginning of the natural year cycle: spring is here.A tree in bloom, Herat, February 2021.
The Nawruz, or New Day, of the coming solar year 1400 marks the start of the fifteenth century according to the solar hejri calendar (more details below), the most commonly used calendar in Afghanistan. This is a rare chance, which comes not once a year but once a hundred years, to look at Nawruz through its unimaginably long history with Afghanistan as a special example of its commemorations. So we begin by placing Nawruz in its historical context, describe its diverse celebrations in Afghanistan and conclude with some thoughts on this specific Nawruz that comes in deeply anxious and uncertain times, in the midst of a ruthless war and heightened risk of drought in the country, but also a pandemic with wide-ranging fallout here and across the world.
A historical overview
Nawruz has most likely been celebrated from time immemorial. Here, we follow the usual approach to looking at the festival by dividing its commemorations into pre-Islamic and Islamic times. The highlights from Nawruz’s long history, detailed below, show just how it has persisted over the centuries and indeed millennia.
Before the emergence of Islam
Nawruz marks the point when the length of day and night is equal – the spring equinox in the northern hemisphere. It is therefore inextricably connected to the arrival of spring, when the earth is gradually warmed and colourfully reanimated after what in our region is usually a cold and harsh winter. This naturally occurring cycle makes it easy to understand why Nawruz has served as an anchor in the similarly naturally ordered, festival-packed calendar of the ancient Zoroastrians. Nawruz has been central to their calendar because it marks the boundary between the end of the old and the beginning of the new natural year.
The founder of the religion, Zoroaster, tapped into the natural year cycle to explain his teachings in what would become Zoroastrianism. According to a detailed sub-entry for Encyclopaedia Iranica by the late Mary Boyce, a philologist and Zoroastrianism scholar, Zoroaster drew on Nawruz to clarify his notion of the constant struggle between light (spring) and darkness (winter) and his belief that light would eventually win. Zoroaster was preaching, writes Boyce, to “an ancient, non-literate, pastoral people… who used no images to sustain belief, but venerated divinity in and through what they saw and experienced in the world around them.” In this way, the natural and the spiritual were integrated in a religious worldview that revolved around Nawruz as its axis.
The Zoroastrian solar calendar had 12 months of 30 days each (that is, 360 days per year). To harmonise it with the actual natural year, which is approximately, but not exactly, 365 days, and to make sure Nawruz came at or near the spring equinox (that is, when the Sun is exactly above the Equator and the day and night are of an equal length), the Zoroastrians added a thirteenth month to their calendar, ideally every six years. This additional month would compensate for the five ‘missing’ days in their 360-day year for a period of six years. However, the addition – or ‘intercalation’ – was probably done clumsily and messily whenever “the festivals [primarily Nawruz] were felt to be falling unacceptably behind due season,” according to Boyce.
Driven by a concern to order and run its vast administration more efficiently, the Achaemenid empire (550-330 BCE) embarked on reforming the Zoroastrian calendar on the basis of the 365-day model then used in Egypt. During the rule of Xerxes (486-465 BCE), the empire added five days to the end of each year, thus not only switching to a 365-day calendar but also, importantly, putting Nawruz off by five days every year. This caused confusion for and resistance among devout populations. It also gave rise to the celebration of ‘two Nawruzes,’ one imperial and one devotional, as Boyce describes:
Most people… ignored the 5 extra days and celebrated Nowruz, as usual, but with perforce diminished observances, in the privacy of their own homes, and then continued counting the days normally, so that when the time came for the official celebration of Nowruz with religious rites and public banquets, it was by their reckoning not 1.1. [month one, day one] but 1.6. [month one, day six]… in time these duplications… came to be a joy to the devout as the protraction of times rich in worship, and to others a welcome additional holidays [sic] (although necessary work still had to be done, and only priests and the rich could have kept the full period without any secular activities).
The encyclopaedic sub-entry leaves out the succeeding Seleucid empire (312-63 BCE), but refers to the earliest extant short description of outdoor regal and public celebrations of Nawruz during the Arsacid (also known as Parthian) empire (247 BCE-224 CE). The Sassanids (224-651 CE), the last pre-Islamic empire in the region, added a quarter day to the 365-calendar every year (that is, one full day every four years), mirroring the Julian calendar of 365 ¼ days adopted in the Roman empire in 46 BCE. However, the Sassanid rulers let the Zoroastrian priests go ahead with their calendar, thereby ending up with a secular New Year’s day and a sacred Nawruz, with the two seldom falling on the exact same day.
While less important festivals of ‘old’ religions were overshadowed by and ultimately abandoned under the influence of competing Islamic holidays, Nawruz has displayed a unique quality in surviving and prospering. According to the late archaeologist Shapur Shahbazi’s detailed sub-entry for Encyclopaedia Iranica, this is because Nawruz is deeply connected to the longstanding traditions, histories and memories in the region to the point of becoming inseparable from regional identities, regardless of any shifts in political power.
In fact, various Islamic dynasties that subsequently ruled in the cultural region where Nawruz is marked also celebrated the occasion. The Umayyads (661-750 CE) and the Abbasids (750-1258) ceremoniously marked the festival, though they Islamised it to some extent by replacing any previous religious symbols with those of Islam (for example, the Quran instead of other holy books). The same went for various other dynasties such as the Tahirids (821-873), the Samanids (819-999), the Buyids (934-1062) and the Ghaznavids (977-1186) that rose to power mainly in and around the extensive historical region of Khorasan, including Afghanistan. Shahbazi refers to the example of Azod ul-Dawla, a Buyid emir (r 949-983), who:
… customarily welcomed Nowruz in a majestic hall, wherein servants had placed gold and silver plates and vases full of fruit and colorful flowers. He sat on a costly seat (masnad), and the court astronomer came forward, kissed the ground, and congratulated him on the arrival of the New Year. Then the king summoned the musicians and singers and invited his boon companions. They entered and filed in to their assigned places, and all enjoyed a great festive occasion.
However, Nawruz has never been limited to the mighty and their festivities. Rather, it has been more sustainably marked by the diverse range of people living in villages and towns throughout a vast region, thereby transcending religious, political, social and other divides. Among many different other markers, writes Shahbazi, “people exchanged presents… kindled fire… bathed in the streams… and sprinkled water on each other.”
At the same time, there has almost always been a debate on the Islamicness of Nawruz and even opposition to it as a pre-Islamic tradition belonging to what are called fire- or idol-worshippers (read about a similar controversy about Nawruz celebrations in Afghanistan in the early 2010s in this previous AAN report). In earlier centuries, opponents called either for the restriction of specific Nawruz rituals (for example, lighting bonfires, throwing water on passers-by, getting dressed in ‘non-Muslim’ ways and dyeing eggs) or for the full prohibition of the festival as ‘sinful.’ They instead stressed the superiority of Islamic festivals.
In spite of all the ups and downs in the course of history, however, Nawruz has lived on. This distinctive characteristic of the festival to survive has perhaps been best described by the twentieth-century Iranian sociologist, Ali Shariati, in his famous article on Nawruz:
Nowruz has always been dear, in the eyes of the magi, in the view of the mubads… in the eyes of Muslims… Everyone has held Nowruz dear and has spoken of it. Even the philosophers and the learned have said, “Nowruz is the first day of creation…” What a beautiful myth, more beautiful than reality! By the way, doesn’t everyone feel that the first day of Spring is the first day of creation?… Certainly on the first day of Spring, vegetation has begun to grow, the rivers to flow, the blossoms to bloom, the buds to smile… Nowruz!… In all its different phases, this time-trodden old one, in all its centuries, with all generations and with our forefathers, from now back to the mythical time of Jamshid… has continued to live with all of us.
The special survivability of Nawruz thus simply lies in its entanglement with the beginning of the natural year cycle in the region. This is most memorably reflected in classic Persian/Dari poetry, especially by Saadi and Hafez who lived in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, respectively. The following lines exquisitely capture not only the inherent interconnectedness of Nawruz with the revival of nature in the spring, but also the transience of life that both Nawruz and spring simultaneously embody:
چون است حال بستان ای باد نوبهاری
کز بلبلان برآمد فریاد بیقراری
How is the flower meadow doing, O Wind of the Early Spring?
For the nightingales cry out of restlessness
ز کوی یار میآید نسیم باد نوروزی
ازین باد ار مدد خواهی چراغ دل برافروزی
به صحرا رو که از دامن غبار غم بیفشانی
به گلزار آی کز بلبل غزل گفتن بیاموزی
سخن در پرده میگویم چو گل از غنچه بیرون آی
که بیش از پنج روز نیست حکم میر نوروزی
From the place of the sweetheart blows the breeze of Nawruz
If you ask this breeze for help, it’ll delight your heart
Go to the plain to shed the dust of sorrow
Come to the flower meadow to learn life from the nightingale
I say obliquely: grow as does a flower from a bud
For the rule of mir-e Nawruzi lasts no longer than five days
Nawruz in Afghanistan
Calendar-wise, Afghanistan officially switched from the lunar hejri to the solar hejri calendar in the solar hejri year 1301 (1922). The lunar and solar hejri calendars both take the prophet Muhammad’s migration (hejra) from Mecca to Medina in 622 CE as their point of departure, but differ in terms of the basis on which they calculate the passage of time since: twelve moon cycles produce 354 or 355 days in a year, while the circling of the sun by the earth results in approximately 365 ¼ days in a year – meaning the lunar hejri calendar has been around ten days shorter than the solar hejri calendar every passing year since 622 CE. Judging by the calendar shift in Afghanistan in the early 1920s, the next year (1401) could mark a century of Nawruz celebrations in Afghanistan based on the solar hejri calendar.
These calendar-related details aside, Nawruz has been marked in the territory of modern-day Afghanistan from time immemorial. In the list of what are called Afghanistan’s intangible cultural heritage submitted by the Ministry of Information and Culture to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) in May 2010, the ministry refers to the origins of Nawruz in the mythical Pishdadian dynasty (see footnote 9), briefly goes through its pre-Islamic and Islamic history and then highlights Nawruz celebrations in Balkh in northern Afghanistan following the emergence of the shrine of Ali ibn Abi Taleb (cousin and son-in-law of the prophet Muhammad, fourth caliph of Sunni Islam and first imam of Shia Islam, also known as Hazrat Ali) there in the sixth lunar hejri century (twelfth century CE). This appears to hint at the interlinking of Nawruz and Islam in Afghanistan, mirroring the larger historical narrative described above.
Leaving histories of the first ‘who,’ ‘when,’ ‘where’ and maybe even ‘how’ of long-past Nawruz celebrations aside, there is clearly a kaleidoscope of celebrations of the festival in present-day Afghanistan (see some of the celebrations visualised, for instance, in this short English-language video clip). Afghans prepare for the festival several days, or even a couple of weeks, ahead of Nawruz. The day marks not only the rebirth of nature, but also the start of the new (solar hejri) year. For example, many families begin their preparations with khana takani, ‘house shaking’ in Dari – cleaning their houses and washing or, increasingly in the cities, getting their carpets washed. They also go shopping, particularly to buy new clothes for children and sweets and dried and fresh fruit for the relatives and friends who will visit during the holiday. Various family members, particularly women and children, are centrally active, not only in arranging the khana takani and the shopping, but also organising other symbolic, age-old activities. Prominent in Afghanistan is the preparation of Nawruz-specific food, particularly haft mewa (seven dried fruits soaked in water for a couple of days before Nawruz) and samanak, a renowned sweet meal (more on these ancient culinary treats in this previous AAN report). Particularly memorable is the song the celebrating girls and women sing while preparing samanak (Dari version and its English translation from the just-cited AAN report):
سمنک در جوش ما کپچه زنیم
دیگران در خواب ما دبچه زنیم
سمنک نذر بهار است
سمنک سالی یک بار است
دخترها گردش قطار است
سال دیگر یا نصیب
Samanak is boiling and we stir it with our spoons
The others are sleeping, we make our ladles resound
Samanak is the offering of spring
Samanak comes once a year
The girls are sitting around it
One more year of good luck
Nawruz goes beyond family get-togethers and eating special food in Afghanistan. Officially, there are also the ceremonies of janda bala (raising the flag) in the shrines of Hazrat Ali in the northern city of Mazar-e Sharif and in the capital Kabul, known respectively as Rauza-ye Mubarak, ‘auspicious shrine,’ and Ziyarat-e Sakhi, ‘shrine of the generous one.’ Attended by high-ranking central and provincial government officials and foreign invitees as well as ordinary people, the Mazar-e Sharif ceremony is considered to be by far the more important because it launches a forty-day festival known as gol-e sorkh (red tulip), during which people flock to the city from all over Afghanistan. Throughout the country, people visit one another, go on picnics and play or watch folk games. We looked at some of these in a companion Nawruz report on folk games in Afghanistan, but there are also professional buzkashi matches and the amateurish swimming of children in streams and rivers. There is also a longstanding tradition of planting saplings and shrubs, especially just before the coming of spring, and the second of the two-day public Nawruz holiday is known as ruz-e dehqan (farmer’s day). In prominent sites in villages and towns across the country, you can see growers opening makeshift stalls to sell plants, many just coming into flower. In some cities such as Herat in the west, you can also find people selling goldfish and sabza – sprouted wheat – at some intersections.
Nawruz also has a significant element of folklore and music in Afghanistan. An example that this author believes has received less attention is the fascinating love story of Mullah Mammad (colloquial pronunciation of ‘Muhammad’) Jan, an ordinary religious student, and a young girl called Ayesha, daughter of a high-ranking military officer, in medieval Herat city in western Afghanistan.
According to this publicly available Dari-language version of the story, Mullah Mammad Jan lived during the reign of Hossein Bayeqra (r 1470-1506) (details on this particular sultan, his famed vizier Alisher Navai and generally on medieval Herat in the author’s recent report). He used to walk from his madrasa to a nearby spring to take a break from his studies, as well as to get ablutions to say his prayers. One day, as the story goes, a quick wind blew up that carried the headscarf of Ayesha, who happened to be with other women around the spring, to Mullah Mammad Jan. Ayesha came to take her headscarf and that was when they saw and fell in love with each other. Mullah Mammad Jan left his studies soon after and approached the house of Ayesha’s father to ask for marriage. Her father, an officer close to the Timurid rulers, refused because Mullah Mammad Jan was a poor common man. However, the two lovers promised each other that if ever they managed to marry, they would go to the gol-e sorkh festival in Mazar-e Sharif and serve the shrine of Hazrat Ali for some time.
One day, while passing the area around the spring with his entourage, Alisher Navai overheard Ayesha singing a song. After hearing it in full, Navai came towards Ayesha and kindly asked her who Mullah Mammad Jan was and why she singing about him. Ayesha felt ashamed and kept silent. Navai said he would help her if she told him the story, which she then did. So Navai intervened and secured the consent of Ayesha’s father for the marriage. The two lovers then went to Mazar-e Sharif around the time of Nawruz where they got married and served the Hazrat Ali shrine for a while, thereby fulfilling the promise they had made to each other. The following is the well-known Mullah Mammad Jan song; watch it sung by the twentieth-century Afghan singer Sarban here:
بیا که بریم به مزار ملا ممد جان
سیل گل لالهزار واوا دلبر جان
سر کوه بلند فریاد کردم
علی شیر خدا را یاد کردم
علی شیر خدا یا شاه مردان
دل ناشاد ما را شاد گردان
بیا که بریم به مزار ملا ممد جان
سیل گل لالهزار واوا دلبر جان
سخی شیر خدا دردم دوا کن
مناجات مرا پیش خدا کن
چراغ روغنی نذرته میتوم
به هر جا عاشق است دردش دوا کن
Let’s go to Mazar, Mullah Mammad Jan
To see the field of tulips, O my sweetheart
I let out my cry from atop a high mountain
I shouted the name of Ali, the Lion of God
O Ali, the Lion of God and the King of Men
Make our unhappy hearts happy
Let’s go to Mazar, Mullah Mammad Jan
To see the field of tulips, O my sweetheart
O the Generous One, the Lion of God, heal my pain
Convey my supplication before God
I’ll make you an offering [in your shrine]
Heal the pain of lovers wherever they are
Given this rich and diverse heritage in the country, Afghanistan joined ten other countries (Albania, Azerbaijan, India, Iran, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Macedonia, Tajikistan, Turkey and Turkmenistan) to internationalise the festival. Following its inclusion in what is called UNESCO’s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanityin 2009, the UN General Assembly recognised 21 March as the international Nawruz day in 2010. According to the UN, Nawruz “is celebrated as the beginning of the new year by more than 300 million people all around the world and has been celebrated for over 3,000 years in the Balkans, the Black Sea Basin, the Caucasus, Central Asia, the Middle East and other regions.”
Nawruz, the festival that has survived millennia, comes round in good times and bad. This year, it will be marked by Afghans while war wreaks havoc to their lives and the Covid-19 pandemic also continues to take, harm and restrict lives across the world. It also comes amid fears of a drought this year – a reminder that climate change and a warming earth may transform the millennia-long Nawruz. Acknowledging all this suffering in Afghanistan and the much larger world, we at AAN, nonetheless, take the opportunity to wish you a safe, healthy and, we hope, happy Nawruz, for, as Hafez says, life is too short not to be happy, at least sometimes:
نوبهار است در آن کوش که خوشدل باشی
که بسی گل بدمد باز و تو در گِل باشی
It’s early spring and try to be happy in heart
Flowers will blossom many times and you’ll become dust
Edited by Christian Bleuer and Kate Clark
Unless otherwise specified, photos are by the author. And unless otherwise specified, English translations of the poetry and song are by the author.
This article was last updated on 21 Mar 2021