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Introduction

The Islamic conquest altered many Iranian traditions specifically associated with national ideology, imperial institutions, and Zoroastrian rituals. Although Nowruz was an established symbol of these three aspects, it did survive while less significant festivals were eclipsed by their Islamic rivals and gradually became abandoned by indifferent Mongol and Turkish rulers or hostile clerical authorities during Safavid and Qajar periods. Nowruz survived because it was so profoundly engrained in Iranian traditions, history, and cultural memory the Iranian Identity and Nowruz mutually buttressed each other, and the emergence of a distinctly Persian Muslim society—and later the emergence of a nation state with the advent of the Safavids—legitimized the ancient national festival and allowed it to flourish with slight modifications or elaborations. Indeed, as will be set out in subsequent sections, the incremental expansion of Nowruz ceremonies from the Safavids, through the Qajars, to the Pahlavi period enabled the court to parade its power and strengthened its attempts at forming a stronger central authority. Besides, it explains the establishment of increasingly sophisticated and protocol-ridden royal audiences with all the pomp and ceremony they could muster. Like all rituals, therefore, it both manifested a belief or ideology and reinforced it through an annual recital. It was precisely because Nowruz was associated from the outset with cultural memories of the splendor and divinely bestowed power of the royal courts of pre-Islamic Persia that it was attractive to rulers, from the Abbasid caliphs to the Pahlavis. Along with its many ceremonies, and most notably that of gift exchange, it provided the rulers with an alternative source of affirming and enhancing their power and prestige through a strictly non-Islamic channel; for unlike religious festivals, they could appear and be celebrated as the focal point and the peerless heroes of the occasion.

While most of the traditions now associated with Nowruz have been inherited from the past usages, no comprehensive history of Nowruz in the Islamic period has been written. Such an account must be pieced together from occasional notices in general and local histories, brief records by geographers, and scattered references in works of poets and storytellers. Only for recent times do we have detailed information in the form of eyewitness reports by travelers and, more importantly, studies of contemporary practices throughout Persia and countries affected by Persian culture. But even these are problematic, as the former category mainly describes court usages and the latter usually gives uncritical narratives embellished with rhetorical and, frequently, fanciful interpretations.

History up to the Safavid period. The Arabs captured the capital of the Sasanian Empire on a Nowruz day, taking the celebrating inhabitants by surprise (Yaʿqubi, I, p. 198). Henceforth, the early Arab governors forcefully levied heavy Nowruz and Mehragān taxes on the conquered people (Jahšiāri, pp. 15, 24; Ṣuli, p. 219). The Umayyad and Abbasid caliphs retained this onerous burden of taxation on their conquered subjects, but, at the same time, they also celebrated both Nowruz and Mehragān with considerable relish and pomp, thereby helping to keep alive Nowruz and its many traditions (Masʿudi, Moruj VII, p. 277; Tanuḵi, pp. 145-46; Ahsan, pp. 287-88).

Later, other Islamic dynasties of Persia did the same (for the Taherids, see Jāḥeẓ, p. 150; for the Samanids, see Biruni, tr. Sachau, p. 217), and the court poets praised the occasion and offered their congratulatory panegyrics. Yāqut reports (Boldān, Cairo, VI, p. 258; cf. Moqaddasi, p. 431) that the Buyid ruler ʿAżod-al-Dawla (r. 949-83) customarily welcomed Nowruz in a majestic hall, wherein servants had placed gold and silver plates and vases full of fruit and colorful flowers. He sat on a costly seat (masnad), and the court astronomer came forward, kissed the ground, and congratulated him on the arrival of the New Year. Then the king summoned the musicians and singers and invited his boon companions. They entered and filed in to their assigned places, and all enjoyed a great festive occasion. Beyhaqi describes the lavish celebration of Nowruz at the Ghaznavid court (Beyhaqi, ed. Fayyāż, pp. 9, 12, 704, 751, 815), and some of the most beautiful descriptive opening passages of Persian courtly panegyrics (especially by Farroḵi, Manučehri, and Masʿud-e Saʿd-e Salmān) are in praise of Nowruz.Their simple yet melodious rhythms suggest that they may have been accompanied by music. The melodies known as the “Nowruzi” airs, apparently inherited from the Sasanian period, included the Great Nowruz (Nowruz-e bozorg), Nowruz-e Kay Qobād, the Lesser Nowruz (nowruz-e ḵordakorḵārā), the EdessanNowruz (Nowruz-e rahāwi, comprising the Arabian and Persian melodies), and Nowruz-e Ṣabā (Dehḵodā, s.v. “Nowruz”; Borumand-eSaʿid, pp. 302-8). In the 14thcentury, Ḥāfeẓ says that “the melody of the Nowruz breeze (bād-e nowruzi) rekindles the inner light, and the melody of the “Throne of victory” (taḵt-e piruzi) inspires the song of the nightingale intoxicated by flowers.”

The Nowruz festivities were by no means restricted to the royal courts. It was “a solemn feast through all of Persia, ... observed not only in the great cities, but celebrated with extraordinary rejoicings in every little town, village, and hamlet” (Lane, 1848, II, p. 462; see also Biḡami, I, p. 150; Farāmarz b. Ḵodādād, I, p. 49; for testimonies of poets see Borumand-e Saʿid, pp. 253-384). In Shiraz, Muslims and Zoroastrians celebrated Nowruz together and decorated the bazaars (Moqaddasi, p. 429). Biruni testifies that many ancient Nowruz rites were still observed in his time. People grow, he says, “seven kinds of grains on seven columns and from their growth they draw inferences as regards the crop of the year whether it would be good or bad” (Biruni, Chronology, tr. Sachau, p. 217). They held the first day of Nowruz as particularly auspicious, and the dawn the most auspicious hour (Idem, p. 217). Good omens appearing before Nowruz included fires and light glowing on the western bank of the Tigris opposite Kalwāḏā, and on the Denā (text: dmā) mountain in Fārs. Tasting honey thrice in the morning of Nowruz and lighting three candles before speaking were thought to ward off diseases (Idem, p. 216). People exchanged presents (notably sugar), kindled fire (to consume all corruptions), bathed in the streams (Idem, p. 218), and sprinkled water on each other.

EbnFaqih (p. 165) specifies that “this ancient custom is still observed in Hamadan, Isfahan, Dināvar, and the surrounding regions,” and the Tarjoma-ye Tafsir-e Ṭabari (I, p. 148, n. 1) adds that in so doing people said: “May you live long! (zendabāšiā!zendabāšiā!).” We may add that to this day traditional households sprinkle rose water on relatives and guests. According to Kušyār (apudTaqizāda, p. 191), the sixth day of Nowruz was called “Water-pouring [day]” (ṣabb al-māʾ) and was revered as the Great Nowruz and “the Day of Hope,” because it commemorated the completion of the act of creation.Ḡazāli (I, p. 522) strongly disapproved of Muslims celebrating Nowruz by decorating the bazaars, preparing sweets, and making or selling children’s toys, wooden shields, sword, trumpets, and so on.”

In 897, the Abbasid caliph al-Moʿtaẓed (r. 892-902) forbade the people of Baghdad “to kindle bonfire on New Year’s Eve and pour water [on passersby] on New Year’s Day,” but fearing riot he rescinded the order (Ṭabari, III, p. 2163). The Fatimid caliphs also repeatedly forbade the kindling of fire and sprinkling of water at Nowruz (Maqrizi, p. 394). Ṣābi described the rules issued against Nowruz celebration in the fourth century Baghdad as follows: “A Muslim was forbidden to dress like a ḏemmi [that is, people of the book, namely Jews, Christiams, and Ṣābians, and by extension Zoroastrians], ... to give an apple to someone on Nawrüz to honor the day, to color eggs at their feast,” and, in general, “sharing in jollifications on that occasion was condemned.” Some non-Muslims “hired a special cook to work during the night to have the dishes fresh in the morning, gave parties for relatives and friends, at which they served green melons, plums, peaches, and dates if they were in season.” Women bought special Nowruz perfumes, and “eggs were dyed in various colors. To sprinkle perfume on a man ... and tread seven times on him was a means of driving away the evil eye, laziness and fever. Antimony and rue were used to improve the sight during the coming year. Colleges were shut and the students played. ... Muslims drank wine in public and ate cleaned lentils like the ḏemmis and joined them in throwing water on folks.” Respectable peoples threw water on each other in their houses or gardens; the commoners did this on the street (Ketāb al-Hafawāt, tr. Tritton, pp. 144-45).

A detailed account of Nowruz celebration in the 10th-century Isfahan is given by EbnḤawqal (p. 364): “During the Nowruz festival, people gather for seven days in the bazaar of Karina, a suburb of Isfahan, engaged in merriment; they enjoy various food and go around visiting decorated shops. The inhabitants and those coming from other places to participate in this festival, spend a good deal of money, wear beautiful clothes, and take part in gatherings for plays and merrymaking. Skillful singers, both male and female, take their places side by side on the riverside along the palaces. The whole atmosphere is filled with joy and happiness. Many assemble on rooftops and in the markets, engage in festivities, drinking, eating, and consuming sweets, not letting an idle moment to pass by. ... No one disturbs them, for their rulers have allowed this festival, and it is a well-established tradition. It is said that besides the abundance of fruits, drinks, and food brought in and sold for a meager price, the expenses of the night of the spring equinox amount to 200,000 dirhams. As for the prices, 2,000-dirham weight of finest grapes costs a mere five dirhams” (see also the eyewitness description by Māfarroḵi [tr., pp. 17-18] and the testimony of Nasafi, p. 168).

A particular custom was the enthroning of the “Nowruzian ruler” (mir-e Nowruzi, somewhat similar to the lord of misrule in Medieval Western literature and folklore). A commoner was elected as “king” and provided with regalia (often mockingly old and unseemly), a throne, court officials, and a number of troops, and he ruled for a few days and was fully obeyed. Then he was dethroned, beaten, and forced to flee (Qazvini, 1944; Idem, 1945). In some regions, particularly in Kurdistan, this ancient tradition is still practiced (Wilson, p. 245; Keyvān, p. 119; Bois, p. 477; Mostowfi, I, pp. 351-53).

Later History. The festive celebration of Nowruz during theSafavid period is well attested. In preparation to it, commanders, ministers, favored officials, rich merchants, and guild leaders were given pieces of land in the vast park of Bāḡ-e Naqš-e Jahān of Isfahan to decorate and illuminate. Each group set up tents with canopies of silk and brocade, and erected booths variously embellished; servants offered drinks and sweets to large crowds for several days. In the royal palace, a large table cloth (sofra) was spread on the floor of the Hall of Mirrors (tālār-e āʾina), and on it were placed large bowls of water and plates of various fruits, greeneries, sweets, and colored eggs. According to Chardin (II, p. 267), in keeping with an ancient Iranian tradition, on the eve of Nowruz people send each other colored eggs as gifts. The shah gave some five hundred of them to his womenfolk. The eggs are encased in gold and decorated with four miniature paintings. The shah sat at the head of the sofra, amongst the royal women he favored most, who were all bedecked in jewelry. They engaged in pleasant conversation, and then, at the shah’s command, female dancers, musicians, and singers entered and entertained the audience. In another chamber the court astronomer was trying to determine the exact moment of “the turn of the year” (taḥwil-e sāl, that is, when the Sun entered the sign of Aries at the vernal equinox). As soon as he gave the sign that the New Year had arrived, pages sent off firecrackers into the sky, and, seeing this, the household female servants let out cries of exultation thereby announcing the good news to the king and his companion. At the same time, the news was made public by some palace guards firing off their muskets and citadel guards their cannons, whereupon an official band occupying the center of the great town square (Meydān-e naqš-e jahān) beat on their drums and kettledrums and blew into their wind instruments (sornāy). Shouts of joy filled the air; eunuchs opened special bags of wild rue (esfand) and sprinkled seeds into the fire, causing the air to be pleasantly scented. The shah, as all other Iranians, gazed at a bowl of water the moment the year “ turned,” believing that “water is the symbol of prosperity” (ābrowšanāʾi-st, lit. ‘water is light’) and if one looks at it at the turn of the year he would enjoy happiness all year long. A few prayers (usually Qurʾanic verses, extensively cited by Majlesi, II) were recited, and everyone wearing new clothes drank some water or rosewater, congratulated elders, kinsfolk and friends, and partook of sweets. Elders presented gifts to the members of household, relatives, servants, and friends, and distributed alms to the poor, dervishes, and local sayyeds (descendants of the Imams). In the palace, the shah held a great banquet with wine and music for military commanders, senior civil officials, foreign envoys and notable merchants. In other households elaborately prepared dinners were served, and in general everyone enjoyed the occasion with drinks, music, visitation, and exchanges of gifts and pleasantries. Children were particularly happy, and enjoyed the holidays running around, receiving various gifts, playing various games (specially the “egg-cracking game,” similar to the children’s game of conkers played with chestnuts in the West), and watching polo, wrestling, and horse racing. The gifts exchanged depended on the status of the individuals. The shah sat in the audience hall and distributed gifts, usually gold and or silver coins placed in small colorful bags, to the courtiers, kinsfolk, household servants and foreign envoys. He received in turn precious gifts from his harem, ministers, representatives of social groups and professions, provincial governors, and envoys of neighboring countries. The usual “gifts” to the shah included slave girls (especially from Armenia and Georgia, some of whom ended up as royal wives and others were given to favorite officials), money, prized horses, and beasts of burden with precious saddlery (for the gifts exchanged between the governor of Fārs province and Shah ʿAbbās I see Arberry, p. 19). The shah and rich notables also ordered the slaughter of livestock according to religious rites and distributed the meat to the needy. During the following days, people went outdoors and spent the time in the open air playing, feasting, horseracing and, when possible, hunting.

Nāder Shah Afshar (r. 1736-47) always celebrated Nowruz by holding a feast and distributing gifts and robes of honor, as did Karim Khan Zand (r. 1751-79) and his successors. In the Qajar period (1779-1925), the public practices were similar to the contemporary observances, but the official celebration (salām, lit. ‘greeting’) underwent elaborations. Generally, the shah received guests consisting of kinsmen, military and civil official, leading religious figures, tribal chiefs, poets, heads of various guilds, and, increasingly, foreign notables. Nāṣer-al-Din Shah (r. 1848-96) began to regiment the festivities by introducing military bands, sending invitation cards, and holding salām into three audience sessions. The salām-e taḥwil (‘greeting for the turn of the year’) started an hour before the turning of the year and lasted for about four hours. The table of haft sin was prepared in front of the Peacock Throne in the Museum Hall (tālār-e muza),and dignitaries gathered around it: military officials headed by the crown prince on the one side, civil officials headed by the chief finance minister (mostowfi-al-mamālek) on the other side; the leading clergy, Qajar princes carrying royal arms and insignia, and cabinet ministers headed by the prime minister (ṣadr-eaʿẓam) flanked the throne. The Master of Ceremonies announced the arrival of the shah, who appeared bedecked in jewelry and proceeded, among the bowing of the silent audience, to the throne and took his seat. The court orator (ḵaṭib-al-mamālek) would read a sermon in praise of the Prophet and the first Imam until the court astronomer announced the turning of the year. The shah offered his felicitations first to the ulama and then to the officials, recited some verses of the Qorʾān, drank a sip of water, and presented gifts (coins inside small red-silk bags) to the clergymen, who took their leave forthwith. Then the music band played cheerful tunes, and the shah distributed gifts to the audience and left for the inner quarter of the palace. On the second day, a general audience was held in the Marble Palace (salām-e ʿāmm-e taḵt-e marmar). The shah and senior Qajar princes carrying royal regalia assembled, together with civil and military officials, received foreign envoys and presented them with gifts, paying particular attention to the Ottoman ambassador. Then the shah sat on a bejeweled chair placed upon the Marble Throne, and his aid announced the start of the public (ʿāmma) audience, whereupon music bands played, cannons roared, drums beat, and trumpets sounded. The poet laureate recited a poem in honor of Nowruz and in praise of the shah, and the official orator closed the ceremony with a flamboyantly eulogistic address. On the third day, the salām-e sar-e dar, a truly jovial public occasion, was held in the Marble Palace. The shah appeared on a balcony accompanied by officials as well as favorite womenfolk and attendants, and the public participated in the festivities. Ropedancers, keepers, and trainers monkeys, bears, and fighting rams entertained the crowd in front of the palace, and received their rewards. Court jesters made everyone laugh, and wrestlers fought for the highly coveted position of the supreme paladin (pahlavān-e pāyetaḵt), which entailed receiving a special armband. On the thirteenth day (sizdahbedar) people moved out of the towns and celebrated the end of Nowruz in parks, gardens, and along the streams.

In recent times, the official celebrations were condensed into one day of public audience, broadcast since the 1940s by the radio and since the 1960s by the television. These media have tended to standardize the Nowruz ceremonies and, consequently, a great deal of regional variations is fast disappearing.

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