Kurd's - Persian New Year and its Assyrian - Babylonian origin

3/20/2007 12:05:00 AM

In citing background information about the Iranian New year Davood N. Rahni writes:

"The Norooz Festival is immortalized in the Decree of Cyrus the Great, founder of the Persian Achaemenid Empire, granting national, cultural and religious freedoms to the peoples of Babylon and beyond in 542 B.C.E." (1)

There is no mention of Norooz in any of the inscriptions by Cyrus. The invasion of Babylon by the Persians took place on October 4th 539 B.C., months before the Spring equinox the first day of the later Persian new year. Cyrus could not have granted the Babylonians any rights 3 years before his invasion of the city. Historical evidences suggest that the Persian Norooz was borrowed from the Babylonians after the conquest facilitated by the Priests of Marduk and perhaps also by the exiled Jews.

Inscriptions by the Babylonian priests, their king Nebunaid and Cyrus indicate that there was ongoing conflict between the Priests of Marduk and their king who attempted to elevate the Harranian deity Sin above Marduk consequently causing the hatred of him by the general population. To make matters worst Nabunaid left the country and lived in the oasis of Tima in northwest Arabia for 17 years.

During his absence the New year was not celebrated because king played an important role in the ceremonies. Canceling of the New year was undoubtedly a great disappointment for the Babylonians who considered its observance not only as a time for joy also an important religious obligation.

Such despair is evident in one Babylonian inscription :

"On the eleventh year [of the Nabunaid's rule] ... 'The King did not come to Babylon for the Ceremonies of the month Nissanu, Nabu did not come to Babylon, Bel [Marduk] did not go out in procession, the festival of the New Year was omitted.."(2)

After defeating Nabunaid's army in Opis The Persian troops marched to Sippar and took it without opposition and Cyrus entered Babylon without a battle. "On the third day of Arahshamnu (October) Kurash (Cyrus) entered Babylon, green twigs were spread in front of him - the state of "peace" (shulmu) was imposed upon the city."(3)

Cyrus's kindness to the Babylonians and the Jews was clearly a pay-back for the fact that he did not have to fight the population of the city who had in fact helped him to conquer it.

The involvement of the Priests of Marduk in helping the Persian conquest of Babylon is implied in an inscription by Cyrus.

"Nabunaid was heretical; he changed the details of worship. He was also an oppressor....But Bel-Marduk cast his eye over all countries, seeking for a righteous ruler.. Then he called by name cyrus, King of Anshan and pronounced him ruler of the lands."(4)

Since the city was captured without bloodshed with the cooperation of the population it was natural that Cyrus in contrast to Nabunaid would appeal to the Babylonian's religious sensitivities which he seems to have had detail knowledge of. In another inscription Cyrus declares that Marduk the great lord was pleased with his deeds and sent friendly blessings to 'the King who worships him, and his son Cambyses ' .'(5)

The book of Isaiah implies that Jews were also part of the effort to help Cyrus invasion of Babylon which it would pave the way for their return to Israel.

"This is what the Lord says to his anointed, to Cyrus, whose right hand I take to subdue nations before him and to strip kings of their armor, to open before him so that gates will not be shut."(Isaiah 45) Given the Jewish exiled hatered of the Babylonians such posibility can not be dismissed. "Sit in silence, go into darkness Daughter of the Babylonians; no more you will be called Queen of Kingdoms.(Isaiah 47: 5) ....They will come upon you in full measure, despite your many sorceries and your potent spells." (Isaiah 47: 9)

It is important to note that the chapters 40-55 of the Biblical book of Isaiah also knwon as 'Second Isaiah' or 'Deutero-Isaiah' were added to the book by unknown Babylonian Jewish exile within the period of 546 to 538 B.C.E..(6)

After the invasion, Persians adopted many of the Assyro-Babylonian social, political and administrative innovations. Historians believe that the Persian empire owed much to the Assyrian accomplishments. "Assyrian art, science, literature and technology, integrated from many sources and revealed by excavation" have influenced the later nations including those in Europe.(7) It should not surprise us that Persians borrowed their New year from the Babylonians.

In 538 B.C. Cambyses the son of Cyrus was installed as the king of Babylon and on the 4th day of Nissanu [March 24th of the western calendar] he went through the historic New Year ritual of paying homage to Bell [Marduk] and Nabu thereby he was appointed officially the viceroy of Marduk in Babylon with headquarter in Sippar.(8) This is the first mention of a Persian king participating in the celebration of the New year festival which later became to be known as Nowruz. When Cyrus was killed on the battlefield in 530 B.C. Cambyses inherited the empire's throne. As king of Babylon he had presided for eight previous years over the Babylonian New year celebrations which by then had been gradually passed on to the Persians.

In the Persian capital Persepolis or Pasargad founded by Cambyses and finished by Dariush engravings show various nations of the empire bringing gifts to the King during the New Year's celebration, There is no historical evidence to show that either the Medes or the Persians observed the Spring Equinox as New Year before the conquest of Babylon.

The Assyro-babylonian new year originated during the Sumerian period in mid third millennium B.C. was the most important religious ceremony which was observed starting on the spring equinox (March 20-21), the day of creation and also of the rebirth of the nature, according to their religion. During the New Year ceremonies the story of the Creation describing the battle between Marduk and Tiamat leading to the creation of the world, all the living things including mankind was recited and enacted.(9)

Assyrian king Sennecherib had engraved the event at the "Bet Akitu" on a pair of copper doors at Assur . His inscription reads: "I engraved upon the gate the gods who marched in front and the gods who marched behind him [Assur], those who ride in chariots, and those who go on foot [against] Tiamat and the creatures [that were] in her."

Alexander the Great according to the Greek historians participated in the Persian new year festivities in 330 B.C. He was asked to go through a ritual ordeal which consisted of fighting a "monstrous death demon" and emerge victorious. This seems to have been a reenactment of Marduk's battle with Tiamat as told in the assyrian -Babylonian creation story. Alexander's Participation in this event renewed his rule for another year as Ahura Mazda's vice regent on the earth.(10)

Assyrian and Babylonian kings were considered viceroys of god on earth, every new year the king had to go through a ritual which led to his dethroning by the high priest in the presence of Marduk or Assur to confess that he 'had not sinned against the land and had not neglected the divinity' his crown was returned to him by the high priest and his kingship was extended for another year.(11) This concept seems to have survived among the Persians. The kings of the Sassanian dynasty were also considered the regents of the Ahura Mazda and were known as "Bokh" or "Minu Chehre Az Eazadon" i.e. 'related to god', also 'Farah Eizadi' i.e 'guided by god".(12)

Bas-reliefs of that era show Sassanian kings receiving their crown from the Mobed Modbedan i.e. the Zoroastrian high priest. It is interesting to note that the Persian emblem of Aura Mazda with minore differences seem to be identical to that of the Assyrian god Assur.

Evidence also suggests that the practice of the Sacred Marriage of the Assyro-Babylonian new year intended to insure the fertility of the land was also part of the Persian New year celebrations."..the [Achaemenian] king spent the first night of the New Year with a young woman. The offsprings of such union would be sent to a temple and they would normally end up as high-ranking religious officials."(13)

Another aspect of the Nowruz celebrations, not practiced since the medieval times, was called 'Kosa Rishin' which seems to have had Mesopotamian origin. It was a play acted at the market place involving a temporary king or False Ameir who was mocked and made fun of and ultimately driven away. We know that during the Sumerian period one aspect of the Akitu festival involved the mocking of a substitute king for a day usually a criminal dressed in royal regalia. In one instance when the real king unexpectedly died the false king Enlil-Bani inherited his throne.(14) The concept of the substitute king was also practiced by the Assyrians and Babylonians. When Alexander was in Babylon one day he was surprised to find a young man clad in the king's robes with a crown on his head sitting on his throne. He asked him who he was or what he was doing, the man did not answer. Later Alexander was old that the young man was a prisoner who was told to put king's robes on, sit on the throne and say nothing. This was the "Mesopotamian ritual of the substitute king enthroned when the Omens foretold danger to the true king."(15)

After the conquest of Babylon in 539 BC, the Babylonian cyclic calendar became standard throughout the Persian Empire. From the Indus to the Nile. Aramaic documents from Persian Egypt, for instance, bear Babylonian dates besides the Egyptian. The royal years as in Babylon began on Nissanu 1, which coincided with the vernal equinox. " It is probable, however, that at the court itself the counting of regnal years began with the accession day while the Seleucids and the Parthians maintained the Babylonian calendar."(16)

From the 1st century BC, on the fiscal administration in northern Iran, used Zoroastrian month and day names in the Pahlavi (the Iranian language of Sassanian Persia). "The origin and history of the Zoroastrian calendar year of 12 months of 30 days, plus five days (that is, 365 days), remains unknown. It became official under the Sassanian dynasty, from about AD 226 until the Arab conquest in 621. Arabs introduced the Muslim lunar year, but the Persians continued to use the Sassanian solar year, which in 1079 was made equal to the Julian year by the introduction of the leap year.(17)

Assyrian limmu system, was also adopted by the Persians. 'It entailed casting the lot [Assyrian puru] during the new year ceremonies to decide who among the top brass would be chief minister for the year which would be known by his name. A Pur, a small inscribed die dated about 840 B.C. , is now in the Yale Museum."

According to the Old Testament story of Esther during the Xerexe'x rule "lot was cast on the Persian New Year in Nissan and Haman's name came up to be Chancellor for the year "from day to day, from month to month, until the twelfth month, the month of Adar" (Esther 3:7). The Chancellor's duty among other things was to collect the annual revenues for the Empire, The Hebrew word "pur" which appears in Esther 3:7, 9:24 and 26 is usually taken to mean 'lots'. It is derived from the Assyrian puru meaning a pebble used for casting lots. The Esther holiday celebrated by the Jews is called Purim.

The above facts clearly show the process by which the Assyro-Babylonian new year of the spring equinox was transferred to the Persians which the Achaemenian kings embraced. If the Persian Nowruz had a Zoroastrian origin, as some claim, elements which were not of the Persian religion would not have been part it. Ruling nations seldom adopt the traditions of their subjects but in the Persian's case Cyrus and Cambyses were eager to please the Babylonians by showing they respected their religious practices. Since the New Year celebration was a very important event for the Babylonians during which the legitimacy of the ruler was acknowledged it was to the benefit of the early Persian kings to accept this tradition as their own.

Kurdish Newroz

Kurdish writers in recent times have invented mythical origin for the Newroz or Noruz, New year, their people celebrate on March 21st, for political expediency they claim it is the celebration of Kawa's victory over the Assyrian king Zahak.

One website describes the origin of the Kurdish New year as follows:"On March 21st in the year 612 B.C., Kawa killed the Assyrian tyrant Dehak and liberated the Kurds and many other peoples in the Middle East. Dehak was an evil king who represented cruelty, abuse, and the enslavement of peoples. People used to pray every day for God to help them to get rid of Dehak. On Newroz day, Kawa led a popular uprising and surrounded Dehak's palace. Kawa then rushed passed the king's guards and grabbed Dehak by the neck. Kawa then struck the evil tyrant on the head with a hammer and dragged him off his throne. With this heroic deed, Kawa set the people free and proclaimed freedom throughout the land. A huge fire was light on the mountaintop to send a message: firstly to thank God for helping them defeats Dehak, and secondly to the people to tell them they were free. This is where the tradition of the Newroz fire originates."(18)

The above claim is clearly fictitious intended to serve Kurds' political agendas. The Kurdish nationalists by using a convoluted version of the Persian myth of Zahak who was not an Assyrian wished to inspire their people to rise against the cruelty of the ruling governments. In doing so they portray the ancient Assyrians as cruel, the enemies of the Kurds and all other people thereby promoting hatred for the contemporary Assyrians.

To further add insult to the injury they claim their celebration of this day began in 612 B.C. which is the year when Ancient Assyrians were defeated by the combined forces of the Medes, Babylonians and the Scythians. However as we will shall see Kurd's Newroz or Newruz has nothing to do with the fall of Assyria or the Zahak's myth. In fact the New Year they celebrate is in reality that of the ancient Assyrians and Babylonians, originated in the third millennium B.C. long before there was a mention of Kurds in history. Further more March 20-21 the first day of this event is vernal equinox and has nothing to do with the fall of Nineveh which happened in August of 612 B.C.. It is unconscionable for the Kurds who until recently were portraying themselves as an oppressed people to further their political agendas at the expense of the Assyrians especially since the latter have been subjected to repeated massacres by the former during the last few centuries.

Evidently Kurds acquired their knowledge of the Zahak's legend from the 11th century Persian poet Ferdosi's Shahnameh (the Book of Kings) who identifies the tyrant king as Arab and not Assyrian. Furthermore According to Ferdosi Zahak lived in Jerusalem and was killed by Feraidoun and not Kawa (Persian Kaveh).(19)

After crossing the river Tigris the forces of Feraidoun "turned their faces towards the city which is now called Jerusalem, for here stood the glorious house that Zahak had built. And when they entered the city all the people rallied around Feraidoun, for they hated Zahak and looked to Feraidoun to deliver them... Feraidoun did as he was bidden, and led forth Zahak to the Mount Demawend [north of today's Tehran]. And he bound him to the rock with mighty chains and nails driven into his hands, and left him to perish in agony. And the hot sun shone down upon the barren cliffs, and there was neither tree nor shrub to shelter him, and the chains entered into his flesh, and his tongue was consumed with thirst. Thus after a while the earth was delivered of Zahak the evil one, and Feraidoun reigned in his stead."(20)

The disparity between the real story of Zahak and the one advanced by the Kurds is either due to lack of specific knowledge of the myth or is a deliberate attempt to vilify the ancient Assyrians. It is clear that Zahak's ruling center was not in Mesopotamia and he did not die on March 21, 612 B.C. and and his myth has nothing to do with the Kurds or Assyrians. There is always a danger in defining historical event based on myths rather than documented historical evidences because myths and legends can be easily perverted to satisfy the prejudices and political ambitions of the moment. The same legend can be told in different ways to indirectly vilify this or that people without regard to the truth as the Kurds have done in this case.While there is no documented historical evidence for when and why the Kurds began to observe their Newroz or Nowruz there is no doubt that they learned to celebrate it form the Persians. The Persian new year Nowruz in addition to the Kurds is observed by the Afghan, Turks, and the Persian speaking people of pakistan, India and Central Asia who were once part of that empire.

Regardless of its origin Nowruz during the last 2,500 years has evolved into a tradition which is uniquely Persian and no longer resembles its ancient version. It is also celebrated by other people related to the Persians or have came to contact with them including Kurds, Afgans, Turks and others. For political reasons Kurds, in recent years, have invented fictitious stories about why they celebrate their new year, in the process they vilify the ancient Assryians and promote antagonism against their descendance. While myths may have been enough for the primitive societies to explain important events in their life in today's world nothing less than documented facts will do. The Kurd's explanation for the origin of their new Year or so-called "National Day" contradicts all known historical facts. Assyrians who in the past have been persecuted by their neighbors including the Kurds primarily because of their faith should not be victimized for the sake of Kurds national ambitions. During the last few decades Kurds have changed their predatory practices against their Assyrian neighbors but falsely explaining their New Year celebration as an anti Assyrian crusade transform their Nowroz into a day of hate rather than celebrating the renewal of nature which historical has been the reasons for its observance.

End Notes

  1. payvand.com/news/06/mar/1209.html
  2. James B. Pritchard edit. The ancient Near East, An Anthology of Texts and Pictures, Princeton University Press 1958 p. 203.
  3. ibid p. 204.
  4. ibid pp. 206-8.
  5. ibid p.207.
  6. hope.edu/academic/religion/bandstra/RTOT/CH10/CH10_2.HTM
  7. J.E. Curtis and J. E. reade editors, Art and Empire, Treasures form Assyria in the British Museum, the trustee of the British Museum, 1995 p. 31.
  8. Burn, Andrew Robert "Persia and the Greeks, the Defense of the West 546-478 B.C.", Stm Marin's Press, Inc. 1968 p. 58.
  9. Alexander Heidel, "The Babylonian Genesis, The Story of Creation", The University of Chicago Press 1951 pp. 16-17.
  10. Green, Peter "Alexander of Macedon, 356-323 N.C. A historical biography" copyright 1991, p. 314.)
  11. Henri , Grankfort, "Kingship and the Gods, as Study of the ancient Near Eastern religions", Chicago University Press 1948 p.320.
  12. Nafissi, Saeid "Masseheyat Dar Iran", Noor Jahan Tehran, Iran 1964 pp. 40-41.
  13. Massoume, "Iranian New Year Nowruz", @ persia.org/Culture/nowruz.html, May 2004.
  14. Kids Discover 'Mesopotamia', Kids Discover 2000 p. 2 .
  15. Joan Oates, "Babylon"Thames and Hudson 1979 page 40.
  16. ragz-international.com/mesopotamiancalander.htm
  17. ibid.
  18. Newroz @ homepages.tig.com.au/~simko/newroz.html May 2004
  19. Ferdosi, "Shah-Nameh", Moasseseh Chaap was Entesharrat Ameir Kabeir, Tehran Iran, Chaape sevome 1344 pp.28-35.
  20. farhangsara.com/shanhnameh_shahsofold3.htm