Happy New Year, Persia!

Fruit seller in the bazaar, Isfahan, Iran
The advantage of having many kinds of friends is that you can celebrate New Year for three consecutive months. In January, shortly after our New Year we can already send Christmas and New Year’s greetings to our orthodox Russian friends in Novosibirsk, in February we celebrate the Lunar New Year with our Chinese friends in some good restaurant previously tested by them, and on March 20, together with the springtime, the Persian new year – or more exactly, “new day”, Noruz – sets in. In this year it coincides with Easter, thus we have greeted our Assyrian Christian friends in Tehran on both occasions.

I have always found it fascinating how stubbornly Persia – and not only now, but even under the shah, in the greatest fever of modernization – has followed her own calendar. The new year begins with the vernal equinox, and its months coincide with the signs of the zodiac, even bearing the names of the Zoroastrian archangels dominating them. Thus they are shifted to a different extent to each European month, so that in Iran we always had to count on our fingers what their dates mean in our calendary; we have even missed a concert for this reason. In addition, even the calculation of the years do not follow anyone else. Under the shah the years were counted from the foundation of the Persian empire, still adhered by the monarchist emigration, thus now they write 2567, while post-Islam Revolution Iran has returned to the calendar calculated from 622, the year of the Hijra. Nevertheless, in contrast to the Arabs they do not calculate with lunar, but with solar years, thus they even differ from the Muslim calendar which now writes 1429 while Persia only 1387.

Already King Darius had built the palace of Persepolis (on Wikipedia the French and Spanish descriptions are the most detailed) as a festive banquet hall for Noruz. In fact, the Persian empire was governed not from here, but from Susa. At the time of the vernal equinox the king and his court retired here for two weeks, observing at the dawn of the equinox how the rays of the rising sun shine through the Eastern and Western gates of the palace, and then receiving the gift-bringing embassies of the twenty provinces whose representation has survived on the reliefs accompanying the flight of stairs of the reception hall, offering a vivid impression of the many-coloured empire that used to stretch from the Bosporus to the Indus valley.

Modern Persians faithfully follow the example of their king. From the afternoon of Noruz on, life stops for two weeks in Iran. People retire in family circle, and as in Persia family means extended family, thus they ceaselessly visit each other throughout two weeks, celebrating together the various ceremonies prescribed for the different days of these two weeks. I found the best description of these ceremonies in Persian and English on an expatriate Persian forum, and as it has disappeared since then, I upload here its saved version.

Perzsa újévi (Noruz) terített asztal
The most important requirement of Noruz is the well-laid table which, apart from some other accessories – for example a volume with the poems of Hafez or Ferdowsi – must include the haft sin, the seven things beginning with “s” and symbolizing abundance. Iranians often joke about preferring to also try some day the haft shin, the seven things beginning with “sh”, but I cannot say what these seven things should be, apart from wine (sharâb). The name of the custom was originally haft chin, “seven china dishes”, referring to the seven vessels containing various seeds and fruits whose abundance they expected for in the new year, and only Persian imagination so fond of playing with sounds and metaphors has enriched it with further meanings.

The picture of the above Noruz table was taken from the beautiful photos of the Iranian Shiva in flickr, where several other people also upload the images of their own Noruz tables, and as Persians are very social beings, they abundantly cross-comments the photos of each other. It is worth to see, for example, the images by Bahar, Hamed 1 and 2, Sepideh, Rfeiz, DrZin, Leila 1 and 2, David or Sinak, together with the pictures of others added in their commentaries. I especially like the minimalist solution of the expatriate Amir Fathir complaining about his solitude, with the daffodil and the plastic dinner-carrier.