Nowruz is a spring solstice celebration that marks the beginning of the New Year according to the traditional Persian calendar. It has been a beloved holiday for some 3,000 years, surviving cultural change caused by centuries of tumultuous history. It is now celebrated on the set date of March 21st.
The holiday has long been celebrated over a wide geographic area including primarily the mostly-Muslim countries of Western Asia, Central Asia, the Caspian Sea region, and the Balkans. Nowruz is an official holiday in Afghanistan, Albania, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Iraqi Kurdistan, Kazakhstan, Kosovo, Kyrgyzstan, Mongolia’s Bayan-Ölgii province, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan.
In Russia and the United States, Nowruz celebrations are growing in popularity in large part because of the Iranian and Tajik diasporas there.
Traditions surrounding this holiday vary across the diverse cultures that celebrate it. This article will focus on the history and celebration of Nowruz in Central Asia. It will also look most specifically at the traditions of Tajikistan, a Persian-speaking country, and Uzbekistan, a Turkic-speaking country.
What is Nowruz?
Because Nowruz has been long celebrated by diverse populations speaking very different languages, Nowruz is known by many different names. Further, because it is transliterated to English from languages that use non-Latin scripts such as Arabic and Cyrillic, there are many different spellings. However, nearly all of these are phonetically similar and mutually intelligible – such as Norooz, Nawrouz, Newroz, Novruz, and Nowrouz. Likewise, the celebrations are also diverse, but can also be recognized by other groups as being a Nowruz celebration.
The closest in phonetic pronunciation for American English for the holiday name as used in Central Asia would actually be Navruz. In Tajiki as well as other Persian languages, нав (nav) means “new” while руз (ruz) means “day.” Thus, together, Navruz means “new day.”
In her book The Spectacular State: Culture and National Identity in Uzbekistan, author Laura L. Adams defines Nowruz as “a holiday of spring that celebrates the triumph of warmth and light over cold and darkness, the renewal of nature, and the beginning of the agricultural labor cycle.” UNESCO put Nowruz on their Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, noting that it “promotes values of peace and solidarity between generations and within families as well as reconciliation and neighborliness.”
The Long, Long History of Nowruz
Nowruz originated from Zoroastrianism, an ancient monotheistic religion that predates Christianity. Zoroaster, the religion’s creator, was likely born around 628 BCE and was Persian. He was highly concerned with questions of death and rebirth and how good (equated with light and knowledge) can conquer evil (equated with ignorance and darkness). Many of the stories and much of the philosophy of Zoroastrianism’s holy book, The Avesta, have parallels in Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, which all originated in the same geographic region as Zoroastrainism.
Because it is so old, the beginnings of Nowruz are shrouded in folklore and mystery. The Avesta mentions Nowruz as one of Zoroastrianism’s seven important celebrations. That book however, was only assembled in 1323 CE, although the texts it brought together are likely much older. The Persian national epic, The Shahnameh, states that King Jamshid started Nowruz to save humanity from a long winter that threatened to kill every living thing. However, King Jamshid, most historians agree, is likely an entirely fictional character of Persian mythology.
We do know that in the Achaemenid Empire, around the fifth century BCE, that Nowruz was celebrated and was likely the most important holiday of the year. We know as well that it had a similar status under the Sassanids from about the 3rd to 7th centuries CE. We also know that as Zoroastrianism spread across Iran and Central Asia, it brought Nowruz along with it. We know that it persisted after the arrival of Arab invaders and Islam to the area well after the 7th century CE and that, when the Russian Empire conquered Central Asia in the 1800s, Nowruz celebrations also continued.
Nowruz has survived revolutions and oppressive governments that have attempted to ban or coopt the holiday in recent times. Soviet Russia, post-revolution Iran, and the Taliban government of Afghanistan, for instance, all attempted to ban the holiday at some point, feeling that the ancient Zoorastrian-rooted tradition didn’t correspond with their own ideologies. However, Nowruz traditions were and are still celebrated in all these affected areas.
With the fall of the USSR, Nowruz celebrations have experienced a revival across Central Asia and much of the Caucuses as the peoples of each country have looked back to their pre-soviet traditions as a basis on which to build new, distinct national and ethnic identities. For many, Nowruz is a powerful part of that identity.
Today, among the cultures that celebrate it, Nowruz is generally seen as a new start with a clean slate. People make amends, clean their houses, and buy or make new clothes to start the New Year. It is believed that for the New Year, everything should be as if new again.
The Haft Sin Table
Nowruz is marked with what is called a “Haft Sin Table.” This relatively new tradition has only appeared in the last century and requires that the table be set with seven things that start with the same letter. In Persian, this is “sin,” which is voiced as “s.” In Tajik many of the words used for the table in other Persian cultures are pronounced with a “ш” at the start. Ш is known as “shin” and voiced as “sh” in Tajik. The name of the tradition, most known internationally as “Haft Sin” and in Tajikistan as “Haft Shin” translates to “Seven ‘S’s” or “Seven ‘Sh’s.”
The items are placed on the table, often in a stylized manner, to bring good luck in the coming year. There is considerable flexibility as to what items are used, so long as their name begins with the appropriate sound in the appropriate language. In at least one Tajik celebration, the seven items used were шир (milk), шона (sprouts), шарбат (juice), шамъ (candle), шакар (sugar), шароб (wine) and ширинӣ (sweets).
Also traditional to include in a table setting are a Koran, eggs, mirrors, poetry, goldfish, and clocks. These do not necessarily fall under the Haft Sin grouping, but they do have symbolic meaning that harkens back to Zoroastrian traditions of celebrating rebirth, life, light, and knowledge.
Above: Sumalak is made for Nowruz. This video shows you each step of the long and labor-intensive process.
Traditional Nowruz Foods
Шона (sprouts) are particularly popular across cultures on the Haft Sin table in part because they symbolize new life and in part because they are the main ingredient in the celebration’s most popular food: Sumalak.
The sprouts must be carefully, hydroponically grown indoors with enough moisture and warmth to sprout but not rot. They must also be grown to just the right length (under 5cm), to give the sumalak its traditional sweet taste. If the sprouts get too long before it is time to cook them, the dish will be bitter.
To create sumalak, the sprouts are first ground and strained with water to create a whitish liquid. The liquid is boiled with oil and flour for hours with constant stirring. The dish is so labor intensive that it is usually done in large batches with several women helping who then share the end product. The event is often treated as a party, gathering neighbors, family members, and classmates who sing and talk together as they continually stir for hours. If done properly, the sumalak will be strikingly sweet. It can be eaten on bread or just by itself.
Other food traditions will differ from culture to culture, often with local influences affecting the traditions.
Halim is particularly well-known in Uzbekistan, for instance. Like sumalak, it is highly labor intensive, typically cooked in large batches by groups, but is traditionally cooked by men. Halim is of Arabic origin and is known as a food that was often cooked for Muslim holidays in which food was distributed to the poor. Because halim is so difficult to make, it was believed that only the most pious would make this food to give away.
Halim starts with meat seared in oil. Water is then added, as is wheat, and the whole mixture is cooked with constant, vigorous stirring until it becomes one homogenous mass with a hearty flavor and a consistency similar to melted cheese.
Above: Halim is made for Nowruz in Uzbekistan. This video shows you each step of the long and labor-intensive process. It is captioned in Russian and voiced mostly in Uzbek, but also very clearly shows what is happening.
Both halim and sumalak are believed to have exceptional health-giving powers and both are believed to help rejuvenate the body after winter.
Plov, a regional favorite, is also often served. This is a simpler dish rice and meat. Tajiks will often prepare their signature oshi plov, which has chick peas added and is served with hardboiled eggs and lemon. Oshi plov is believed to create peace and community among those that eat it together.
Other traditional dishes, such as samsa, a fried pastry, and chuchvara, a dumpling, usually meat filled, are often made with vegetable filling in a nod to spring and the new availability of greens.
In many cultures that celebrate Nowruz, wrestling and equestrian sports are particularly popular. As Nowruz celebrates life and strength, it makes sense that sports are a big part of the festival.
Most of the cultures have a specific type of wrestling that they consider a source of national pride. For instance, the Tajiks wrestle in a style called “gushtigiri” and will tell of its connections to their ancestors, Sogdians and Bactrians. The Uzbek style is called “kurash” and has links to the national hero Tamerlane, who used the sport to train his troops.
Equestrian sports are dominated in Central Asia by a game in which one must carry a whole goat carcass while on horseback and deposit it into a goal. In Tajikistan, where the sport is known as “buzkashi,” and Uzbekistan, where it is known as “kupkari,” it is particularly chaotic, often with dozens of players all playing against each other and with almost no rules except one against knocking another player off his horse – which could result in death in such conditions. The sport takes considerable strength, a well-trained horse of great endurance, and equestrian skill. It also has historically military ties, as Central Asia’s greatest armies were equestrian.
Social hierarchy can also be seen in these games. The day often begins with boys on the field, and ends with older men. The matches are instigated by a village elder or other resected person. Older men are given the best seats from which to watch. Lastly, it is only men who participate. Women do not compete and often do not attend these matches.
Fire, Poetry, and Song
Other common customs include fires. Some cultures will make smaller fires and jump over them. This tradition was once held by many cultures and is believed to give health or grant wishes. Today, the fires are more often used a space to enjoy the night with family reciting poetry or singing traditional songs.
Particularly in major cities, one can find major concerts held and other large-scale festivities. In Dushanbe, the capital of Tajikistan, for instance, there is a parade that features the Nowruz Princess, typically a young girl, as well as dancers from different regions of Tajikistan, floats showing Tajik national food, and more. In fact, in Tajikistan, Nowruz is a weeklong holiday to fit in all the festivities.
In Uzbekistan, there are several rituals such as singing “Kelin salom” (“The Bride’s Hello”), a song traditionally sang at weddings. During Nowruz, new brides or young women act out the Kelin salom while wearing traditional Uzbek dresses. In Uzbekistan, workers have three days off from work to celebrate Nowruz.
The Tajiks also have a traditional poem to recite called the “Bakhor omad,” which tells how the New Year came in spring to renew the cycle of life.
Above: a performance of Kelin Salom in Uzbekistan.
Throughout the area that it is celebrated, Nowruz represents a holiday of cleaning and cooking, of eating and spending time with loved ones, and of sport and taking joy in language, dance, and song. Nowruz is also almost uniformly celebrated by people wearing their national dress showing that while this is a widespread and ancient tradition, it is very much a part of modern identities and national pride as well.