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Tuesday, March 20, 2012

THE PERSIAN NEW YEAR: AN EXCERPT FROM 'SHADOW OF THE LION'

This is a chapter segment from "Shadow of the Lion" in which the Persians are celebrating their New Year (Nowruz).  I did a lot of research for this chapter, however it is one that is cut from the final draft. In this scene, the royal entourage is at Troy awaiting the ships that will carry them to Thrace, on their way to Macedon.  They have been informed that once they leave Troy they will not be allowed to worship their god as is their custom so this is their last Nowruz.




            The ceremony began at sundown. A rams 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 Years
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 tabor 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 want to bless them. Everyone laid on the ground and pressed their foreheads ot the
stones in obesience.

          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 priests 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 toforehead, 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 thy bounteous 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, sprkling 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 tabors 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 rears 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 baby.

                 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 rapture.

                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 Nauruz foods: the sprouted grains; the purple hyacinth petals; the sweet puddings; the ripe black olives 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 childs head. The Shah, our Honored One, is always the first to be served.
            Nabarzanes tucked an embroidered napkin over the front of Iskanders coat.
        Iskander-shah, I wont 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 lords 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 Gods 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 Macedonians. 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 honored 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.

 The photos are from the Persian New Year (No-rooz) that I attended on the weekend to celebrate the Spring Equinox.

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