Intangible Cultural Heritage of Asia and the Pacific

Navruz fests ⓒ Romish Sherali, Amir Isayev, and Mikhael Romanyuk

Navruz, Sharing Together on New Year’s Day—Some Reflections on the Culture of Navruz

Navruz (Nowruz) is not just about the first day of spring, but it is also not just a celebration of the New Year marked by indulging in a feast; it has a much wider historical and cultural context with deep doctrinal significance.

Navruz dates back millennia, so its origins are not known for certain, and this is one reason great historical writers and thinkers, such as Abu Rayhan Beruni and Omar Khayyam, resorted to the language of legend when explaining the birth of the Navruz celebration.

In Iranian tradition, the establishment of Navruz is attributed to Jamshid, the legendary king of seven continents and an epic hero. It is said that Jamshid taught all people how to build homes and cities, to mine gold and ore, and to make arms and vessels. Therefore, his rein symbolizes the beginning of human civilization.

The history embedded in the Navruz celebration is a source and foundation for culture in general. While it reflects the cultural tradition of the people who created it as well as their religious and ethical norms and their historiosophical ideals, Navruz does not limit itself to the shell of its own tradition nor does it rest on values that others may find alien. The unifying principle of Navruz is not a pagan religion or esoteric sect, not a race or ethnos, not geography or kinship—it is culture that is called upon to re-establish former spiritual ties of humanity.

According to Beruni, ancient Iranians called Navruz the Day of Hope, a symbolic image filled with deep cultural meaning and significance. Cultural archetypes of the Navruz are spiritual constants of the past and present, but they also have significance for the future. Two cultural elements of the festival acquire a new dimension and meaning when they are viewed in the context of the modern world.

According to traditional Navruz beliefs, benevolent angels descending from the sky will not visit houses that have not been cleaned or that have no accord and peace in them. Extending the limits of the family home to a global scale, the custom of preholiday house cleaning can be viewed as a prototype of today’s ecological imperative demanding the prevention of environmental pollution.

Furthermore, in terms of ethical imperatives and of Navruz culture, the notion of ecology can be deepened to include the context of not only the ecological environment but also a socio-cultural one. This approach broadens the environmental theme to include the protection of culture, and thus illustrates that the destruction of the former (nature) often leads to the degradation of the latter (culture).

This neo-ecological imperative actually finds its way in the collective conscience of the world community. The basic documents of the United Nations—from the Millennium Declaration to numerous UNESCO recommendations—contain an urgent appeal for dialogue at all levels of human interaction. There is additional emphasis on strengthening cross-cultural understanding and education in the spirit of religious tolerance as well as encouraging spiritual development that rejects ethno-cultural prejudices and ideological stereotypes. The ecology of culture serves as the main link in the strategy for a transitioning from a culture of response to a culture of prevention, the very approach that is being implemented by the United Nations.

Unfortunately, based on modern international practice, understanding the plurality of cultures and civilizations as a positive factor in global development is alien to the world as a whole. As UN documents often state, the perception of diversity as a threat prevents many of us from seeing the universal values that unite us all into a historical whole and global civilization.

For the people who celebrate Navruz as a new beginning, the New Year is not just a sign of nature’s renewal, but a time of change and hope. Let us hope that coordinated international efforts can bestow some of the living joys of Navruz on our global community, to everyone longing for great spiritual satisfaction in our troubled times.