Every year Azerbaijanis commemorate the beginning of their new year with the holiday of Novruz, or Nevruz. Celebrated on the first day of spring (usually sometime around March 21), Novruz is a festival of rebirth and renewal. Indeed, when translated into English from Farsi, Novruz literally means “new day.”
Many traditional Novruz activities therefore emphasize the rejuvenating joy of spring. On and around Novruz Azerbaijanis clean their houses, buy new outfits specially tailored for the upcoming celebrations, and cultivate plants. Similar to an Easter basket, the symbolic tray known as the khoncha displays painted eggs and candles, representing the bounty of the new season.
Like every holiday, Novruz has its special foods. While the festival famous for sweets like pakhlava and shorgogal, the most important aspect of Novruz cuisine is the use of samani, a type of wheat sprout associated with the changing seasons. Samani, however, is just one of the seven components that make up the traditional Novruz table (Haft-Sin). Also featured are sumakh spice, milk, vinegar, dried lotus fruit, apples, garlic, and sabzeh (sprouted wheat grass) Gara, a type of plov cooked with meats and fruits, is often made as the main dish at many parties.
But Novruz is more than just a time for food and fun. It is a living, breathing vehicle for the preservation of Azerbaijan’s pre-Islamic past and a connection to the larger cultural network of the Near East. Historical research suggests that the ancient peoples of Mesopotamia celebrated spring time rites similar to the modern holiday as far back as 3,000 B.C. However, Novruz as we know it is firmly rooted in the Zoroastrian traditions of Ancient Persia. According to some, Zoroaster himself invented the holiday to celebrate his religion’s God of Wisdom and the holy fire of the Spring Equinox. While this story cannot be verified, modern archaeologists have identified some of the reliefs at the ancient Achaemenid capital of Persepolis as depicting Novruz like celebrations. During the rule of the Sassanids, the last pre-Islamic rulers of Persia, Novruz began to resemble its current form as traditions were codified and the date of Novruz was fixed. For ancient Persians, the symbology of Novruz was potent. The beginning of spring was an important time in the agricultural calendar for the planting of new crops. Like the great Zoroastrian lord of light Asha destroyed the forces of evil, the equinox shattered the cold of winter, welcoming in the New Year.
Despite conquests by Islamic and Soviet invaders hostile to Zoroastrian beliefs, Novruz has survived in Azerbaijan and throughout the Central Asia and the Near East, a testament to the endurance of the holiday’s traditions. Indeed, some of the most famous Novruz traditions can trace their origins back to Zoroastrianism and pre-Islamic folk practices. On each Tuesday leading up to the New Year, Azerbaijanis honor one of the four elements essential to the regeneration and upkeep of the world: Water, Flame, Earth, and Wind. Flame, as the symbol of rebirth, is held in especially high regard. On the last Tuesday before the Novruz holiday, communities across the country construct bonfires and join together to leap over the flames. This celebration of the natural, in particular the bonfire ritual, harkens back to the Zoroastrian culture which dominated Azerbaijan and the surrounding area for thousands of years before the advent of Islamic rule.
And yet while Novruz is predominantly Zoroastrian in its origin and themes, many Azerbaijanis include a Qu’ran on their Haft-Sin. For those celebrating the holiday, there is no contradiction in combining the holy Islamic book with the practice of what are essentially Zoroastrian folk rituals. This melding of beliefs is typically Azerbaijani. At the crossroads of Near East, Europe, and the Caucasus, Azerbaijan is a melting pot of cultures that have been melded together by history and politics. But there is another component – the Azerbaijani people themselves. Every March as Azerbaijanis get together to plan out their Novruz outfits, to cook semani, and to build bonfires, they renew the bonds which have helped their unique culture endure so much.