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Assyrians and the Kurdish New Year of Newroz

Posted: Tuesday, May 25, 2004 at 07:42 AM CT


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Because Kurds have no idea when and why they began to celebrate their New Year, they have invented mythical origins for it during the recent times. They claim that Newroz 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.” [1]

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 hope to inspire their people to rise against the cruelty of the ruling governments.[2] In doing so they portray the ancient Assyrians as cruel and 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 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 are eager to portray themselves as an oppressed people to further their political agendas at the expense of the Assyrians especially because 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 myth from the Shahnameh (the Book of Kings) by the 11th century Persian poet Ferdosi, who identifies the tyrant king as Arab and not Assyrian. Furthermore, according to Ferdosi, Zahak was killed by Feraidoun and not Kawa (Persian Kaveh). [3] 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.”[4] “And 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.” [5]

The disparities 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 his myth has nothing to do with the Kurds. There is always a danger in defining a historical event based on myths rather than documented 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 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, there is no doubt that they learned to celebrate it from the Persians. The Persian new year, Nowrouz, in addition to the Kurds, is observed by the Afghans and the Persian speaking people of Pakistan, India and Central Asia who were once part of that empire.

Although Persian writers have tried hard to credit the origin of their New Year to the Zoroastrian religious teachings, historical evidences indicate that it was borrowed from the ancient Assyrians and Babylonians. The Assyro-Babylonian new year originated during the Sumerian period in mid third millennium B.C.  It was the most important religious ceremony which was observed on the day of the spring equinox (March 20-21) considered as the day of creation and also of the rebirth of the nature. Reports by the Greek historians about Alexander the Great indicate that the Persian new year as celebrated in 330 B.C. shared common elements with that of the Assyro-Babylonians. When on the spring equinox of that year, Alexander the Great participated in the Persian new year ceremonies, he was asked to go through a ritual ordeal which consisted of fighting a “monstrous death demon” and emerged victorious. His participation in this event renewed his office as Ahura Mazda’s vice regent on the earth.[6]

The fighting of the “monster of death” brings to mind the Mesopotamian creation story of “Enuma Elish” which was recited and reenacted during the Assyro-Babylonian new year.[7] The epic describes how Marduk in Babylon and Assur in Assyria battled the monster Tiamat in the beginning of time and by splitting it in half they created the heaven, the earth, the mountains, rivers and later the plants and all the living creatures. The Assyrian king, Senneacherib, had the event engraved at the “Bet Akitu” at Assur on a pair of copper doors. 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.”

The Assyrian and Babylonian king was considered as the viceroy of God on earth and every new year he had to go through a ritual which led to his dethroning by the high priest in the presence of Marduk or Assur and after confessing that he ‘had not sinned against the land and had not ignored divinity’ his crown was returned to him by the high priest and his kingship was extended for another year.[8] This concept seems to have survived among the Persians as we saw at the time of the Alexander the Great and even during the Sassanian dynasty when the Persian kings were considered as the regent of the Ahura Mazda and referred to themselves as “Bokh” or “Minu Chehre Az Eazadon” i.e. ‘related to god’, also ‘Farah Eizadi’ i.e ‘guided by god”.[9] Bas-reliefs left behind by some Sassanian kings show them receiving their crown form the Mobed Modbedan i.e. the Zoroastrian high priest. [10]

Evidence suggest that the practice of the Sacred Marriage of the Assyro-Babylonian new year intended to insure the fertility of the land was a part of the Persian New year also. “..the [Achaemenian] king would spend the first night of the New Year with a young woman. Any offspring produced from this union would be sent back to a temple and they would normally end up as high-ranking religious officials.” [11]

The new Year festival was canceled in Mesopotamia when the ruling king was not present in the city. Such was the case during the Nabunid period in Babylon which among other things led to the conquest of the country by the Persian king Cyrus in 539 B.C. Religious conflicts between Nabunid, the last king of Babylon, and the priests of Marduk had created great resentment of the population against Nabunid's rule. In describing the Babylonians disappointment at his failure to participate in the New Year festival one inscription reads: On the eleventh year [of the Nabunid 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..” [12]

Another inscription after the invasion of Babylon by the Persians states: “Nabunidus 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.”[13]

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.[14] Clearly Cyrus and his son were eager to portray themselves as patrons of the Babylonian religion and way of life because the priests of Marduk had helped the Persians to conquer Babylon. Their good will would insure a peaceful rule in the future.

In 538, Cambyses the son of Cyrus was installed as the king of Babylon and on the 4th day of Nissanu [March 24 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 a headquarter in Sippar.[15] 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 Nowrouz. 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 Persepolis or Istakhar which was founded by Cambyses and developed by Dariush along the side of the stair cases leading to the Great King’s palace carvings show various nations of the empire bringing gifts to the Persian ruler during the New Year’s celebrations. There is no historical documentation to show that either the Medes or the Persians celebrated the Spring Equinox as New Year before the conquest of Babylon.

Above mentioned 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 Nowrouz had a Zoroastrian origin, as some claim, elements which were not of the Persian religion would not have been incorporated into it. Ruling nations seldom adopt the traditions of their subjects but in the Persians case Cyrus and Cambyses were eager to please the Babylonians by showing that 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. Regardless of its origin, Nowrouz during the last 2,500 years, has evolved into a tradition which is uniquely Persian and no longer resembles its ancient version.

Kurds undoubtedly learned form the Persians to celebrate this event which explains the similarity of name by which it is known among both people and the lack of knowledge of its origin by the former. 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 Kurds' attempt to explain their new year, or so-called “National Day” based on a questionable myth is not only out of step with reality but also improper because it is meant to deceive people and promote hatred against the Assyrians who in the past have been persecuted by their neighbors, including the Kurds, primarily because of their Christian faith. During the last few decades Kurds have changed their predatory practices against their Assyrian neighbors, but the myth of Zahak falsified by them to explain their new year threatens to transform their former religious intolerance against the Assyrians into a form of permanent national hatred celebrated annually.

Notes:

  1. (Newroz @ http://homepages.tig.com.au/~simko/newroz.html May 2004)
  2. (Tahiri, Hussein “Is Newroz the Kurdish national day?”, @ http://www.kurdmedia.com/reports.asp?id=133)
  3. (Ferdosi, “Shah-Nameh”, Moasseseh Chaap was Entesharrat Ameir Kabeir, Tehran Iran, Chaape sevome 1344 pp.28-35.)
  4. (http://www.farhangsara.com/shanhnameh_shahsofold3.htm)
  5. (ibid)
  6. (Green, Peter “Alexander of Macedon, 356-323 N.C. A historical biography” copyright 1991, p. 314.)
  7. (Alexander Heidel, “The Babylonian Genesis, The Story of Creation”, The University of Chicago Press 1951 pp. 16-17.)
  8. (Grankfort, Henri “Kingship and the Gods, as Study of the ancient Near Eastern religions”, Chicago University Press 1948 p.320)
  9. (Nafissi, Saeid “Masseheyat Dar Iran”, Noor Jahan Tehran, Iran 1964 pp. 40-41)
  10. (ibid p.41)
  11. (Massoume, “Iranian New Year Nowruz”, @ http://persia.org/Culture/nowruz.html, May 2004)
  12. (Pritchard, James B. “The Ancient Near East, An Anthology of Texts and Pictures”, Oxford University Press, London 1958 p.204)
  13. (Burn, Andrew Robert “Persia and the Greeks, the Defense of the West 546-478 B.C.”, Stm Marin’s Press, Inc. 1968 p. 58.)
  14. (Prichard p.207)
  15. (Burn p. 58)



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