Sepideh and I met our freshman year in college and have been fast friends ever since. Two greener girls you have yet to see; one from Minnesota and the other from Tehran. We’ve maintained our close friendship despite both moving in seemingly opposite directions and traveling extensively around the globe. She is an incredible friend who encourages my interests in food and culture, and patiently answers all my questions about the many customs and traditions of Iran. One tradition I was eager to learn about is Nowruz or the Persian New Year.
My first encounter with Nowruz was a rather impromptu dinner with Sepideh in McLean, VA, where after our meal we struck out for the George Washington Parkway, to find a suitable overlook to accomplish our mission. You see, she was about to introduce me to one of the traditions of her new year and required access to a river (don’t worry, you’ll understand by the end of the post) to launch some wheat grass that we hope would find its into the Potomac River. If you were sitting in your car, at that same overlook on GW Parkway that night, lullled by watching the meandering Potomac, the lovely view of Georgetown, and saw two girls leap from their car and hurl what looked to be a bit of sod into the Potomac – that was us.
This is a long post, but I thought it important to put this wonderful celebration in context. In its writing, I learned so much about Persian customs and this celebration. By celebrating this holiday with Sepideh, I gained an appreciation of Persian culture that continues to flourish as my knowledge and understanding grows. I hope you can appreciate this wonderful event and the amazing people that participate. I added only a sampling of the wonderful pictures I found, but included many links for further exploration.
Iran is the 18th largest country with a culturally diverse population of over seventy million, with a long and interesting history. It is officially “the Islamic Republic of Iran”; known as Persia until 1935. Since 1949, both “Persia” and “Iran” are used, however, Iran is used in the official or political context. The name Iran comes from Aryan, and means “Land of the Aryans” with incredibly diverse landscapes – from the sea to the mountains to forest, and of course desert. For a country smaller than Alaska – it has a lot going on.
It is also home to one of the world’s oldest continuous major civilizations, with historical settlements dating back to 7000 BC. Persian literature, philosophy, medicine, astronomy, mathematics and art became major elements of Muslim civilization and started with the Saffarids and Samanids.
Iran is a founding member of the UN, NAM, OIC and OPEC. The political system of Iran, based on the 1979 Constitution, is made up of several intricately connected governing bodies, with the highest state authority is the Supreme Leader. Shia Islam is the official religion with Persian as the official language.
Two cities offering a sample of Persian culture are Shiraz and Tehran. Shiraz is a major city in the southern part of Iran, and wine lovers may recognize its name, while Tehran is the capital of modern Iran.
Shiraz, a major city in Iran known for its poets, wine and flowers (check out the view in this link), has a variety of grapes named after it, that were transplanted around the world and we find them today in the excellent Shiraz’s of Australia and Syrahs’ of France. No wine is produced in Shiraz itself, so if some enterprising restaurateur or sommalier tries to tell you so, just smile and let him know you know better.
An ancient Persian legend says that Jamshid, a grape-loving king living in Shiraz, stored ripe grapes in a cellar so he could enjoy grapes all year. One day he sent his slaves to fetch some grapes, and when they did not return he decided to investigate, only to find that they were knocked out by the carbon dioxide gas emanating from some bruised fermenting grapes, leading everyone to assume the results were dangerous. Later, one of the king’s rejected, suicidal mistresses decided to drink this poison, only to leave the cellar singing and dancing. The king sensed he was on to something big, as this liquid had mysterious powers to make sad people happy – and that as they say, is that.
Shiraz at 5,000 feet above sea level and only 100 miles from the sea has all the essential ingredients for successful vineyards, having supplied Baghdad with wine under the caliphs. In the 12th and 13th century Persian poets such as Hafez extolled the beautiful maidens, roses and wine of Shiraz.
What drunkenness is this that brings me hope –
Who was the Cup-bearer, and whence the wine?
According to Jean Chardin, a French jeweller who spent time in 17th century Persia, the wine of Shiraz was famous in Europe. Chardin gives an account of the wine trade in A Journey to Persia. “This wine which is so excellent and famous, is called Shiraz, and for the beauty of its colour and the delight of its taste is considered to be the best in Persia and throughout the East. It is not one of those strong wines which pleases the palate straight away.”
Tehran is at the foot of the Alborz mountain range (the highest point in the Middle East) with a network of highways not found elsewhere in Western Asia. The city is famous for its ski resorts on the Alborz slopes, museums, art centers, and palace complexes.
History of the Persian Celebration of Life
The spring equinox celebration of Nowruz has been celebrated by all the major cultures of ancient Mesopotamia. Iran’s unique take on Nowruz has been celebrated for at least 3,000 years, and is rooted in the traditions of Zoroastrian of the Sassanid period.
This was the religion of ancient Persia before Islam in 7th century AD, and like Christianity has concepts such as heaven, hell, resurrection, coming of the Messiah, individual and last judgment in its belief system. They still exist in Judo-Christian and Islamic traditions, and the parallels, I found fascinating. However to understand Nowruz, a basic understanding of Zoroastrians’ cosmology is required.
In the ancient text, Bundahishn (foundation of creation), Ahura Mazda resided in eternal light, but was not God. He created all that was good and became God. The Hostile Spirit, Angra Mainyu (Ahriman), resided in darkness and created all that was evil (the English word for anger comes from the same origin). Everything that produced, protected and enriched life was regarded as good, including all forces of nature beneficial to humans. Earth, waters, sky, animals, plants, justice, honesty, peace, joy and happiness belonged to good. All that threatened life and created disorder belonged to the hostile spirits.
The two worlds created did not have a material presence, but were the essence of all. They co-existed, but were separate from each other. At the end of the third millennium the Hostile Spirit saw light, wanted it and attacked the good world. According to the Zoroastrain view, this started all the troubles faced today.
The Lord of Wisdom, to protect his world, created the material world Gaeity. Gaeity being modern Persia (Iran). This world was created at seven different stages. The first creation was the sky, a big chunk of stone high above. The second creation was the ocean, at the bottom. Earth a big flat dish sitting on the ocean was the third stage. The next three creations were the prototypes of all life. The first plant, the first animal – a bull, and the first human Gayo-maretan (Kiomarth), both male and female. The seventh creation combined fire and sun.
The struggle will continue for 12,000 years, with four periods, each lasting 3000 years. (Given that these celebrations have been going on for at least 3,000 years, we are into the second period) At the final phase, several saviors will come, and the last, Saoshyant, will save the world. When he comes there is resurrection, walking over the Chinvat Bridge (Sarat Bridge in Quran) and a final judgement. This figure is the Time Lord (Imam Zaman) in the Iranian version of Shiite Islam.
To protect his creations the Lord of Wisdom created six holy immortals (Amesha Spenta), one for each creation in the material world. Khashtra (Sharivar), the protector of the sky, Asha-Vahishta (Ordibehesht in modern Persian) protected fire. Vahu Manah (Bahman) for all animals, Haurvatat (Khordad) protected all waters, Spenta Armaiti (Esphand) a female deity became protector of mother earth and Ameratat (Amurdad or Mordad) supported all plant life. Ahura Mazda himself became the protector of all humans and the Holy Fire.
The Lord of Wisdom discovered one problem with this material world: it had no life cycle. The sun did not move; there were no days or nights and no seasons. The three prototypes of life were sacrificed to start anew (was this the first spring cleaning?) From the plant came the seeds of all plants. The bull produced all animals, and from the human came the first male and female. The rest of humanity was created from their union, and so started the cycle of life. The sun moved, there was day, night and the seasons -this was the first Nowruz or No Ruz (the words are interchangeable). The oldest archaeological record for the Nowruz celebration comes from the Achaemenian (Hakhamaneshi) period over 2,500 years ago. These industrious folks created the first major empire in the region and built the Persepolis complex in central Iran. This magnificent palace was destroyed by Alexander the Great in 334 BC. Rumor has it, he was drunk on Shiraz wine when he made this fateful decision.
Ahura Mazda also created guardian angels(forouhars or farvahars) for all living beings, granting on to every human (as long as they were good).
Zoroaster (Zardosht) the architect of this cosmology introduced many feasts to pay homage to the seven creations, the holy immortals and Ahura Mazda. The seven most important ones are known as Gahambars, the feasts of obligation. The last and the most elaborate was Nowruz, celebrating Ahura Mazda and the Holy Fire at the spring equinox.
Their celebrations starts ten days prior to the New Year. They believed the guardian angels (forouhars or farvahars) and spirits of the dead descend to earth within this period to visit humans. A major spring cleaning took place, and at night, bonfires were lit on rooftops signaling that humans were ready to receive them. Modern Iranians still carry out the spring-cleaning and celebrate Chahar-Shanbeh Suri (Wednesday Suri). Bonfires are made and people jump over the fire in the evening of the last Tuesday of the year as a purification rite. Iranians believe by going over the fire they rid themselves of all misfortunes.
The ancient Zoroastrians also celebrated the first five days of Nowruz, but the sixth day was the most important. This day was called the Great Nowruz (Noruz-e bozorg) and is thought to be the birthday of Zoroaster. Zoroastrians still celebrate this day, but it has lost its significance for other Iranians. In the Sassanid period, the New Year was celebrated for 21 days and on the 19th day there would be another major festival. At all times there were feasts, prayers, dance, plays and jokers. Haji Firouz might be the remains of the ancient festivities. Men disguise themselves to represent the Sumerian god of sacrifice, Domuzi who is killed at the end of each year only to be reborn at the beginning of the new year. Men blacken their faces (to represent his return from the dead), dress in red outfits (representing the blood and sacrifice) and appear in public dancing and singing (joy at being reborn).
Traditions of Nowruz/No ruz
Modern Iranians celebrate the New Year for 13 days. It is customary for all to bath and cleanse themselves thoroughly before Nowruz. However, given the advent of modern plumbing this purification rite has lost some of its meaning. New garments are worn to emphasize freshness. The houses get cleaned – This is very important since Nowruz is a feast of hope and renewal. Families wait at home for the New Year which starts at the exact time of the spring equinox– called Sal Tahvil.
Once the New Year is announced younger members of the family will pay respect to elders by wishing them a happy New Year. Relatives kiss and hug and presents (traditionally money) are exchanged. Candies are offered to symbolically sweeten their lives for the rest of the year. A small mirror is passed around, rose water is sprinkled into the air and Espand a popular incense is burnt, to keep the evil eye away. In more traditional families, the father and the first born son walk through the house with a lit candle and a small mirror to bless the physical space. Lit candles around the spread (Haft Seen) are left burning.
The first few minutes are spent around an elaborate spread known as the Haft Seen or Haft Sinn (7-S’s) with seven items and objects that begin with the letter “S”, the Persian letter sinn. It is also referred to as sofreh-ye haft-sinn (seven dishes setting). In the ancient times each of the items corresponded to one of the seven creations and the seven holy immortals protecting them.
Zoroastrians do not have the seven “S”s, but they grow seven seeds as a reminder that this is the seventh feast of creation, their sprouts’ new growth symbolizes resurrection and eternal life. In every Persian home, a special cover, reserved for this celebration, is placed on a carpet or table. This cloth is the foundation for the spread.
Wheat or lentil representing new growth is grown in a flat dish a few days before the New Year and is called Sabzeh (green shoots). Decorated with colorful ribbons, it is kept until Sizdah beh dar,the 13th day of the New Year, and then disposed of outdoors – which is where I helped Sepideh, on my first adventure into Nowruz.
A samanu,or pudding, is made of some wheat sprouts which are transformed and given new life in this pudding (according to cookbook author Najmieh Batmanglij, this pudding is the ultimate in sophisticated Persian cooking)
Wine was always present on the Haft Seen spread. Since the Muslim conquest, it was replaced by vinegar as alcohol is banned in Islam. This display is called Serkek and represents age and patience.
Sumac berries, or Somaq represent the color of sunrise, and with the appearance of God, they conquer evil.
Sib or apple represents health and beauty.
Senjed, or the sweet, dry fruit of the lotus tree symbolized love.
Fresh garlic, or Seer, is used to warn off bad omen, and is thought to be a modern introduction. However the ancient Iranians would grow seven different herbs for the New Year and garlic might have been one of them. According to Ms. Batmanglij garlic represents medicine.
Also included in the spread are the following items, which also carry some significance:
Zoroastrians place the lit candle in front of the mirror to increase the reflection of light (the candles represent fire). Zoroastrians consider light sacred, and using mirrors multiplies the reflection of light.
Eggs, a universal symbol of fertility, correspond to Sepanta Armaiti, or mother earth, are still present. The eggs are hard-boiled and are traditionally colored in red, green or yellow – favorite Zoroastrian colors. Recently, adopting from the Easter Egg tradition, any color is used and decorated. The eggs are offered to children as treats.
Coins symbolizing wealth and prosperity, fruits and special sweets and baked goods are also in the Haft Seen.
Live gold fish are placed in a fish bowl. In the past, they would be returned to the riverbanks, but today most people keep them. They represent life, and the end of the astral year associated with Pisces.
Additionally, a Seville orange floating in a bowl of water represents the earth floating in space. A flask of rose water, known for its cleansing powers, is added. A brazier of burning wild rue, a sacred herb, whose aroma is thought to ward off evil sprits, as is a pot of flowering hyacinth or narcissus. Books on tradition or wisdom, are laid out, and frequently include the Koran and the poems of Hafez (who hailed from Shiraz).
Some Iranians also place seven different types of sweets on the table to recognize the legend that King Jamshid discovered sugar on Nowruz. Tthe word “candy” comes from the Persian word for sugar, qand.
noghls – sugar coated almonds
Persian baklava – that favorite seek flaky pastry filled with nuts and honey
nan-e-berenjy – rice cookies
nan-e badami – almond cookies
nan-e-nokhodchi – chick-pea cookies
sohan asali – honeyed almonds
nan-e-gerdui – walnut cookies
Traditionally on the night before the New Year, most Iranians will have Sabzi Polo Mahi, a special dish of rice cooked with fresh herbs and served with smoked and freshly fried fish. Koukou Sabzi, a mixture of fresh herbs with eggs fried or baked, is also served. The next day brings rice and noodles (Reshteh Polo). Regional variations exist and colorful feasts are prepared.
For Iranians, Nowruz is a feast of renewal and freshness; a time to visit relatives, friends and pay respect to family elders. A thorough house cleaning purifies the physical space, merry making creates comfort. This is reminiscent of ancient traditions when all forces of joy were regarded as holy. New Year festivities continue until the 13th day, known as Sizdah beh dar, literally “get rid of the omen of the 13th day”.
The 13th day is mostly spent outdoors. People leave their homes to go to the parks for festive picnics – Sizdah beh dar should be spent in nature. In Zoroastrian calendar each day is named after a deity and this particular day in the month of Farvardin is named after Tishtrya – protector of rain. In the past there were outdoor festivities to pray to this deity for adequate rain.
Many delicacies are prepared including tea, drinks, fruits, bread, cheese and fresh herbs. The occasion is a communal with close relatives and friends participating. Wheat or barley shoots (Sabzeh) grown special for the New Year are discarded in nature on this day. According to my friend Sepideh, it is lucky to send them on their way via running water – it signals an end to the old year. The picnic ends at sunset. All day there is music and dancing, while people play games.
My husband and I attended such a celebration such as this a few years back. I remember it was bitterly cold, but the park was filled with a community of Persian families and friends. Kids frolicked, and families wandered from one cluster to another catching up on news and gossip. The picnic tables bowed under the burden of their incredible spreads. I fondly recall a bowl of soup I was given; it was incredibly delicious and offered the warmth to counter the cold which nibbled at my fingers – a version of the recipe follows.
Savory Herb, Bean, and Noodle Soup (Ash-e reshteh) – makes 6 servings
I love the symbolism in Persian cooking – noodles are eaten before embarking on something new. They symbolize the choice of paths among the many that life offers us. Eating these tangles strands is akin to unraveling Gideons knot, selecting the best option among the myriad of possibilities. Noodles are thought to bring good fortune and provide success in new endeavors, so are a natural choice for Nowrus. They are also served on the third day of a friend’s departure on a trip as it is believed that by eating noodles, luck will follow these friends on their journey.
¼ c red kidney beans, soaked
¼ c navy beans, soaked
¼ c chickpeas (garbanzo beans), soaked
3 onions, finely sliced
3 T oil
2 tsp salt
½ tsp ground black pepper
1 tsp turmeric
10 c water
½ c lentils
1 c beef broth
½ c chives or scallions, coarsely chopped
½ c dill weed, chopped
½ c parsley, coarsely chopped
2 c spinach(fresh or frozen), chopped
1 beet, peeled and chopped in 1/2 inch pieces
½ pound flat egg noodles or Persian noodles (Reshteh)
1 T flour
1 c sour cream OR 1/4 c wine vinegar
¼ pound beef, in ½ inch cubes
1 small onion, chopped
3 cloves garlic, crushed
2 T oil
½ c water
2 T yellow split peas
1 tsp tomato paste
¼ tsp saffron,
1 T hot water
½ tsp salt
1 onion, finely sliced
3 cloves garlic, crushed
1 T oil
1 tsp dried mint
For the soup: In large pot, brown onions in oil. Add salt, ¼ tsp. of the pepper, and turmeric. Pour in water and add beans (except lentils). Cover and simmer for 45 minutes, add lentils and broth – cook 35 minutes. Add scallions, dill, parsley, spinach, and beet. Stir occasionally and cook 20 minutes or until done. Add the rest of the pepper if needed, and add more water if too thick. Add noodles, flour and cook until noodles are done–about 10 minutes.
If using sour cream, set aside a heaping tablespoon for garnish. Stir 2 T of soup into remaining sour cream. Stir mixture slowly into soup. Reheat just before serving, add water if it’s too thick.
Gheimeh: About ½ hour before serving, brown meat, onion, and garlic in oil. Stir in water and split peas. Cover and cook 20 minutes over low heat. Add tomato paste, saffron, and salt. Simmer covered for 10 minutes.
Mint: While gheimeh is simmering, brown onion and garlic in oil. Remove from heat. Crush mint and stir into onion. Pour soup into tureen, garnish with gheimeh and mint garnish and reserved sour cream by floating them on top.
For the ancient Iranians, Nowruz celebrates life. They felt forces of nature, beyond their control, dominated their lives, and by forming a union with these forces they protect themselves. Through this union they created a balance and maintained cosmic order, or Asha. Without it, chaos would rule, dominated by the Hostile Spirit (Ahriman). Zoroastrians are to only think good thoughts, speak good words, and do good deeds to keep their balance. Nowruz is when life with all its glory is celebrated and cherished. The lessons learned from these wonderful ancient traditions apply today. Joy and happiness were major forces defeating the hostile spirits, and a reason why Nowrus is still celebrated after 3,000 years.
From a poem from Hafez:
The gentle breeze will blow anew / Vitality to the barren earth / The old will become young