With a long-standing and proud civilization, Persian culture is among the richest in the world. Two and a half millennia of inspiring literature, thousands of poets and writers, glorious and impressive architecture, live customs dating back to Zoroastrians over 3000 years ago, and other unique characteristics of the nation are compare with only a few countries.
Persian culture has long been a predominant culture of the region. The Sassanid era was an important and influential historical period in Iran as Iranian culture influenced Roman civilization, China and also other parts of Asia considerably, and so influenced as far as Western Europe and Africa. This influence played a prominent role in the formation of both Asiatic and European medieval art. This influence carried forward to the Islamic world. Much of what later became known as Islamic learning, such as philology, literature, jurisprudence, philosophy, medicine, architecture and the sciences were based on some of the practices taken from the Sassanid Persians.
Throughout the history, this grand treasure of Persia was gradually transferred to eastern and western nations. Many ceremonies of the ancient Persians are the basis of western celebrations.
Iran, also known as Persia, officially the Islamic Republic of Iran, is a country in Western Asia. Historically Iran has been referred to as “Persia” by the Western world, mainly due to the writings of Greek historians who called Iran “Persis”, meaning land of the Persians. In 1935, Reza Shah requested that the international community refer to the country as Iran. During the rise and fall of the Persian Empire the land was known to its people as “Aryanam”, which is equated to the current “Iran” in the proto-Iranian language. During the reign of the Sassanids it became “Eran” – meaning “land of the Aryans”. Opposition to the name change led to the reversal of the decision and use of Persia and Iran interchangeably. Today both “Persia” and “Iran” are used interchangeably in cultural contexts; however, “Iran” is the name used officially in political contexts
Iran is home to one of the world’s oldest civilizations, beginning with the formation of the Proto-Elamite and Elamite kingdom in 3200–2800 BC. The Iranian Medes unified the area into the first of many empires in 625 BC, after which it became the dominant cultural and political power in the region. Iran reached the pinnacle of its power during the Achaemenid Empire founded by Cyrus the Great in 550 BC, which at its greatest extent comprised major portions of the ancient world, stretching from parts of the Balkans (Thrace, Paeonia and Macedonia) in the west, to the Indus Valley in the east, making it the largest empire the world had yet seen.
The empire collapsed in 330 BC following the conquests of Alexander the Great and was followed by The Seleucid Greek Dynasty. The Parthian Empire emerged from the ashes and was succeeded by the Sasanian dynasty (Neo-Persian Empire) in 224 AD, under which Iran again became one of the leading powers in the world, along with the Roman-Byzantine Empire, for a period of more than four centuries. After the Sassanid, there are about a dozen successive dynasties reigning over the country; Dynasties such as Samanid, Ghaznavid, Safavid, Zand, Afsharid, Qajar and Pahlavi.
Rashidun Muslims invaded Persia in 633 AD, and conquered it by 651 AD, largely replacing Manichaeism and Zoroastrianism with Islam. Iran thereafter played a vital role in the subsequent Islamic Golden Age, producing many influential scientists, scholars, artists, and thinkers. The emergence of the Safavid dynasty in 1501, which promoted Twelver Shia Islam as the official religion, marked one of the most important turning points in Iranian and Muslim history. Starting in 1736 under Nader Shah, Iran reached its greatest territorial extent since the Sassanid Empire, briefly possessing what was arguably the most powerful empire in the world.
Since the Qajar dynasty, due to the inefficiency of the rulers, Iran begins to decline and gets smaller and smaller. The Persian Constitutional Revolution of 1906 established the nation’s first parliament, which operated within a constitutional monarchy. During World Wars I and II the occupation of Iran by Russian, British, and Ottoman troops was a blow from which the government never effectively recovered. Following a coup d’état instigated by the U.K. and the U.S. in 1953, Iran gradually became very close allies with the US and the rest of the West, remained secular, but grew increasingly autocratic. Growing dissent against foreign influence and political repression culminated in the 1979 Revolution, under the leadership of Ayatollah Khomeini, which led to the establishment of the current Islamic Republic of Iran on 1 April 1979.
Another eminent feature of Persian culture is art. In fact culture and art are two closely interwoven concepts forming the soul of human civilizations. Iranian art has one of the richest art heritages in world history and encompasses many disciplines including architecture, painting, weaving, pottery, calligraphy, metalworking and stonemasonry. Persian exquisite carpets, subtle soulful classic music, outstanding tile work of unique blue mosques, old influential architectural style and countless brilliant literary works are famous in the world.
Carpet-weaving is undoubtedly one of the most distinguished manifestations of Persian culture and art, and dates back to ancient Persia and the Bronze Age. Iran is the world’s largest producer and exporter of handmade carpets, producing three quarters of the world’s total output and having a share of 30% of world’s export markets. The cities of Ardabil, Tabriz, Kashan, and Isfahan are the chief producers of Persian carpets
According to Persian historian and archaeologist Arthur Pope, the supreme Iranian art, in the proper meaning of the word, has always been its architecture. The supremacy of architecture applies to both pre- and post-Islamic periods. Iranian architecture generally displays great variety, both structural and aesthetic, developing gradually and coherently out of earlier traditions and experience. The history of architecture of Iran goes back to the seventh millennium BC. Without sudden innovations, and despite the repeated trauma of invasions and cultural shocks, it has achieved “individuality distinct from that of other Muslim countries”.
Persians were among the first to use mathematics, geometry, and astronomy in architecture and also have extraordinary skills in making massive domes which can be seen frequently in the structure of bazaars and mosques. This greatly inspired the architecture of Iran’s neighbors as well. The main building types of classical Iranian architecture are the mosque and the palaces. Iran ranks seventh among countries in the world with the most archaeological architectural ruins and attractions from antiquity as recognized by UNESCO. Nineteen of UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites are creations of Iranian architecture.
Persian literature is one of the world’s oldest literatures. It dates back to the poetry of Avesta, about 1000 years BC. Persian literature inspired Goethe, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and many others, and it has been often dubbed as a most worthy language to serve as a conduit for poetry. Poetry is used in many Persian classical works, whether from literature, science, or metaphysics. Persian literature has been considered by such thinkers as Goethe, as one of the four main bodies of world literature.
The Persian language has produced a number of famous poets; however, only a few poets as Rumi and Omar Khayyám have surfaced among western popular readership, even though the likes of Hafez, Saadi, Nizami, Attar, Sanai, Nasir Khusraw and Jami are considered by many Iranians to be just as influential.
Theater and Cinema
Theater background in Persia goes back to antiquity (641–1000 BC). The first initiation of theater and phenomena of acting in people of the land could be traced in the ceremonial theaters which were performed to glorify the heroes and humiliate the enemies, like Soug e Sivash or Mogh Koshi (Megakhouni). There were many dramatic performance arts popular before the advent of cinema in Persia. A few examples include Kheyme Shab Bazi (Puppetry), Saye Bazi (Shadow play), Rouhozi (Comical acts) and Tazieh (Martyr plays). Rostam o Sohrab is an example of the opera performances in the modern day Iran.
In the early 20th century, five-year-old industry of cinema came to Iran. The first Iranian filmmaker was Mirza Ebrahim Khan (Akkas Bashi), the official photographer of Mozaffar al Din Shah of Qajar. He obtained a camera and filmed the Shah’s visit to Europe, upon the Shah’s orders. In 1904, Mirza Ebrahim Khan (Sahhaf Bashi) opened the first movie theater in Tehran. After him, several others like Russi Khan, Ardeshir Khan, and Ali Vakili tried to establish new movie theaters in Tehran. Until the early 1930s, there were little more than 15 theatres in Tehran and 11 in other provinces.
The 1960s was a significant decade for Iranian cinema, with 25 commercial films produced annually on average throughout the early 60s, increasing to 65 by the end of the decade. The majority of production focused on melodrama and thrillers. With the screening of the films Kaiser and The Cow, directed by Masoud Kimiai and Dariush Mehrjui respectively in 1969, alternative films established their status in the film industry.
After the Revolution of 1979, as the new government imposed new laws and standards, a new age in Iranian cinema emerged, starting with Viva… by Khosrow Sinai and followed by many other Iranian directors who emerged in the last few decades, such as Abbas Kiarostami and Jafar Panahi. Kiarostami planted Iran firmly on the map of world cinema when he won the Palme d’Or for Taste of Cherry in 1997. The continuous presence of Iranian films in prestigious international festivals, such as the Cannes Film Festival, the Venice Film Festival, and the Berlin Film Festival, attracted world attention to Iranian masterpieces. In 2006, six Iranian films, of six different styles, represented Iranian cinema at the Berlin Film Festival. Asghar Farhadi, a well-known Iranian director, has received a Golden Globe Award and an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, and was named as one of the 100 Most Influential People in the world by Time Magazine in 2012.
One more art intertwined with Persian culture, worth mentioning, is the art of cooking. Persian foods, accompanied by herbs and spices are product of the creativity, skill and patience of many generations of cooks. Persian cuisine is ancient, varied and cosmopolitan. Situated in the Middle East and West Asia, the Iranian culinary style is unique to Iran, though eating habits and products from ancient Greece, Rome and many Asian and Mediterranean cultures have influenced and are affected by this unique cuisine.
It has borrowed spices, styles and recipes from India and has in turn influenced Indian food. There are many dishes that are shared by both Iranians and Turks to the extent that it is hard to say who has borrowed what and from where. The archives at the major ancient Persian cities contain names of many food products, ingredients, beverages, herbs, and spices. Basil, mint, cumin, cloves, saffron and coriander were traded along with olive all over the ancient trade routes.
The Parthian and the Sasanian records mention walnut, pistachio, pomegranate, cucumber, broad bean, pea and sesame in their trade records. The ancient physicians influenced by the Greek sciences considered food and beverages important factors to revive body. Excessive consumption of too much red meat and fats was thought to upset body’s balance. While a balanced combination of fruits, vegetables, poultry, herbs, seeds and mixed petals and blossoms of roses was regarded as a very good diet capable of strengthening body and mind.
Women have had a great influence in the history of cooking in Iran. The best chefs were and still are women. From the palaces of the Persian kings to the average housewife, women have had fabulous skills preparing exquisite cuisine. Most men do not cook but expect the best food from their wives or mothers. Iranians regard most foods at restaurants as second-class and homemade food is precious and more appreciated.
Iranian cuisine includes a wide variety of foods. Central to the Persian cooking are the numerous rice dishes, some containing almonds, pistachios, glazed carrots or orange peels, and raisins; others with vegetables and spices and occasionally with meat which is called Polo (including Loobia Polo, Albaloo Polo, Sabzi Polo, Zereshk Polo, Baghali Polo, and others). Most often the rice is perfected and finished by the use of specially prepared saffron from Iran and cooked slowly after boiling to have a hard crust at the bottom (Tahdig).
Other recipes include Khoresht (stew that is served with white Iranian rice: Ghormeh Sabzi, Gheimeh, Fesenjān, and others), dumplings, Chelow Kebabs (rice served with roasted meat: Barg, Koobideh, Jujeh, Shishlik, Soltani, Chenjeh), Ash (a thick soup: for example Ash-e Anār), kuku (vegetable souffle), stuffed vegetables accompanied by different sauces and a diverse variety of salads, pastries, and drinks specific to different parts of Iran. The list of Persian recipes, appetizers and desserts is extensive.
Many of the dishes are vegetarian, and the mixing of sweet and savory, such as grains stewed with fruit and spices produce unique meals. The result is a feast of flavors and textures as well as a visual delight. Most cooking is done from scratch and ready-made products and previously prepared ingredients such as frozen mixed herbs currently becoming popular with the younger generations are not acceptable to many.
Iranians use a variety of breads. The breads are mostly flat and all are baked in special ovens similar to clay ovens in Indian restaurants (Lavash, Barbari, Sangak, etc.). In Iran the bread is bought fresh every day and sometimes for each meal.
Using dairy products in Iranian cuisine (like Yogurt, Doogh, and Kashk) has an old historical background. For example, Kashk (dried condensed whey) is used in dishes like Kallajush. It consists of fried onions, dried herbs, and boiled Kashk, eaten with bread (crumbled or in pieces). Foods containing Kashk, including Kallajush, have been common among tribal peoples and villagers for centuries, especially in wintertime, as it is both easily prepared and affordable for low-income families. Kashk is quite nutritious and contains protein and calcium. Kashk processing was one of the easiest and most effective ways of conserving dairy products in hot climates during pre-modern times. Iranians are avid consumers of dairy products and many still make their own yogurt and cheese at home.
New Year in Iran ( Nowruz)
Originating in Iran’s ancient history, Nowruz is celebrated by more than 300 million people worldwide on March 21, the day of the spring Equinox, which marks the sun’s crossing of the Equator and the start of spring in the Northern Hemisphere. Nowruz is as one of the oldest and most cherished festivities celebrated for at least 3,000
Nowruz is a messenger of peace, friendship, benevolence for the humankind and admiration for the nature not only for Iranians, but for several nations and tribes who adorn this ancient festivity and celebrate it. Nowruz is an opportunity for rethinking, restarting and remaking.
Nowruz is a strong testimony to Iranian rich civilization, national characteristics and history. It proves how a nation with its irreversible determination to endure, and even flourish, through periods of devastation, political chaos, hardship and oppression.
In harmony with rebirth of nature, the Persian New Year Celebration, or Nowruz, always begins on the first day of spring, March 21th of each year. Nowruz ceremonies are symbolic representations of two ancient concepts – the End and Rebirth.
Nowruz (Norouz) in Persian means “New day”. It is the beginning of the year for the peoples of Iran (Greater Iran, including: Afghanistan, Arran (Republic of Azerbaijan) and Central Asian Republics).
It begins precisely with the beginning of spring on vernal equinox, on or about March 21. Tradition takes Nowruz as far back as 15,000 years–before the last ice age.
It is not exactly known when and how the festival of Nowruz emerged. Some historians believe that natural changes in weathers gave rise to the festivities. Some consider it a national festival, while others regard it as a religious ritual.
According to Zoroastrians, the month of Farvardin (the first month of the Iranian solar calendar) refers to Faravashis, or spirits, which return to the material world during the last 10 days of the year. Thus, they honor the 10-day period in order to appease the spirits of their deceased ancestors. The Iranian tradition of visiting cemeteries on the last Thursday of the year may have originated from this belief.
According to lexicographer Mirza Ali Akbar Dehkhoda, ancient Iranians celebrated a feast called Farvardegan (Farvardyan) that lasted 10 days. Farvardegan was performed at the end of the year and was apparently a mourning ceremony and not a celebration welcoming the rebirth of nature. In ancient times the feast started on the first day of Farvardin (March 21) but it is unclear how long it did last. In royal courts, the festivities continued for one month.
The festival, according to some documents, was observed until the fifth of Farvardin, and then the special celebrations followed until the end of the month. Possibly, in the first five days, the festivities were of a public and national nature, while during the rest of the month it assumed a private and royal character.
Undoubtedly, the Nowruz celebrations are an ancient, national Iranian custom, but details of it prior to the Achaemenid era are unknown. There is no mention of it in Avesta – the holy book of Zoroastrians.
In the ancient times, Iran was the cradle of civilizations for thousands of years and regarded as one of the most powerful countries in the world. As time passed, the Empire of Persia disintegrated gradually due to the invasions by the enemies of this land.
As a matter of fact, many glorious cultural, historical, festivals and customs have faded away and only traces of them have remained and several centuries of our homeland history is still in a “state of oblivion, darkness and ambiguity.”
Currently, after several thousands of years, Iranians and the people of nine other countries enthusiastically celebrate the Nowruz festival, irrespective of their age, language, gender, race, nationality or social status as this festivity knows no boundary.
The oldest archaeological record for the Nowruz celebration comes from the Achaemenid period over 2500 years ago. They created the first major empire in the region and built the Persepolis complex in southern Iran. This magnificent palace/temple complex was destroyed by Alexander the Great.
Throughout their often stormy history, Persians have endured hard times of civil wars, devastations, and political chaos. They have celebrated the height of human civilization and scientific and military achievements through the spirit of Nowruz.
Such a unifying spirit has often made Nowruz the target of much animosity by foreign invaders and anti-national forces throughout the history of Iran.
King Jamshid is said to be the person who introduced Nowruz celebrations. Some 12 centuries later, in 487 B.C.E., Darius the Great of the Achaemenian dynasty celebrated the Nowruz at his newly built Persepolis in Iran. On that day, the first rays of the rising sun fell on the observatory in the great hall of audience at 06-30 a.m., an event which repeats itself once every 1400 years. The Persepolis was the place the Achaemenian king received on Nowruz, his peoples from all over the vast empire. The walls of the great royal palace depict the scenes of the celebrations.
We know the Iranians under the Parthian dynasty celebrated the occasion but we do not know the details. It should have, more or less, followed the Achaemenian pattern. During the Sasanian time, preparations began at least 25 days before Nowruz.
Twelve pillars of mud-bricks, each dedicated to one month of the year, were erected in the royal court. Various vegetable seeds–wheat, barley, lentils, beans, and others–were sown on top of the pillars. They grew into luxurious greens by the New Year Day.
The great king held his public audience and the High Priest of the empire was the first to greet him. Government officials followed next. Each person offered a gift and received a present. The audience lasted for five days, each day for the people of a certain profession. Then on the sixth day, called the Greater Nowruz, the king held his special audience. He received members of the Royal family and courtiers. Also a general amnesty was declared for convicts of minor crimes. The pillars were removed on the 16th day and the festival came to a close. The occasion was celebrated, on a lower level, by all peoples throughout the empire.
During the first two centuries of Islam in Persia, the festivities were not observed with much earnest due to sociopolitical transformation. Gradually, greedy Omayyad caliphs, intending to boost their income through gifts, revived the custom.
Nonetheless, Iranians have always been enthusiastic about preserving this custom, especially when they were under foreign domination.
Omayyad rulers, known for their tribal fanaticism, left no stone unturned to annihilate the traditions and cultural heritage of conquered lands.
According to the historian George Zeidan, Persians would pay 5,000 to 10,000 silver coins for permission to celebrate Nowruz during the reign of the Omayyads. Iranians made strenuous efforts to celebrate the occasion even though they had to pay a high price. Omayyad rulers greedy for wealth and power sought to strengthen their hegemony, apparently only resorting to Islam as a shield to protect their interests.
The festival was so glorious and sacred that even the most ruthless rulers used to grant general amnesty to captives and prisoners. The dignity of Nowruz is captured as Ahura Mazda on its splendid glory says: “On the day of Farvardin, even the infernal-dwellers return to this world to visit their families.”
A major part of the New Year rituals is setting a special table with seven specific items present, Haft Sin (Haft chin, seven crops before Islam). In the ancient times each of the items corresponded to one of the seven creations and the seven holly immortals protecting them.
Today they are changed and modified but some have kept their symbolism. All the seven items start with the letter S; this was not the order in ancient times. Wheat or barley representing new growth is still present. Fish the most easily obtainable animal and water are present. Lit candles are a symbol of fire. Mirrors are used today, origin unknown.
These were expensive items in ancient times and were made from polished metal. It is unlikely that all households would have one. Zoroastrians today place the lit candle in front of the mirror. Wine was always present. Today it is replaced by vinegar since alcohol is banned in Islam.
Egg a universal symbol of fertility corresponding to the mother earth is still present. Garlic is used to warn off bad omen. Samano a thick brownish paste is present today. It is a nutritious meal and could have been part of the feasts. Coins symbolizing wealth and prosperity, fruits and special meals are present as well.
Ferdowsi the great Iranian epic poet described this auspicious event in Shahnameh:
On Jamshid as the people jewels streamed,
They cried upon him that New Year beamed
On Farvardin Hormuz in this bright New Year
Bodies were freed from pain all hearts from fear
New Year new king the world thus rendered bright
He sat resplendent on the throne in light
The International Day of Nowruz was registered on the UNESCO List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity on February 23, 2010.
We at Iran Review.Org would like to express our best wishes for the New Year and the advent of spring and Nowruz to all Iranians, subscribers, and visitors of our site and all the peace-loving people around the world. On this International Day of Nowruz, we express hope that all people can use the occasion to reflect on the beauty of nature, the promise of spring and the power of culture to build peace.
In the evening of the last Tuesday of each year, Iranians celebrate a fire festival with its roots in the ancient customs and history of the country. People set up bonfires in the streets and jump over them to cleanse themselves of all the misfortunes and impurities of the past year and get ready to welcome the coming New Year.
Fire, not only in historic Persia, has long been held as sacred among Indians, Europeans and many other cultures. According to ancient Iranian beliefs, Azar (Fire) was the son of Ahura Mazda. Ancient Persians believed in the purity and purifying power of fire. The belief was so strong that, to prove one’s innocence, people had to cross through the fire, as Siavash did in Ferdowsi’s epic poem, the Shahnameh. Chaharshanbe Suri (Chaharshanbe Soori) is the festival of fire. Chaharshanbeh means Wednesday and Suri has the meanings of red, party or festival.
People would also put food, sweets, flowers and wine on the roof of their houses and pray for their dead to appease them. This is the origin of the fire festival in Persia before the arrival of Islam and was held in the last five days of the year.
Iranians around the world celebrate Yalda, which is one of the most ancient Persian festivals. The festival dates back to the time when a majority of Persians were followers of Zoroastrianism prior to the advent of Islam.
On Yalda festival, Iranians celebrate the arrival of winter, the renewal of the sun and the victory of light over darkness.
Considered the longest night of the year, Yalda eve is the night when ancient Iranians celebrated the birth of Mithra, the goddess of light.
Yalda, which means birth, is a Syriac word imported into the Persian language. It is also referred to as Shab-e Chelleh, a celebration of winter solstice on December 21–the last night of fall and the longest night of the year.
Ancient Persians believed that evil forces were dominant on the longest night of the year and that the next day belonged to the Lord of Wisdom, Ahura Mazda.
In addition to Iran, Central Asian countries such as Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and some Caucasian states such as Azerbaijan and Armenia share the same tradition and celebrate Yalda Night annually at this time of the year.
On this night, family members get together (most often in the house of the eldest member) and stay awake all night long. Dried nuts, watermelon and pomegranate are served, as supplications to God for increasing his bounties, as well classic poetry and old mythologies are read aloud.
Iranians believe those who begin winter by eating summer fruits would not fall ill during the cold season. Therefore, eating watermelons is one of the most important traditions in this night.
Pomegranates, placed on top of a fruit basket, are reminders of the cycle of life– the rebirth and revival of generations. The purple outer covering of a pomegranate symbolizes birth or dawn, and their bright red seeds the glow of life.
As days start lengthening, ancient Iranians believe that at the end of the first night of winter which coincides with December 21 this year, darkness is defeated by light and therefore they must celebrate the whole night. As the 13th-century Iranian poet Sa’di writes in his book Boustan: “The true morning will not come until the Yalda Night is gone.”
Early Christians linked this very ancient Persian celebration to Mithra, goddess of light, and to the birth anniversary of Prophet Jesus (PBUH). In birth, sun and Prophet Jesus (PBUH) are close to each other, says one Iranian tale of Yalda.
Today, Christmas is celebrated slightly off from Yalda Night. However, Christmas and Yalda are both celebrated in a similar fashion by staying up all night and celebrating it with family and friends, and eating special foods.
In most ancient cultures, including Persia, the start of the solar year has been marked with the celebration of the victory of light over darkness, and the renewal of the sun. For example, 4,000 years ago, Egyptians celebrated the rebirth of the sun at this time of the year. Their festival lasted for 12 days to reflect the 12 divisions in their solar calendar.
The ancient Roman festivals of Saturnalia (god of agriculture, Saturn) and Sol Invicta (sun god) are amongst the best known celebrations in the western world.
Iranians adopted their annual renewal festival from the Babylonians and incorporated it into the rituals of their Zoroastrian religion. The last day of the Persian month Azar is the longest night of the year, when the forces of evil are assumed to be at the peak of their strength.
The next day, which is the first day of the month ‘Dey’ known as ‘khorram rooz’ or ‘khore rooz’ (the day of the sun), belongs to Ahura Mazda, the lord of wisdom. Since days become longer and nights shorter, this day marks the victory of the sun over darkness. The occasion was celebrated as the festival of ‘Deygan’, which is dedicated to Ahura Mazda on the first day of ‘Dey’.
Fires would be burnt all night to ensure the defeat of the forces of evil. There would be feasts, acts of charity and prayers performed to ensure the total victory of sun–essential for the protection of winter crops. There would be prayers to Mithra (Mehr) and feasts in his honor, since Mithra is the Eyzad responsible for protecting “the light of the early morning”, known as ‘Havangah’. It was also assumed that Ahura Mazda would grant people’s wishes, especially those desiring an offspring if all rites are performed on this occasion.
One of the themes of the festival was the temporary subversion of order. Masters and servants reversed roles. The king dressed in white would change place with ordinary people. A mock king was crowned and masquerades spilled into the streets. As the old year died, rules of ordinary living were relaxed. This tradition persisted till the Sassanian rule and is mentioned by Birouni, the eminent scientist and traveler, and others in their recordings of pre-Islamic rituals and festivals.
Its origin dates back to the Babylonian New Year celebration. They believed that the first creation was order, which was born out of chaos. To appreciate and celebrate the first creation, they held a festival and all roles were reversed. Disorder and chaos ruled for a day and eventually order was restored at the end of the festival.
The Iranian Jews, who are amongst the oldest inhabitants of the country, in addition to Shab-e Chelleh, also celebrate the festival of Illanout (tree festival) at around the same time.
The celebration of Illanout is very similar to Shab-e Chelleh’s. Candles are lit and a variety of dried and fresh winter fruits are eaten. Special meals are prepared and prayers are performed. There are also festivals in parts of southern Russia, which are identical to Shab-e Chelleh with local variations. Sweet bread is baked in the shape of humans and animals. Bonfires are lit, around which people danced and made movements resembling crop harvesting.
Comparisons and detailed studies of all these celebrations will shed more light on the forgotten aspects of this wonderful and ancient festival, where merriment was the main theme of the festival.
One of the other traditions of Yalda night, which has been added in recent centuries, is the recitation of the classic poetry of Hafez, the Iranian poet of 14th century AD. Each member of the family makes a wish and randomly opens the book and asks the eldest member of the family to read it aloud. What is expressed in that poem is believed to be the interpretation of the wish and whether and how it will come true. This is called Faal-e Hafez (Hafez Omen).
Coinciding with the beginning of the winter, Yalda is an occasion to celebrate the end of the crop season. It is today an event to thank the Lord for all blessings and to pray for prosperity in the next year.