It’s a cliché but it’s true. The days are longer and sunnier and although there’s still a very chilly wind blowing in off the Caspian, temperatures are just that little bit milder, the sky that little bit bluer. The days of winter, of boots and wooly hats, of heating and of gloom are numbered. And haven’t we all had enough after six months of it? Here in Azerbaijan and according to meteorological reckoning, March 1st is considered the first day of spring. In much of the rest of the Northern Hemisphere the vernal (spring) equinox, when day and night are equally long, denotes the beginning of spring and this year that’s on March 20th, the same day as Novruz, the Persian New Year, arguably Azerbaijan’s main annual holiday. Novruz, just like Easter, is, in essence, an ancient spring festival, far predating Christianity or Islam, with its roots in Zoroastrianism, which celebrates the beginning of a seasonal New Year, renewal, growth, new beginnings, fertility, fresh hope for mankind, good overcoming evil and enlightenment. Similarly to Shrove Tuesday (Pancake Day/Mardi Gras) which occurs seven weeks before Easter, preparation for Novruz begins a month beforehand, in February. Each of the four Tuesdays preceding Novruz is celebrated by being dedicated to one of the four elements, water, fire, earth and wind. In the spirit of renewal, people spring clean their homes as they do elsewhere in the Northern Hemisphere, buy or make new clothing, similar to the European tradition of making pretty Easter bonnets, and visit each other to feast on delicacies, exactly as they do at home. Jumping over bonfires, a symbolical act of cleansing by chasing away the winter demons, is part of the celebration here in the Land of Fire but also still takes place in rural areas in Europe. Novruz decorations include brightly painted eggs, identical to our Easter eggs, symbolise fertility, as many candles as there are family members for enlightenment, and copper trays of wheatgrass, remind of the new green shoots of spring. In a parallel to our Easter celebrations, the Novruz holiday is spread over several days, the highlight of which is public dancing, music by folk bands, sports contests and merrymaking. Laying the foundation stone to a new building during Novruz is considered very auspicious, swearing, criticising or negative behaviour as well as slovenliness is frowned upon, forgiveness is encouraged and practised. As in Europe and America, flowers feature strongly and garlands are worn during the festivities but here in Azerbaijan, it is bad luck to bring daffodils into the house. In this region, just as in Europe and the US, the spring festival, whether it is called Easter or Novruz, is, of,course, an agricultural event, so horses and cows are also bedecked with flowers and ribbons during the Novruz period, while it is forbidden to kill horses, dogs or snakes at this time. Along with all of these, there are a multitude of other rituals which take place at this time, both here and at home. It is no coincidence that International Women’s Day and Mothering Sunday (in the UK) are allocated to this time of year, when nature, fertility and rebirth are celebrated and why traditionally flowers given to a woman at any time of year is a much appreciated gesture, signifying as they do abundance and celebration. Very slightly earlier in the international calendar, carnival makes sense too, with its bright costumes, parades, loud music, drumming and vuvuzelas chasing away the winter blues and spirit of death and decay, in preparation for approaching spring. Even Chinese New Year celebrations contain many of these symbolic elements of good defeating evil and renewal and rebirth too.
The completely fascinating Paleolithic cave paintings in the UNESCO world site at Gobustan, not far from Baku, bear witness to similar spring celebrations as far back as pre-historic times, 5000 to 40.000 years ago. Interestingly, around 40.000 years ago, human population first spread from the area we now call the Near East northwest into Europe and east into Central Asia, giving us all, of course, the same ancient roots. From 4000 to 1000 BC Indo-European migrations, east and west, took place, emanating from exactly this Caucasian area which was settled by Indo-European peoples up to 2500 BC, from where they gradually moved further East and West settling in Eastern Europe and Central Asia as recently as around 1000BC. Novruz is said to be at least 3000 years old and our human migration patterns combined with the natural weather and agricultural rhythms of the Northern Hemisphere explain why our spring festivals, Novruz and Easter, and their customs and rituals are so similar to be almost identical.
Zoroaster (also Zarathustra), an Iranian sage and religious philosopher from the Eastern region of the ancient Persian Empire, is credited with founding the first monotheistic religion/philosophy, worshipping just one God as opposed to the many of the previous pantheistic Iranian religions. He separated into two opposing forces Spenta Mainyu (progressive mentality) and Angra Mainyu (destructive mentality) under one God, Ahura Mazda (Illuminating Wisdom). Zoroastrianism is said to have originated in the sixth century BC but is based on a much older Indo-Iranian belief system going back 2000 years BC. It was the main religion of the Iranian people for many centuries until it became increasingly superceded by Islam from 700 AD onwards and at times, even suppressed. In Zoroastrianism water and fire are important symbols of purity and are represented in and by fire temples. Novruz, a secular folk holiday, is rooted in these ancient Zoroastrian practices. Christianity, at only approx. 2000 years old, very fittingly adopted the pagan spring festival dedicated to the Germanic goddess Eostre/Ostara in Europe for the religious observance and celebration of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ, a rebirth in itself, around the second century AD. Historically there has been much controversy within the Church over the exact correct timing of this ‘moveable feast.’ The date of Easter is set more or less at the first Sunday after the first full moon that occurs after the spring equinox. The date of Easter therefore falls any time between 22nd March and 25th April by the Julian calendar and on the equivalent 4th of April to 8th May by the Gregorian calendar of the Eastern Orthodox faith. Easter is also linked to the Jewish Passover.
But back to Novruz in Baku. Taking advantage of the five consecutive holiday days, this is the time when there is the great Expat Exodus and the majority of Expats travel either to their home countries or take holidays abroad. I will be one of them and I may post fewer blog posts while I am on my travels, though I can promise several quite interesting ones for when I am back in April. Meanwhile, wherever you are, whether you are staying behind in Baku or spending your holiday elsewhere, I wish you a wonderful celebration of spring and Novruz Mubarak!