Azerbaijan International

Summer 1994 (2.2)
Pages 40-42

Celebration That Would Not Die

Noruz in AzerbaijanOil on canvas by Beyuk Mirzazade

The title of the painting is called "Harvest Festival" though clearly the coloration and the wheat sprouts indicate Spring and Novruz. (Soviets tried to stifle celebration of Novruz - in Persian means new day- as it was considered "nationalistic".

Photo Essay - Spirit of Novruz (Photos from Baku)

It's official once again after having been prohibited for 70 years under Soviet leadership. Novruz (pronounced "Nov-ruz" meaning "New Day") is back again on the calendar as the most important National Holiday in the Republic of Azerbaijan. The day, itself, marks the Spring Solstice (around March 21st), the "Coming of Spring," and is celebrated not only in Azerbaijan but in Iran, Afghanistan, and several of the newly independent Central Asian Republics including Kazakhstan. Next year, Turkey, too, will officially celebrate Novruz according to a recent announcement by Prime Minister, Tansu Çiller.

The celebration of Novruz dates to ancient times, perhaps even predating formalized religion, and commemorates the annual sowing of crops in anticipation of a bountiful harvest. Originally, the holiday marked the first day of the calendrical year; however, when Azerbaijan came under Soviet rule, New Year's Day was introduced as January 1st, a custom which continues to this day.

Despite the fact that the Soviets forbade any official celebration, Azerbaijanis have always observed the date as their greatest and most important holiday even though they sometimes had to celebrate it discreetly inside their homes. But even under the Soviet regime, they succeeded in observing Novruz officially for a brief two-year period in 1967-68. At that time the holiday was celebrated openly in the streets, squares, parks, gardens, and on radio and television. By the following year, 1969, Moscow feared the rise of nationalistic and ethnic feelings and so they stopped it.

This illustration painted here by artist, Beyuk Mirzazade, in 1966 clearly reflects this period. Curiously, it was published under the title, "Harvest Festival" but the coloration and composition both contradict the title. Red poppies blanket Azerbaijan hillsides only in spring and newly sprouted wheat in the foreground is only associated with the celebration of Novruz.

Perhaps, rather predictably when the national movement for independence started gaining momentum in 1988-89, Azerbaijanis again took to the streets and squares to celebrate Novruz despite its prohibition. But public pressure prevailed and on March 13, 1990, two months after the Soviet troops descended on Baku and killed scores of Azerbaijanis, the Supreme Soviet were pressured to issue a decree declaring Novruz a national holiday in the Republic of Azerbaijan. It was first celebrated officially in March 1991, a precursor, one might suggest, to the Soviet Union's demise which was to follow only a few months later.

Noruz in Azerbaijan

Young boys jumping fires during the Novruz holidays.
Inner (ancient) City, Baku 1993.
Courtesy of BP.

Novruz is traditionally celebrated as the most gala event of the year. However, since Azerbaijan has been at war these past six years and has suffered the loss of thousands of human lives and the upheaval of more than a million displaced citizens, the nation has not felt like celebrating.

This year Azerbaijan's President, Heydar Aliyev, encouraged the Azerbaijani people to participate, emphasizing that festivals inject much-needed renewal, hope and vitality into the nation. The celebration of Novruz varies from country to country and region to region, but many basic elements are shared:

Symbols of Spring
Novruz is always associated with the beautifully lush green color of new growth and is specifically symbolized by the growing of freshly sprouted wheat or "samani" as Azerbaijanis in the Republic (North) refer to it. Typically, a Novruz table is prepared with various items that vary somewhat from region to region.

In the North, the table typically includes fresh flowers, candles, sweets and pastries, nuts, dried fruits and dyed eggs (reminiscent of Easter eggs so familiar during the same season in many Western religions).

Southern Azerbaijanis and Iranians celebrate Novruz as the first day of the calendar year (this year, 1994 is 1373 for them). Traditionally, they set the table with, at least, seven items, all of which begin with the sound of "s" (the Persian letter, "sin" though in earlier periods, "sh" (Persian "shin" was used). These items include some green plant, typically the newly-sprouted wheat (sabzi), apple (sib), hyacinths (sonbol), vinegar (serkeh), garlic (sir), a reddish-brown spice eaten with kebab (sumakh), gold coins (sekkeh), and a clock (sa'at).

You're likely to find a mirror, the Quran, and / or a book of poetry often by Hafiz, some grains of wheat, and dyed eggs. Many people buy a little goldfish and a fishbowl as it is rumored that the fish will remain motionless facing the direction of the North Pole the exact moment that the New Year arrives.

Attitude of cleansing, renewal, and rebirth
With Novruz comes new clothes. Houses and yards are cleaned. Trees are pruned; fields cleared. It's a time for renewing relationships as well. People who have had quarrels and refused to speak with each other use this chance to forgive one another and renew their relationships.

Celebration of family and friends
There's always lots of food and sweets at Novruz. Friends and families visit one another. Usually, a very carefully guarded hierarchy is observed and the oldest members of the community receive guests first. On the eve of Novruz, Northern Azerbaijanis visit the cemetery where their parents are buried. Gifts and food are shared with the needy, poor, and sick.

Favorite Holiday of Children
Children love Novruz. For them, it's presents, sometimes even gold coins or brand new bills and best of all, vacation from school! In Iran, there is a two week holiday though the teachers always manage to assign lots of homework.

On the last Wednesday prior to Novruz, children celebrate a custom reminiscent of Halloween in the West. They slip around to their neighbors' homes and apartments, knock at their doors, and leave their caps or little basket on the thresholds all the while hiding nearby waiting for candies, pastries and nuts.

In Iran, on the 13th day after Novruz holiday "Sizdeh bedar" (outing / ousting) everybody heads to the parks and nature for a picnic. Still today, you'll find young girls tying two blades of grass together symbolizing their wish to get married and have a child by this time the following year. Together all these customs signify an exuberance for life-full of hope, joy, happiness, health, prosperity, luck, and long life-qualities all so deep and inherent to man's nature that they could never disappear-no matter who tried to dictate otherwise.

Fire-Jumping Tradition Backfires
One of the traditions associated with Novruz is that of jumping over bonfires on the last Wednesday, "Akhir Charshanbe", before the holiday. Recently [1994], some cultural misunderstanding took place in Los Angeles in regard to this custom. The incident involved some Iranian young people, although the cultural practice is shared by Azerbaijanis and other groups in the Middle East and Central Asia as well.

Because Los Angeles is prone to devastating fires, there are very strict fire codes in the city. No fires are allowed even on one's own property.

Not knowing this, some teenagers built some fires in the middle of the street and were having fun jumping over them when a neighbor looked out, panicked, and dialed "911," summoning police and fire department. The young people were taken into custody and the case eventually was dismissed but not until their families paid a fine!

Usually, Iranians and Azerbaijanis living in Southern California go to the beaches to celebrate the event where it is permissible to build fires.

Farrokh Nakhjavani, Tamam Bayatli, Uta Huseinova, and Elmar Abdulrahimov all contributed to this article.

From Azerbaijan International (2.2) Summer 1994.
© Azerbaijan International 1994. All rights reserved.

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