Nowruz - Discover Persian culture
March 20, 2022
Authors: Saeideh Rajabzadeh, Kira McKesey, Samantha Wheadon, Hanna Yacob
Hello and welcome to Nowruz - Discover Persian culture online exhibit! Check out the message below from our Equity and Inclusion Leader, Saeideh Rajabzadeh.
Nowruz & Year 1401
Nowruz means new day and it marks the beginning of spring, which usually falls on March 20th of the Gregorian calendar. Some of the traditions surrounding Nowruz have been celebrated for over 3000 years, which could be traced back to ancient Persia and Zoroastrianism. Zoroastrians believed spring is a force to win over darkness! Although different Persian communities and families have their own unique traditions, throughout this exhibit, we will touch on some of the more common rituals.
This year marked the beginning of the year 1401 for Persian communities! You may ask yourself, why 1401?! Over the last two millennia, a series of Iranian calendars have been invented and modified, but the current calendar used by Persian communities includes names of months based on the Zoroastrian calendar and the years based on the solar Hijri calendar. The Solar Hijri calendar is based on astronomical calculations and not pre-determined rules. In the solar Hijri calendar, year 1 marks the journey of the prophet Muhammad to Mecca and Madina.
Did you know that Persian New Year doesn't happen at midnight? Every year, the moment of the new year is determined by astronomical calculations which give you an accurate hour, minute, and seconds for when the new year is to happen!
Months in a Persian Calendar:
Farvardin, 31 days (March-April)
Ordibehesht, 31 days (April-May)
Khordad, 31 days (May-June)
Tir, 31 days (June-July)
Mordad, 31 days (July-August)
Shahrivar, 31 days (August-September)
Mehr, 30 days (September-October)
Aban, 30 days (October-November)
Azar, 30 days (November-December)
Dey, 30 days (December-January)
Bahman, 30 days(January-February)
Esfand, 29 days (February-March)
Further reading: ancient calendars in Iran, Zoroastrian calendar, solar Hijri calendar.
Wading Away Bad Luck with Pre-Nowruz Celebrations
New year celebrations start many weeks before the first day of spring. In preparation for spring, families clean out their entire house over a few weeks leading up to the new year. In addition, many families set up their new year table/spread (Haft-seen). Some families visit cemeteries and bring flowers to the graves of loved ones who have passed away.
Charshanbeh Soori, or the Fire Festival, happens on the Wednesday before the new year. On this day, families and friends jump over the fire and sing songs wishing for good health and wading away the bad health. One such song describes the red glow of the fire as a sign of health and the yellow colour as a sign of sickness.
In the previous generations, there are stories of parents and grandparents walking in the neighbourhood banging on bowls with spoons as a sign of repelling bad luck. The neighbours would then put treats and sweets in their bowls.
Haft-seen: Deciphering Symbolism in Celebrations
Haft-seen means 7 “s”s, which includes the arrangement of seven items that start with the sound “s” in Farsi. Fun fact: every item on the table stands for a symbolic meaning! The items on the table have gone through some changes over the years. For example, wine was substituted by vinegar. Some families keep a collection of poetry on the table (usually the Collected works of Hafez) rather than Qur’an (The Holy Book), but some may choose to have both on the table.
[Image Description: A table is photographed from above. Items from Haft-seen table such as fruits, flowers, sumaq, and coins are seen in the picture.]
Below is a list of the items on the table and what they signify:
• grass - rebirth
• sumac - sunrise
• lotus fruit - love
• vinegar - patience
• samanu - strength
• apple - beauty
• garlic - health
• coins - prosperity
• clock - time
• hyacinth - spring
• mirror - self-reflection
• candles - enlightenment
• eggs - fertility
• book of poetry - wisdom
• goldfish - life and progress
Most Unique Handicrafts of Persia
Iran has a rich history of art forms known world wide including hand-woven Persian carpets, the art of Mina kari, Miniature painting, and the art of Khatam kari. Below, you will find short descriptions, images, and videos on these art forms.
Iran contains two-thirds of all global carpet exports, and its carpet industry employs over eight million people! Persian carpets are among the most famous handmade and significant items in Iranian culture. The history of Persian carpet making dates back over 2,500 years, which captures the imagination of artists through different colours, textures, and fabrics. These carpets are very special to Persian locals, which tend to showcase colours such as red, blue, and brown. These natural dyes are made using cherry stems, lettuce leaves, walnut peels, and pomegranate peels, amongst other things.
Traditionally, men would gather the wool for the carpets while women would design, color, and knit them. Each handwoven carpet is unique and as a result, no two carpets are exactly the same! These handmade creations demonstrate different animals, flowers, leaves, and historical scenes or traditions. Many areas across Iran produce these carpets, such as Tabriz, Kerman, Mashhad, and Isfahan. It is common for knitting skills and patterns to be passed down from mother to daughter through the generations, although youth are encouraged to be inspired by the world around them and to innovate new patterns. To see more beautiful Persian handwoven carpet designs, check out the Persian Carpet Collection Instagram account! To purchase Persian handicrafts, please visit Cavidan Art on Etsy.
Copyright: Vahid Rahmanian
[Image Description: a pattern of Mina kari that showcases different colours of blue and yellow. Symmetrical teardrop and triangle patterns are seen with a single trapezium in the center.]
Another popular handicraft in Iran is Mina kari, a type of enameling with fire to create decorations on metal and pieces of tile with glaze. Similar to carpets, this art contains unique patterns and colours that demonstrate artists’ creativity. One of the most well-known masters in this artform is Shokrollah Sanizadeh, although many other artists are admired greatly locally.
Another Persian visual art form is miniature, which is a form of painting with religious or mythological meanings using bright colours, dating back to the 13th century. Many of these paintings were and still to this day are inspired by the poetry of Persian master poets. Many of these paintings show up on manuscripts alongside Farsi writings that contribute to telling a narrative.
Original image by Mir Sayyid ‘Ali, Tabriz, Iran, c. 1540.
[Image Description: The miniature painting is called Nighttime in a City and shows people singing, dancing, playing instruments, talking, etc. ]
Click on the video below to watch a miniature painter at work!
A form of woodwork seen in Persian households is Khatam kari, decorating wood with small mosaic triangles made of Ebony, the wood of Citron Tree, and bones of horse, just to name a few. This popular technique is used to create boards for backgammon and chess, racks for the Holy Book, along with other items such as jewelry boxes. These traditions and forms of handicraft art all have a special place in the culture of Iran and are often seen when celebrating Persian New Year.
Further reading: Persian basketry and wickerwork, handwoven Persian rugs, textiles of Iran, metalwork, woodwork, pottery and ceramics, mosaic, painting motifs.
Persian Music, Music Icons, and Traditional Instruments
Persian music is a generic term to describe folk songs, traditional/classical music, and even pop music in Farsi that can be found and heard in Iran and other Persian-speaking countries such as Afghanistan and Tajikistan. Persians have a rich history of music and poetry dating back to the prehistoric era. Some musicians whose works have survived from the Sassanian period (AD. 226-651) include Barbob, Nakissa, and Ramtin.
Traditional Persian music is a popular genre one can always hear on the radio or on television in Iran. The music is usually performed by a lead singer and a group of instrumentalists surrounding the singer in a semi-circle. Oftentimes the poetry is from famous Persian poets of different eras. Below is a list of traditional Persian musicians: Mohammad-Reza Shajarian, Shahram Nazeri, Sepideh Raissadat, Kayhan Kalhor, Alireza Ghorbani, and sisters Marjan and Mahsa Vahdat. Folk music and folk songs have a special place in Iranian culture as well. Sima Bina has done amazing work over the past decades to research, write, and preserve ancient Persian folk songs including lullabies. Another famous folk singer is Pari Zageneh.
Persian pop music, also called Parsipop, continues to grow in popularity as it mixes traditional music and modern styles of music in terms of sound, beat, and instrumentation. Some iconic Persian pop artists include Hayedeh, who sang classical, folk, and pop music. Googoosh, an actor and singer, who was Iran’s top singer between 1970 and 1979. Feel free to check out the work of any of these popular singers: Mahasti, Leila Forouhar, Dariush, Shadmehr Aghili, Aref, Sattar.
It is important to note that Persian musicians are also active in the field of western classical music in Iran and abroad such as the Canadian Iranian musicians Afarin Mansouri, Saman Shahi, and Bijan Sepanji, just to name a few.
We have created a playlist of seven Nowruz songs for you to enjoy!
Click on the images to view videos of these Persian instruments being played!
Some of the most popular Persian instruments that are still used today include:
Santur: A wooden box in the shape of a trapezium with strings across it horizontally played with thin wooden mallets
Tar: A plucked string instrument in the shape of an 8 with six strings, played like a guitar
Setar: An instrument smaller than tar with four strings, which is strummed by the nail of the right index finger.
Kamancheh: A bowed instrument with four strings, played like a violoncello, but because of its small size, it’s placed on the lap or chair vertically.
Tombak: The main percussion instrument in Persian classical music. It is vase-shaped and placed sideways on the lap. The end is covered with tightly stretched skin.
Further reading: history of traditional Persian music, row, radif, forms (pishdaramad, chaharmezrab, avaz, tasnif, reng)
Poetry and Calligraphy
Poetry was and currently is regarded as the highest form of Persian literature amongst many Persian families. Poetry has such an important place in Persian culture that a book of poetry is present at Persian New Year as well as other celebrations like Yalda. Students learn to read and analyze many of the famous old poems from a young age at school. The oldest document of Persian poetry dates back Samanid Empire (819-999). Persian poetry could be found with many themes, from romantic to ethical, philosophical, and religious. Some famous Persian poets include Rumi, Hafez, Saadi, Omar Khayyam, Forough Farrokhzad, Simin Behbahani, and Sohrab Sepehri, amongst many others. A famous quote by Rumi includes “Respond to every call that excites your spirit.” Nezami Ganjavi is another poet whose work is extensively studied at school. He wrote poetry in both Persian and Arabic with focuse on an in-depth understanding of the different dimensions of human relationships. Saadi Shirazi, another poetic icon, wrote poetry about his moral and social thoughts. Two famous quotes by him include “Have patience. All things are difficult before they come easy” and “Whatever is produced in haste goes hastily to waste.”
Further reading: Persian epic poetry, Persian Book of Kings (Shahnameh), The Divan of Hafez, Masnavi of Rumi, writings of Shams Tabrizi, Ghazaliat of Saadi Shirazi.
Around 1000 years ago, Ibh Muqlah created six genres of Iranian calligraphy with the help of his brother. These six genres were Mohaqiq, Reyhan, Sols, Naskh, Toqi, and Reqa. These genres went through two main changes to create the new Persian calligraphy used today: Nasta'liq, which is what students learn from an early age in school. First, Naskh and Reqa styles were combined to make Ta'liq and then Naskh and Ta'liq where combined to make Nasta'liq.
If you'd like to see what your name looks like in Persian Calligraphy, send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org and we'll be sure to digitally send you an e-card with your name in Persian Calligraphy!
Persian food recipes
One of the most tangible ways of getting to know a culture is through food. Below, you’ll find videos, blogs, and recipe book suggestions if you’re ready to try out some Persian food!
Recipe Book suggestions
Village affairs: A series of cooking videos by a family living in Astara City, which is located at the border of Iran and Azarbaijan. These videos, without any commentary, show traditional recipes from the village and shed light on the everyday living at their farm.
Caspian Chef: Chef Roustaei has created a series of videos about traditional Persian foods that aim to break down the recipes and make them easy for everyone to make.
Cooking with Yousef: Yousef’s channel includes over seventy videos sharing his love of cooking. He shares personal stories of the past, his student life in the USA, and his journey in cooking to bring Persian food to audiences in an accessible way.
Blakemore, Erin. 2022. “This ancient festival is a celebration of springtime—and a brand new year.” National Geographic. Accessed March 20, 2022. https://www.nationalgeographic.com/history/article/nowruz-ancient-festival-celebration-springtime-new-year#:~:text=Nowruz%20has%20been%20celebrated%20in,as%20a%20victory%20over%20darkness.
Farhat, Hormoz. 2022. “Iran Chamber Society: Music of Iran: Introduction to Persian Music.” Iran Chamber Society. Accessed March 13, 2022. https://www.iranchamber.com/music/articles/introduction_to_persian_music.php#:~:text=The%20history%20of%20musical%20development,possessed%20an%20elaborate%20musical%20culture.
Kianush, Katy. 1998. “A brief history of Persian Miniature.” Iran Chamber Society. Accessed March 20, 2022. https://www.iranchamber.com/art/articles/history_iranian_miniature.php.
Lewis, Franklin, and Hoopla digital. 2014. Rumi: Past and Present, East and West : The Life, Teaching, and Poetry of Jalal Al-Din Rumi. Manhattan, New York: Simon and Schuster.
Macmillan, Palgrave. 2016. The Poetry of Nizami Ganjavi: Knowledge, Love, and Rhetoric. New York City, NY: Palgrave Macmillan.
Mark, Joshua. 2020. “Persian Literature.” World History Encyclopedia. Accessed March 13, 2022. https://www.worldhistory.org/Persian_Literature/.
Mehraby, Rahman. 2019. “An Introduction to Persian Traditional Music.” Destination Iran. Accessed March 13, 2022. https://www.destinationiran.com/introduction-persian-traditional-music.htm.
Morrison, George, et al. 1981. “Theories of Persian Music.” Farabi School. Accessed March 13, 2022. http://farabisoft.com/Pages/FarabiSchool/TheoryDetails.aspx?lang=en&PID=6&SID=36.
Qing, Ye. 2019. "Persian carpets: Traditional weaving skills in Kashan and Fars." CGTN. Accessed March 20, 2022. https://news.cgtn.com/news/3d3d674d32456a4e34457a6333566d54/index.html.
Ueng, Jacki. 2019. “Greatest Persian Poets of All Time.” Bohemian Vagabond. Accessed March 13, 2022. https://www.bohemianvagabond.com/greatest-persian-poets-of-all-time/.
Unknown. n.d. “Carpet: 16th Century.” Met Museum. Accessed March 20, 2022. https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/445995?&exhibitionId=%7b67f03ab5-3930-472a-b12a-f5f20ab10ff1%7d&oid=445995&pkgids=417&pg=1&rpp=4&pos=1&ft=*.
Unknown. n.d. “Carpets for Kings: Six Masterpieces of Iranian Weaving.” Met Museum. Accessed March 20, 2022.
Unknown. n.d. “How to celebrate Nowruz, the Persian New Year | CBC Kids.” CBCnews. Accessed March 20, 2022. https://www.cbc.ca/kidscbc2/the-feed/how-to-celebrate-nowruz-the-persian-new-year.
Unknown. 2019. "Iranian handicraft; a rainbow of diversity rooted in old history." Irna. Accessed March 20, 2022. https://en.irna.ir/news/83346459/Iranian-handicraft-a-rainbow-of-diversity-rooted-in-old-history.