On the day of equinox many nations and cultures that once worshipped fire celebrate upcoming spring – Novruz (as it is called in Azerbaijan) or Norooz, Novruuz, Nawruz, Nauroz as it is named in other cultures or simply a New Year.
The celebration involves a lot of symbolism and rituals that date back to the time of Zarathustra, the prophet of Zoroastian religion, who lived back in the 6th century B.C. He believed that anything on earth has a soul and each soul has both negative and positive features that balance out each other. Akhuramazda, the God of light, truth and life and Ankhra-Manyu, the God of darkness, evil, untruth and death divide and rule the world together.
Fire, sacred and purifying, played a central role in the religious ceremonies and is an important part of Novruz celebration. Azerbaijan has been one of the centers of the religion and up until now there is an ancient temple, Ateshqah, now a museum, built on the site of eternal fire. It is not the only site: few kilometers away, also on Absheron peninsula, there is another place – Yanardag or Burning/Fire hill – another site where natural gas is so close to the surface’s oxygen that it self-ignite. The eternal fire that does not extinguish for centuries, no matter whether it is snowing or raining, even now mesmerizes the visitors of this place. From the fire, the name of the country takes its origins – the Land of Fire.
Novruz series, Fire, acrylic on canvas, Contemporary Nomad, 2005
Novruz series, Water, acrylic on canvas, Contemporary Nomad, 2005
Novruz series, Gilavar wind, acrylic on canvas, Contemporary Nomad, 2005
Fire is indispensable element of Novruz celebration: candles are lightened and tongal or bonfires are made all over the places in courtyards or even streets (also illegally). Everyone should jump over the fire at least once in a symbolic way of burning and leaving everything bad in the past and reviving as Simurg birds (in western mythology better known as Phoenix). If the bonfire is not big enough, it is not scary or dangerous at all, but before jumping make sure you are not wearing your favorite pair of pants or an expensive shirt!
The climax of Novruz celebration is always the evening of March 20th which is preceded by four Tuesdays or Chershenbe, each representing one of four natural forces: water, fire, earth and wind (that inspired me to make a Novruz series, while first three were painted in 2005, the inspiration for the fourth still has to arrive). Life is born in water, fire nurtures life that now springs from the earth, wind as a messenger makes trees to open their buds and flourish – spring is ready to arrive. Every Tuesday evening family unites for a traditional dinner – a rice meal called plov. Each region of Azerbaijan have their own variations of plov, the most important is that it has to be sweet by adding dry fruits or rose jam. Semeni, green sprouting wheat wrapped up with red ribbon - the herald of spring and symbol of fertility is put on the center of festive table surrounded by traditional pastry, dry fruits, nuts and lightened up candles as many as there are members in a family. Each person picks a candle and makes a wish: whoever candle goes out the last is the winner and the wish will come true.
Pastry is the tradition on its own: there are three most common and important pastries: paxlava (rhomb-shape sweet pastry made of minced nuts, sugar, honey syrup, rose water) that has an almond or walnut in the center – a symbol of a pregnant woman, shekerbura (a patty with very intricate ornamentation made manually) – a symbol of crescent moon, and goghal – millefoglie round-shape pastry with a lot of sari kyok spice inside (made out of turmeric plant), bright orange color of the spice makes this pastry a symbol of sun. In addition, seven elements starting with “s” have to be present on the table: sumakh (red spice), skad (milk), sirke (vinegar), samani (a special millet porridge made out of semeni, the sprouting wheat, but since it is very difficult to cook, the “green” version can also work), sabzi (greens) – also as a substitute to samani, sarmisagh (garlic), sikte (gold - could be a golden coin or some jewelry) and a small mirror.
On New Year day relatives and friends see each other, families visit cemeteries to commemorate the passed away relatives, to honor them a special type of sweet - khalva is prepared (flour, rose water, butter, honey, saffron), those in quarrel have to forgive each other. Everyone is very attentive to what they do and say on that day as this will affect the upcoming year. In the evening, dressed up in new clothes, people, in addition to the gastronomic feast engage in a lot of activities such as fortunetelling, dancing, singing or playing games such as throwing hats under neighbour’s doors, knock and run away to later come back and discover some treats in the hat. The most popular game is knocking colored eggs to each other; the purpose is to break the egg of another contestant without breaking the shell of your own – a skill that some perfection throughout many years. Two dervish or travelers friends Kyosa and Kechel are beloved folklore characters and central figures of any street feast: they joke, invite everyone to play games and dances.
It will not be an exaggeration to say that Novruz is the most important and long-awaited holiday of the year as it is an occasion to unite everyone at a festive table and share happy moments. Even when its celebration was forbidden by communists as a thread to their ideology, the nation still celebrated it. Now, it is a big event also in the city life as many open air shows and performances with traditional dances and competitions take place, mostly in Icheri Shekher or the Inner City - a historical center of Baku, the capital, surrounded by the medieval walls.
As a bonus, here is the recipe of the most easy to cook traditional Novruz meal: Suddash (sud - milk, ash - type of rice meal, synonym to plov).
Ingredients (for 2-3 people):
1 full cup of long rice
2 cups of milk
1/2 table spoon of salt
3-4 table spoons of sugar
1/2 cups of white raisins and dry apricot halves
100 gr of butter
4-5 table spoons of rose water (for flavor, usually, can be found in Middle Eastern and Indian shops)
pinch of saffron
Wash the rice in water. It is advisable to soak the rice in cold water for at least 2h, but if you don't do that it's not a big deal. Warm up the milk till it starts to boil in a teflon pan. Add sugar, salt and rice, saffron and rose water. Constantly stir. As soon as milk boils down completely, add dry fruits (previously washed under running cold water) and stir again. Cover the lid in cotton cloth or a napkin so that there is cotton layer between the lid and the food. Decrease the flame to minimum and leave the pan for 20-30 minutes stirring the rice once in a while. In the middle of the cooking process (ca. after 15 minutes) melt butter in a separate pan and pour on the top of the rice and stir again.
Serve with rose petal jam or sugar.