Nowruz history traditions foods

Dried fruits and wheat grass are two staples of the ancient Nowruz tradition. Pictured on Uzbek pottery.

Navruz: A Spring New Year of Modern National Pride

Published: July 6, 2023

Navruz 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. Navruz 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, Navruz 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 Navruz 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 Navruz?

Because Navruz has been long celebrated by diverse populations speaking very different languages, Navruz 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, Nowruz, and Nowrouz. Likewise, the celebrations are also diverse, but can also be recognized by other groups as being a Navruz 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 Navruz 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 Navruz 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 Navruz

Navruz 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 Navruz are shrouded in folklore and mystery. The Avesta mentions Navruz 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 Navruz 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.

Navruz Spring New Year
A 5th century relief showing an Achaemenid king, likely Darius the Great, recieving noblemen. Gathering nobles and priests in the capital was part of the ancient Navruz celebrations.

We do know that in the Achaemenid Empire, around the fifth century BCE, that Navruz 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 Navruz 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, Navruz celebrations also continued.

Navruz 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, Navruz traditions were and are still celebrated in all these affected areas.

With the fall of the USSR, Navruz 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, Navruz is a powerful part of that identity.

Today, among the cultures that celebrate it, Navruz 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.

Navruz Spring New Year
A simple haft sin table. Photo by flickr user Casey Hugelfink

 

The Haft Sin Table

Navruz 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 Navruz. This video shows you each step of the long and labor-intensive process.

 

Traditional Navruz Foods

Sprouts (шона) 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 Navruz 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.

 

Navruz Sports

In many cultures that celebrate Navruz, wrestling and equestrian sports are particularly popular. As Navruz celebrates life and strength, it makes sense that sports are a big part of the festival.

Navruz Uzbek Wrestling
A wrestling tournament outside of Termiz, Uzbekistan.

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.

 

How Navruz is Celebrated: Fire, Poetry, and Song

Navruz Spring New Year
Fire jumping is still a part of some Navruz festivals. It was once part of many widespread Eurasian traditions. Today, if it is practiced, the fire is often a nominal one such as that pictured here. Photo from flikr user Fairfax Library Foundation

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 Navruz 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, Navruz 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 Navruz, 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 Navruz.

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, Navruz 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. Navruz 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.

 

How Navruz Was Celebrated in Uzbekistan in 2023

I attended SRAS’ Spring Break: Navruz in Uzbekistan program in spring, 2023. The program tours Uzbekistan’s major cities and covers a wide swath of the country’s fascinating history and culture. A major highlight of the program was the opportunity to see Navruz. This ancient holiday is rooted in Zoroastrianism and is one of Central Asia’s biggest and most unique celebrations.

Navruz is a weeklong celebration with the most important day falling on the vernal equinox, which, in 2023, was March 21st. We got to experience the national dishes, family gatherings, traditional games, music and dances, sport competitions, fairs, and other festivities that accompany the holiday.

Most Uzbek families prepare for Navruz by dedicating an entire day to cooking traditional dishes and gathering with their family and neighbors. As part of our study tour, our guide Nodir invited us to his personal home in Khiva so we could experience how a family prepares for Navruz.

Sumalak is a food that is only prepared and eaten during Navruz. Sumalak is a thick wheat pudding that is famously labor intensive. It is prepared from sprouting wheat grains and seeds which are milled and then cooked in a cauldron over an open flame. By the time we arrived, Nodir’s family was in the stirring stage of this process, working with the traditional large dowel on a frequent basis while the mixture concentrates over a period of 24 hours. Consistently stirring the sumalak requires a number of people taking turns to make sure it doesn’t burn over its cooking time. Hence, we got to experience its tradition of bringing people together by joining the family in stirring the mixture. The savory sweet smell was heavenly.

Throughout the week, I also saw many people at the bazaars selling homemade jars of sumalak for Navruz – as not everyone has the time in modern Uzbekistan to devote to this process.

Nodir’s family also taught us how to prepare spinach samsa. Samsa is a baked pastry that usually features meat, but it is made with spinach on Navruz because it is a holiday that celebrates the spring and its fresh vegetation. We rolled out the dough, added the spinach-parsley filling, then sealed the dough before it went in the oven to bake. Nodir’s family also made Khivan flatbreads (large, round flatbreads that are imprinted with a pointillism-like bread stamp to create circular patterns) and plov with beef, chickpeas, raisins, and flavorful spices. Other foods served alongside the main dishes included nuts (peanuts and walnuts), fresh and dried fruits (in particular: apples, oranges, and mulberries), tomato and cucumber salad, meat soups, pelmeni (dumplings), and khvorost (sweet crisps made by deep frying a batter from eggs, flour, and water). I learned that it is also traditional to place wheatgrass, the same as is used to make sumalak, on the table during Navruz to symbolize renewal.

Food isn’t the only thing that brings people together on Navruz. Music and dance are major parts of the holiday. Nodir’s neighbors played music on traditional string instruments for us, and I spent hours dancing with his young daughter, Vazira.

Uzbekistan also holds several official celebrations sponsored by the government. Major parks throughout the country, particularly in the capital of Tashkent, hold large festivities for Navruz to compliment the family gatherings. These include concerts and dances and special decorations for city parks such as lit-up fountains.

I had the opportunity to visit Magic City Park in Tashkent on Navruz on my own after the conclusion of the SRAS program. Young boys and older men performed national Uzbek music on drums and wind instruments. Large crowds gathered around them and followed them as part of a parade throughout the park. The processions paused every now and then for a performance during which locals joined in dance. Local Uzbek artists also gave free public music and dance performances on the park’s concert stage later in the evening. I later strolled to Tashkent City Park, not too far away, to enjoy more live concert music, also held for the holiday.

Lastly, while in Khiva, I was able to learn some kurash at a local sports school. The visit was through the SRAS tour. This traditional form of Uzbek wrestling/martial art is often on display for Navruz. There were only two young girls there (the rest were all boys), so they were very excited to see me and another girl from the study tour interested in participating. We began by stretching and warming up before transitioning to kurash moves that involved flipping onto the ground.

While sports and feats of strength are common at spring festivals world-wide, the connection between kurash and Navruz specifically is that both are proud expressions of Uzbekistan’s ancient culture. Both have extensive histories and associations: Navruz practices date from the 8th century BC, and kurash is one of the (if not the) oldest sports in the area and remains extremely popular.

In conclusion, my time in Uzbekistan was incredible. Engaging with a foreign culture at such a close level can be challenging, but the SRAS tour gave us opportunities to openly celebrate with friendly locals. For example, preparing sumalak with a local family and learning kurash were things I would not have been able to do on my own. I cherish many memories from this Navruz trip, most of all dancing with Nodir’s daughter all evening during the Navruz preparation. I also recommended the SRAS Navruz tour because this holiday extends beyond Uzbekistan, meaning that it gives you greater regional experience as well, and it’s a great way to widen one’s cultural awareness overall.

 

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About the author

Caroline Murray

Caroline Murray

Caroline Murray participated in SRAS’s Russian as a Second Language program in St. Petersburg in 2016. She is currently a Fulbright ETA in Bukhara, Uzbekistan. Previously, she was a FLEX participant recruiter with American Councils in Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Kazakhstan. She was inspired to apply for the Fulbright and FLEX because of her experience in St. Petersburg to further develop the language and cultural skills she acquired abroad.

Program attended: Online Internships

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Josh Wilson

Josh Wilson

Josh lived in Moscow from 2003, when he first arrived to study Russian with SRAS, until 2022. He holds an M.A. in Theatre and a B.A. in History from Idaho State University, where his masters thesis was written on the political economy of Soviet-era censorship organs affecting the stage. At SRAS, Josh assists in program development and leads our Internship Programs. He is also the editor-in-chief for the SRAS newsletter, the SRAS Family of Sites, and Vestnik. He has previously served as Communications Director to Bellerage Alinga and has served as a consultant or translator to several businesses and organizations with interests in Russia.

Program attended: SRAS Staff Member

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Alexandra Sasha Love Author

Alexandra Love

Alexandra Love, at the time she wrote for this site, was double majoring in Political Science and Music and minoring in Russian Culture at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Her material here was produced as part of an SRAS Online Research Internship done while she was studying abroad with SRAS in Batumi, Georgia. She is a native speaker of Bulgarian.

Program attended: Online Internships

View all posts by: Alexandra Love