Originating back several 1000 years, predating the Archaemenian Dynasty, Norooz (Nowruz) begins the first day Spring for Persians, symbolic of two ancient concepts : The End and the Rebirth. Good and Evil.
One the eve of the last Wednesday of the year bonfires are lit in public places. With the help of fire and light it is hoped for enlightement and happiness throughout the coming year. People leap over the flames shouting "Give me your beautiful red color. And take back my sickly pallor." Special foods are made and distributed. The ceremonial table is called Sofreh-e Haft Seen (cloth of seven dishes) The name of each dish begins with the Persian letter Sinn. (see http://plateauofiran.wordpress.com)
Some time ago, early in the second part of my novel Shadow of the Lion the Persian characters in the story celebrate Norooz, but they have to do it in secret because the Macedonians have prohibited them from worshipping and celebrating their own customs. This is a chapter segment from the novel describing the way the celebrated Norooz.
The new moon of March heralded Nowruz, the Persian New Year. To celebrate,
Roxana had planned a lavish feast and invited all her household. Persian delicacies
were imported from the coastal trading ports. A caravan of mangy-furred camels arrived at
Ilion from Damascus bearing wares from the East. Nabarzanes took the child to the
bazaar and he watched with round, curious eyes as the merchants unloaded their wares
and dickered with Nabarzanes over the quality of their merchandise.
There were leather flasks of fine Shirz wine from Persia; baskets of pistachios,
almonds, dates, pomegranates and citrus fruits from the Land of Rivers; clay vessels
painted with dragons and tied with hemp chord that contained gigner and spices. Nabarzanes said these came from beyond the Singing Desert And from Damascus, bolts
of gossamer cloth dyed all the virant hues of a beautiful garden to make garments for his
Nabarzanes inspected the contents of each cask and bundle. Waving hands,
tapping fingers and pulling their long bears, the khajas haggled with him over every shekel
until, after much shouting, the price was agreed upon.
As they returned to the citadel, Nabarzanes explained the customs of the New
Year’s festival to the child.
“Tonight, just as in Persia, we will light a beacon fire. In Persia at Nowruz, we
light fires on every high place, fires as high as towers. Then there will be offerings of
flowers, food and milk, and a bounteous feast with foods such as you have never seen
before. Everyone exchanges gifts. It is the custom to bring gifts to the Shah and in old
times, before the Macedonians came, the Shah always granted the wishes of his guests.
Nowruz is a jubilant time, Iskander-shah,” he said, “And this year you are old enough to
participate.” He squatted down beside the child, his brow creased with a worried frown.
“Have your Guardians questioned you about this? They don’t celebrate as we do. This is
their festival of the Departed Ancestors, a solemn time for them. If your Guardians ask,
do not tell them about our rites because they do not approve.”
“Why?” the child asked, regarding Nabarzanes solemnly.
“They only want you to honour their customs,” Nabarzanes explained. He took
the child by the hand and looked candidly into his eyes. “We must be careful from now on,
Iskander-shah. Peithon will be angry if he finds out we have disobeyed him. He has
forbidden us to speak about Persian things to you, so you must remember everything we
have already taught you.”
The child scuffed his toes in the dirt and tried to understand Nabarzanes’ words.
His world was changing. He had often overhead the whispered secrets and witnessed his
mother’s violent rage when she spoke about his Guardians. Whenever Peithon and
Arrybas came to visit there were quarrels about him and after these visits, his mother
would be in such a temper that everyone in her household would cower in fright. He
worried that something dreadful might come to pass, but he dared not speak of his fears,
especially to his mother. She would only remind him who he was and slap him for
whining. Nor did he speak of them to Nabarzanes and Leila whom he loved most dearly.
At the door of his mother’s Bedchamber, Nabarzanes kissed him farewell and saw
that the Warder let him inside. She had just come from her bath. The room was warm and
scented with bath-oil and musk. She was surrounded by her servants so she did not
notice him enter. He waited politely, half-hidden by the high, carved sideboard, not
making a sound, though he was bursting with news and questions. He had learned long
ago to be patient and careful with his mother.
He watched as her handmaidens dressed her in her favourite Soghdian gown, a
blaze of red and orange with an embroidered bodice and flounces hung with crescents like
tiny moons which jangled as she spun around. She let out a little laugh as she swirled the
skirt. She seemed in a gay mood.
Roxana sat down at her dressing table and admired herself in a mirror while her
handmaiden combed and twisted her hair into coils, pinning it up with sparkling jeweled
hair ornaments. Her hair was black as a horse’s mane, much darker than his own.
He poked his fingers into the basket of figs on the sideboard and helped himself. He had eaten three of them from the basket before she finally noticed him. When she did, she put down her mirror and waved away her lady. “How long have you been hiding there quiet as a cat? Who let you in?” She gathered him into her arms and kissed the nape of his neck. Then she held him out at arm’s length to inspect him. “Where have you been? Down in the elephant pens?” She clicked her tongue. “I shall summon Leila straightaway to bathe you.”
“Camels,” he said. “’Zanes took me to see the camels.”
“The caravan has arrived from Damascus then? Good. Everything will be ready for
Nowruz.” She caressed the blood-red stones of her necklace. “It will be the feast of all
feasts. There will be dancing and lots of food.”
“And gifts?” the child hopped on one foot then the other excitedly. “’Zanes said
so. When shall I have mine?”
She tweaked his chin and smiled. “Come along then. I’ll show you what I have for you. Something truly worthy of my little Shah.”
She opened the tall sandalwood chest that kept her garments and took out a little
suit made of shimmering cloth a bright shade of purplish red embroidered with flying
serpents. It had a tunic with wide sleeves and a sash with gold threat in it. To match,
trousers and kid slippers dyed saffron, decorated with gold tassels.
“This is the rare Chin silk that comes over the Hindu-Kush from beyond the Land
of Encircling Ocean,” she said. “I had it made especially for you. Only an imperial child
wears clothing of such fine fabric. Truly, when the Macedonians see you they will know
you are such a child!” Roxana liked to pamper her child and took great pleasure in
dressing him in fine things. She insisted he should never be seen looking less than
a royal child. All the motherly affection she denied him was made up by lavish gifts and
“Tonight we will be together with our friends,” she said. “We must all be merry.
Come now, why the glum face?”
He felt somewhat crestfallen, having hoped for a new toy. He managed a hesitant
smile. It wouldn’t do for her to see that he was displeased.
When Leila came to fetch him he went happily even though he disliked the fuss of
the hot perfumed bath and the anointments of almond-scented oils.
He usually chattered incessantly to her, plying her with questions. Today he was
“What is it, dear Lamb?” she asked as she coaxed the tangles out of his hair.
“Come. Make a better face for me! Tonight is Nowruz and such a celebration you have
never beheld!” She set the comb down and gazed at him sadly. “Perhaps it will be our last
He shivered under the damp towel she had wrapped him in after his bath. She
padded across the room to fetch his clothes. He stared after her saying nothing. He
watched her as she moved away from him, the ample curves of her body swaying as she
moved, the braid of her chestnut hair hanging thick as a rope down her straight spine. He
had understood more than what she had said. But still, he refused to believe that
everything would not be this way for all times, just as it had been for as long as he could
remember. He stood patiently while she dressed him in the new red coat. Her plump
fingers moved nimbly as she fastened the loops over the little jeweled buttons.
“This is a fine coat! You’ve outgrown all your other clothes. You’ve sprouted up
so tall over the winter. You’re not a babe anymore.” She set the round braided gold hat
on his head and tucked a stray curl under its brim. “There now! How beautiful you are!”
She gazed at him adoringly.
He felt stiff and formal in his new clothes. He stood still while she straightened the
sash. “When I go to Macedon,” he said. “I shall not have to wear clothes like these
anymore. And I won’t have to live in the women’s rooms either. My Guardians said so.”
“Where will you live then?” asked Leila.
His voice sounded gruff because of the lump in his throat. “Arrybas said I shall
have a room of my own in the palace. The same room my father lived in.”
“Then you will not need a nurse after all,” Leila replied ruefully. She took his face
between her hands and gazed into it for a long time. “Even though you are the Shahinshah,
you are still my Precious Lamb,” she said. “I could not love you more had you been my
He studied the toes of his slippers and blinked hard so she would not see his tears.
But suddenly they burst in a torrent and he throw himself into her arms, sobbing against
her breast. “If you leave me, who will I go to when I’m sad?” He was shaking all over and
could not catch his breath.
She rocked him in her arms. “Is that why you are afraid? Are you afraid of going
to Macedon?” She took his hands and held them between her warm, moist palms. “Hush
now, sweet Lamb. Your tears will spoil the cloth of your fine new coat. You must not
grieve. Whatever happens, the Good Wise Lord knows His children and looks after them.”
He caught his breath and let her wash his face with a cool, scented cloth. His nose
was running and his throat ached. “My Guardians say you can’t come with us.”
She stroked him and kissed him again. Her eyes glittered. “Hush now. Tonight we
will be together, and tomorrow too. And if it is the will of the Benevolent Lord, we will
be so for always.”
Then, because she always knew how to cheer him, she said brightly: “I have
brought you a gift, which I shall give to you now instead of making you wait for the feast
to begin, because you have kept out of mischief and been so agreeable today.”
She reached under his bed and produced a packet wrapped in scarlet cloth. He
unwrapped it eagerly. Inside was a little chariot made of gilded wood, pulled by a white-
glazed horse with golden hooves. In its centre on a tiny pole stood a sunburst emblem set
with a small diamond globe. He stroked the horse tenderly and ran his fingertips over the
rims and spokes of the chariot wheels.
“How beautiful it is, the Horse of the Sun.” He inspected the chariot reverently,
lifting it into the lamplight so the diamond globe dazzled in a prism of rainbow colours.
“When I am the Great King...after I’m grown...I shall ride in a beautiful chariot like this
one!” He smiled at her. “”Zanes says at Nowrus the Shah must grant wishes to everyone
who brings him gifts. What is your wish?”
“That was long ago, the granting of wishes...” Leila replied.
He pressed his cheek against her hand. “Truly I love you, Leila, and I will give you
anything you wish for.”
“If only you could, my precious One,” she said softly.
“I will tell the Regent he mustn’t sent you away!” he stated bravely.
“Alas, Iskander-shah, you are just a little boy and the Regent is the most powerful man in your father’s kingdom.”
“But I am the Shahinsha,” he insisted. “Mama and ‘Zanes said so!”
She stood looking at him a long time. Finally she said: “All that I wish for is that you are happy and live a long, prosperous life.”
* * *The ceremony began at sundown. A ram’s horn sounded the summons for the
Persians to gather in the courtyard. Everyone came dressed in their finery for the occasion
and took their places in order of rank. Roxana and her ladies, including Leila, who were all
from noble families, sat on carpets on one side. Nabarzanes, the stewards, the Warder,
and visiting envoys stood in a circle around the stack of juniper logs for the New Year’s
pyre. The eunuchs, servants and slaves stayed behind them.
The chanting started with a single voice but soon others joined in. As if in answer
came the soft beat of a tabour and the thin wail of a reed flute. The Magus entered the
courtyard, accompanied by the child and two acolytes who bore the sacred fire altar. As
the people shouted loud hosannas and spread palm branches in their path, the Magus raised
his wand to bless them. Everyone laid on the ground and pressed their foreheads to the
stones in obescience.
The child shone like a jewel beside the dignified snowy-bearded priest who was
garbed in ceremonial garments of pure white. The Magus moved toward the altar and
washed his hands three times in the basin of clean spring water held by an acolyte. On the
altar was a small bowl containing grain roasted with salt, and seeds. Beside it were placed
baskets of figs, dates and dried herbs. Another dish held honey and another
contained milk. He offered the grain and seeds at the altar and burned them for the God.
Then he poured the honey and milk into a bronze offering dish ad set it on the ground in
front of the altar, placing the baskets of fruit and herbs on the ground beside it.
In a clear, pious voice, the Magus sand the anthem. There was an absolute silence
as he sang the sacred words.
“He is the God of all things,
The Fire of heaven and earth, sky and wind.
He is the power of life and the power of death.
All things that grow and fill the universe are His.”
The old priest’s hands shook as he lifted the flask of purified water and drank from
it. As he blessed the oil and poured some for the God, a sudden sound from beyond the stone walls stopped his voice. There was a long, murmuring hush, then a sigh of
relief as the marching footsteps of guards calling out their rounds for the night watch
retreated. The Magus stood in an attitude of prayer, his hands on his forehead.
“We must pray for peace between all nations, food for the hungry, and
steadfastness in the face of many hardships,” he said. He bowed to the child, hand to
forehead, and spoke the words of worship and adoration.
“Lord, O light of all mankind, O Lord who sees all things, Upon the Shah who stands in awe of Thee, Confer they bountiest blessings...”
Then he broke pieces of sandalwood and placed them in the fire holder, drank
again from the consecrated water, and emptied the flask to east and west, sprinkling some
on the door lintels.
“Rejoice with the fruits of the earth,” he cried.
As the sacred offering burned, the thrum of a harp shimmered around the
courtyard. An acolyte threw a torch into the pile of logs. Jubilant cheers filled the courtyard.
Cymbals clanged and tabours rattled. The blazing logs drenched everything in
gold. Even the walls and pillars seemed to be burning. The Magus raised his wand and
the people lifted their hands to sing the anthem of praise to the sky, sun and stars.
It was a glorious night. The air was blue with smoke and fragrant with the resin-
scent of burning juniper. Above, in the clear- star-filled sky, the new moon hung like the
curved blade of a shimshir. Just next to it, Venus shone brightly as a beacon.
The child drank in everything: the bright flames, the dazzle of light reflecting off
gold and jewelry. His ears rang from the din of the music. He looked around and saw
his mother standing motionless, sparkling in the firelight. A strange power seemed to
radiate from her that made a tingling sensation prickle down his spine. He felt like crying,
but did not know why. He looked over at Leila and gave her a hesitant smile. If he could
have, he would run to her for reassurance, but it would not be seemly to behave like a
The the music of flutes and strings began. Hands clapped, drums and cymbals beat.
Dancers began to twirl to the skirling of reed pipes and the rich lilting tune of the ivory
flute. In the midst, with skirts and jewels swinging, arms entwined, the women wove and
twisted, swaying to the beat. He saw his mother, laughing as if she had no dread, no cares
in the world, as she lead the dance.
Suddenly he was nudged forward, caught in her beckoning hands. She whirled
him round and round, his feet flying over the stones as he laughed with delight, caught in
the rhythm of the joyful dance.
Some of the men began to leap over the flames, calling on Atar the Fire, to bring
them good fortune. Mesmerized by the hypnotic cadence of the music, the child held his
breath as they jumped and twirled, daring the flames to scorch them. Their ululating
grew louder and the dance became more frenzied, until finally the flames burned down to
embers and the drum-beats slowed to a faint thudding. The fire dancers sank to the
ground in a trance, beads of sweat streaming down their faces, their eyes glazed with
Then the kitchen slaves announced that the feast was ready. The child took his
place beside the Magus seated on a dais raised above the heaps of pillows where the
guests reclined. The entire floor was covered with dining cloths except for narrow spaces
where the servants moved about carrying trays heaped with food.
There was pheasant cooked in pomegranate juice; whole roasted lambs; piglets
stuffed with apples and pistachios; marrows and melons and fruits of every variety;
pastries drenched in honey and little cakes made with almonds, dates and cloves. Before
the feasting began the Magus blessed the special Nowruz foods: the sprouted grains; the
purple hyacinth petals; the sweet puddings; the ripe black olives in their brine of vinegar
and herbs; the russet apples saved from the autumn harvest.
“This is the time of thanksgiving and bestowing gifts,” he announced in his high,
ancient voice. “It is the way we have celebrated the New Year since the old days when
Shah Kyros proclaimed it to be a festival of friendship.” He laid his hand on the child’s
head. “The Shah, our Honoured One, is always the first to be served.”
Nabarzanes tucked an embroidered napkin over the front of Iskander’s coat.
“Iskander-shah, I won’t even scold you today if you spill anything or talk with your
mouth full,” he whispered good-humouredly. “This napkin has been used by all the Persian
Shahs since the time of the Great Kyros, Father of Persia.” He stood, and addressed the
banquet guests. Voices grew silent as he began his speech.
“Our Shahs, the First Darius and Xerxes the Destroyer, were hated by the Greeks.
The Greeks say we Persians stole sacred treasures from the High Place in Athens and
drove their priests out of the temples. Because of this, Persians are not tolerated in
Greece, so when we go to Macedon, we will be prohibited from practicing our customs.”
He spoke in the high-bred Elamite tongue of the Persian royalty, in a voice deep-toned as
a nefer. His brows were drawn over his nose in a stern expression. “Shah Kyros, the
Lord’s Annointed, ruled over many nations. Even though they did not speak the same
language or worship the same God as Persia he believed that all men are God’s children,
so he made those whom he conquered -- Medes, Assyrians, Babylonians, Soghdians,
Bactrians -- one kingdom. We must try to live in peace and accord with the
He looked down upon the child with a compassionate smile. “Iskander-
shah, your father the Invincible Alexander, also believed in the union of all nations. He
honoured our God and paid tribute to the Great Kyros. You are a fortunate child, for you
have been born into the best of two worlds. May you always be proud of who you are,
and rule as wisely as your father and the Great Shah Kyros.” He bowed low before the
child in a gesture of respect. In his eyes were both pride and grief. “The people of Persia
look to you as their Shah now. You must live well and endure, for the sake of us all.”
Unable to comprehend everything Nabarzanes had said, the child put down the
candied apricot he had been nibbling, then went back to arranging the apricot pits around
the edge of his silver plate.
The Magus spoke to him like a kindly grandfather. “You have been taught how to
live a good life, my child. These things you will remember long after you have forgotten
the rituals. There is a divine spark within you. You have nothing to fear so long as you
trust the Good Wise lord and honour Him.” He stood and lifted his hands in a gesture of
blessing. “Let us be joyful. This is the beginning of a new life for Iskander-shah. As he
goes to the homeland of his father, he will be honoured and welcomed, for truly he is a
After the meal was finished, the guests got up one by one to present their gifts.
They knelt and bowed their heads and placed their offerings on the dais before the child.
There were drinking cups of exquisite cloisonnes and embossed gold; ceramic plates
painted with entwining vines and many-coloured birds; jeweled brooches, tiaras,
and a gold bracelet with two pairs of lion cubs lying face to face. After the tributes were given, the child stood and bowed and thanked everyone politely. As it was the custom for the recipient of a gift to give one in return, each guest was presented with medallions or vases or fabrics of silk and linen.
Then the wine was served. The stewards broke open flasks of wine that had been
sent from Damascus, the fabled wine of Shiraz, thick, amber-coloured, sweet as nectar.
The child was given a little egg-shaped cup and Nabarzanes poured some wine into it,
mixed it with water.
“You must take the first drink, Iskander-shaw. It is the custom that nobody is
allowed to touch their until you do.”
The child looked over toward where the women sat to get a nod of approval from
Leila and his mother, but Persian women did not partake in drinking parties so all of them
had left and he was alone with the men. He sipped the wine while everyone watched. It
tasted cloyingly sweet. He tilted the cup and swallowed a mouthful. Everyone smiled and
raised their cups to drink.
More food and drink was passed around; the musicians played and a band of
acrobats performed tricks and contortions, leaping on and off each others shoulders to the
beating of drums and timbrels. The child shrieked with pleasure at their antics.
“This was all planned for your amusement,” Nabarzanes said, passing him another
The Magus leaned toward him relating a rambling tale of things remembered from
his long, venerable life. He rhapsodized over Persia’s past glories, described temples and
cities that shone with gold, wept over the desecration of royal tombs and the burning of
sacred testaments in a fire that he said was set by Alexander and the the rioting Macedonians.
As he told of an ancient prophecy etched on bricks, that foretold the coming of
Alexander and the destruction of Babylon, his voice quavered with emotion.
“All this has come to pass, I fear,” he said. He covered his eyes with his hand and
gave a long, weary sigh.
The child did not hear his words because he had fallen asleep.
* * *