Prosperous New Year!
Tomorrow marks Nowruz, the Persian New Year, so it seemed like a good time to put together a few notes on the history of the holiday. Its celebration goes back some 3,000 years, its origins lost in the mists of time.
I suppose the version which attributes it to the mythical king Jamshid is as good as any. A Promethean figure, legend tells us Jamshid blessed humankind with metalworking, textiles, bricklaying, mining, perfume, medicine, shipbuilding, and (on the downside) the caste system. Then, according to Abu’l-Qasim Ferdowsi’s epic poem, the Shah-nameh (The Book of Kings, ca. 1000 AD),
Although Jamshid had accomplished all these things, he strove to climb even higher. With his royal farr* he constructed a throne studded with gems, and had demons raise him aloft from the earth into the heavens; there he sat on his throne like the sun shining in the sky. The world’s creatures gathered in wonder about him and scattered jewels on him, and called this day the New Day, or No-Ruz. This was the first day of the month of Farvardin, at the beginning of the year, when Jamshid rested from his labors and put aside all rancor. His nobles made a great feast, calling for wine and musicians, and this splendid festival has been passed down to us, as a memorial to Jamshid.
(The Shah-nameh is a fascinating work in its own right. One of these days I’ll have to post an entry about it).
In any case, over time the Persian calendar drifted out of synch with the seasons, just like the Julian calendar that was used in the west. There was need of someone like Pope Gregory to institute reforms. In his Al-Kamil fi’l-Tarikh (Complete History), the historian ibn al-Athir (1160-1232/33) tells us,
In this year [467 AH/1074-75 AD] Nizam al-Mulk and Sultan Malikshah assembled several leading astronomers, who fixed the start of the new year (Nayruz) at the starting point of (the House of) Aries (i.e. the vernal equinox). Previously the new year had been when the sun was halfway through Pisces. This initiative of the sultan provided the starting point for yearly calendars.
At the same time astronomical observations were undertaken for Sultan Malikshah. A group of astronomers gathered to carry this out, including Umar ibn Ibrahim al-Khayyami, Abu’l-Muzaffar al-Asfizari, Maymun ibn al-Najib al-Wasiti and others. A large sum of money was expended and observations lasted until the sultan died.
The leader of the team, “Umar ibn Ibrahim al-Khayyami,” is of course Omar Khayyam, known in the west as the poet who composed the Rubaiyat (And who’s also the hero of my new novel, The Thread of Reason, which, in honor of his calendar, launches tomorrow on Amazon.com!) Omar’s calendar, called the Jalali calendar, after one of the titles of Malikshah, is, with some modifications, still in use in Iran today. It is accurate to one day every 5,000 years—beating out the Gregorian calendar, which is “only” accurate to one day every 3,000 years.
So best wishes for a happy Nowruz. Celebrate with wine and musicians. I’ll leave you with some of the latter—some traditional Persian music. This is a recording I made on Saturday, at the Boston Museum of Fine Art’s annual Nowruz celebration. The violin-like instrument that Mr. Dehghan is playing is called a kamancheh. Descriptions of them are found as early as the il-Khanid (Mongol) dynasty (13th-14th century).
Michael’s music: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mjG5HRzvM0I
Michael Isenberg writes about the Muslim world, medieval and modern. His forthcoming novel, The Thread of Reason, is a murder mystery that takes place in Baghdad in the year 1092.
*-The royal farr is the power that God bestows upon a king, provided he’s worthy. It’s something like a cross between magic, glory, luck, and the Mandate of Heaven.
The quotation from Ferdowsi comes from Shahnameh: The Persian Book of Kings, New York: Penguin Books (2006), tr. Dick Davis, p. 7.
The quotation from ibn al-Athir comes from The Annals of the Seljuq Turks: Selections from al-Kamil fi’l-Tarikh of ‘Izz al-Din ibn al-Athir, London: RoutledgeCurzon (2002), tr. D.S.Richards, p. 189.
Photo credit: “Jamshid’s throne borne by divs,” illustration from the Shah-nameh, 15th century, Cambridge, Fitzwilliam Museum, MS 22-1948, fol. 11v.