To investigate the origins of the Iranian Nowruz (literally New day, New Year), one is compelled to go back a great deal in time, well beyond 3000 years in fact. The date of today’s Nowruz may have its origins in the Babylonian Lunar Year, known as the Nisannu.

The Nissanu – The Babylonian Year

Although not generally acknowledged, it was the Babylonians who, since the beginning of recorded civilization, have devised techniques for measuring the passage of time, namely day, night and year. The day was viewed as lying between the onset of two consecutive evenings. The Babylonian calendar month was defined as that time when the full moon appeared. There were tow problems with this of course. First, is the problem that the moon’s visibility could be limited by factors such as cloud thickness or density. The second problem is that the Babylonian lunar system is out of synchrony with the solar year and the regular seasons. Today, it is generally acknowledged that the earth takes approximately 365 ¼ days to revolve around the sun. Therefore, the solar system is eleven days longer than the twelve full moons of the Babylonian system. As a result, the Babylonian system was asynchronous with the earth’s natural seasons. To rectify this problem, the Babylonians responded by adding an extra month from time to time, to their twelve full moon (lunar) months.

By the time of Cyrus the Great’s relatively peaceful conquest of Babylon (539 B.C.), the Baylonians had developed an impressive knowledge of time. They had already discovered the equation of 19 years as being equal to 235 months. From the 5th century B.C., the Babylonians had established a cycle of seven intercalculations every 19 years. Note that as before, the beginning of every new month came with the onset (roughly) of every new moon. This resulted in the Babylonian New Year on Nissanu 1st, falling onto early Spring. It would appear that this specific Babylonian date entered the Aryan Nowruz festival.

The Nisaannu & The Iranian Nowruz Festival of March 21st

Cyrus the Great’s conquest of Babylon, bought the concept of Spring as the onset of the new year into wider Iranian culture around 2500 years ago. The Achaemenid government adopted the Babylonian New Year beginning at Nisannu 1st, approximately the time of the vernal equinox, or March 21st. But it is here where the similarity with the Babylonians ends. The rituals and mythology of the festival itself have been since the inception of the Aryans, and remain to this day, an Iranian phenomenon.

Nowruz was not only a seasonal and climactic renewal, but an occaision to renew the pledges of friendship, loyalty, camaraderie, and peace between peoples of all races in the ancient Persian Empire, both Iranian and non-Iranian. The pledges were symbolically expressed by bringing gifts to the King, a gesture immortalized on the silent walls of Persopolis, destroyed by Alexander the Great in 333 BC. The Achaemenids made clear that theirs was a multiracial and multilingual empire. Persia from its inception was founded on the Prophet Zoroaster’s message of the universal brotherhood of humanity. The western world has generally been able to praise the Greeks for their founding of democracy; few in the west realize that it was in Persia where the universal declaration of human rights, were proclaimed. A facsimile of Cyrus’s declaration is embedded in the UN building in New York City to this day.

The Iranian Nowruz Festival of March 21st and the 365 day Year

Despite their advanced understanding of time, the Babylonians were surpassed in their understanding of days and years by the Aryan Magi priests of the Medes and the Persians. The Iranian Magi calculated the day as being situated between two consecutive sunrises.  It is also worth noting that by Achaemenid times, Babylonian months had obtained Persian names in the records of Iranian peoples, in effect transforming the Babylonian calendar into a Perso-Babylonian one.

It is actually not known when the Achaemenids actually adopted the entire Babylonian calendar system. This system may already have been known to the Persians and Medes even before before they conquered Babylonunder Cyrus the Great. The Elamites of ancient southwest Iran, already had an advanced civilization before the arrival of the Aryans into Persia, had passed a great deal of their knowledge to the Persians, before they united with Medes to form the first truly world (Achaemenid) Empire.

The Rise of the 365-Day Calendar

The Iranian New Year is also calculated differently from the Babylonian system. What is remarkable about the Zoroastrian system, is how “modern” it appears to be. The Zoroastrian system, unlike the Babylonian, is based on the sun. The Zoroastrian year, like the Babylonian system, is also divided into twelve months. Each of these months has thirty days. It is interesting that the skilled workmen who worked on the city-palace of Persopolis were in fact paid at the end of each thirty day month. With the Zoroastrian system, the 30-day month system of 12 months would make total of 360 days in the year. However, the 360 day cycle most likely pre-dates the Zoroastrian religion and was known by other ancient Aryan cults, such as those in India. The Rigveda of Aryan India defines the year as being 360 days long. The Egptians also used a similar system.

It was during the Sassanian era when this system became widespread amongst the Iranians of Persia in the third century AD. There is considerable dispute however, as to actual origins of the Zoroastrian calendar however – the proposed dates range from 3209 B.C. to 325 A.D!

Whatever the date of origin, the Zoroastrian Magi improved on the 360-day system. Most significant is the fact that the actual solar year is 365 ¼ days. The full Zoroastrian year became 360 plus 5 days – this was the 365 day year. The calculations of the Magi certainly came very close to the solar year, and was only short by a ¼ of a day.

To correct this, the Magi advanced their calendar by a full day every four years. Fravardin the 1st (the Zoroastrian New Year), fell on the 16th of June on June 16th 632 AD, and then on the 15th of June 636 AD. Fravartin, like all other Zoroastrian months, was based on Zoroastrian divine entities. Fravartin is a derivative of ‘Fravashis’ (modern “Fereshteh”), or angels of justice who possess bounty and power. Each day of the month had its own name. These names remained the same in all months of course. Interestingly, the first day of the month was called Ohrmazd, after the great god, Ahura-Mazda.

The Spread of the 365-Day Calendar

Having examined a (very brief) sketch of the history of the Iranian (or more specifically Zoroastrian) calendar, the question of influence on European and Judeo-Christian religions must be addressed. Western historians have been aware of the Zoroastrian calendar since antiquity. Quintus Curtius makes reference to 365 young men who followed the ancient Zoroastrian chants of the Magi as the army of Darius III deployed against Alexander the Great in 333 B.C. Specifically, Curtius (III. iii. 10) states that “their number was equal to that of the days of the whole year”. As noted previously, the Medo-Persian Magi knew of the 365 days since the days of Cyrus or more likely, earlier.

How did the Europeans come to adopt the 365 day system? The Europeans came to adopt a great ofPersia’s culture by way of the many migrating Iranian speaking as well as later Turkic speaking nomadic peoples of the Central Asian and Ukrainian steppes. In fact, variations of the Zoroastrian system had spread well beyond the borders of Persia, mainly by way of Iranian peoples. The Zoroastrian calendar and its variations, were in use in ancient Central Asia amongst the Iranian Magi of Soghdia, Transoxiana and Chorasmia. Much of Iranian culture and mythology has survived intact in Central Asia, despite the almost full takeover of the region by non-Iranian Turkic peoples by the 11th century AD. Powerful traces of Zoroastrian culture remain amongst the surviving Iranian speaking peoples of the Pamirs and Tajikestan.

The Zoroastrian calendar also spread to ancient Cappadocia, modern Northeast Turkey, a region in which numerous peoples such as Greeks, Armenians and Iranians lived side by side and mixed. This region is still home to a very large Iranian speaking population (Bahdenani Kurds), and was the birthplace of Mithridates of Eupador who nearly defeated Roman Emperor Pompei (see photo). Cappadocia had direct links to the Ionian Greeks of modern western Turkey as well as the European Greeks of Athens.  

The Armenian kingdom, the first nation to officially accept Christianity, also used the Zoroastrian calendar. This is because the Armenians aristocracy were of Iranian origin. These were those Parthians who had refused to accept the Sassanian takeover in Persia by 226 AD. After the conversion of Armenia to Christianity, her involvement in the cultural and political life of the Roman and later Byzantine Empire was to greatly increase. Many of the architectural, artistic, military and mythological themes of the Persia did spread from Armenia to the west; the likelihood of the Armenians introducing the Zoroastrian system to the Europeans is certainly possible.

Another source may be seen in the persecuted Manichean sect of Persia which spread to Europe in the West and up to Northern China in the East during the 3rd century and after. Like the migratory peoples, Cappadocians, and Armenians cited earlier, the Manicheans may have also bought much of Persia’s arts, architecture and ideas to Western and Eastern Europe. Manicheism appears to have directly influenced many of the later European “heresies”, such as the Bogomil movement of present day Bosnia. Evidence of the Manicheans influencing the Chinese are found in the Ta-yun Kuang-ming Ssu temple (a Manichean church) of ancient Chang’An – a city of over one million residents. The Manichean Magi, certainly knew of the Nowruz and the concept of the 365 days – their Bogomil successors in Southern France were known as the “Meitros” (derived from the Iranian Mitras).

The Nowruz of Today

Despite the passage of over 2,500 years, the Iranian new year (Nowruz) continues to be commemorated every March 21st, in Iran and wherever Iranian peoples reside in the Caucasus (e.g. Tats, Talysh), Central Asia (e.g. Tajiks) as well by the Kurds of Iraq and Turkey. Various aspects of Now-Ruz celebrations are even celebrated by the many Turkic speaking peoples of central Asia and the Caucasus (e.g. Kazakhs), an enduring legacy of the long standing relations between them and Iranian peoples across history. Nowruz has withstood the test of time and conquerors and has allowed Iranians of all stripes to gather in celebration and song.

Further readings

Cambridge History of Iran 3(2), p. 781.

Diakonov, I.M., & Livshits, V.A. (1966), Novye Nakhodki dokumentov v staroi Nise, Peredneaziatski Shornik II, Moscow, p.153.Ghirshman, R. (1954), Village Perse-Achaemenid, (Memoires de la mission archeologique en Iran, 36), P. 73.

Haloun, G., & Henning, W.B. (1952), The compendium of the doctrines of Mani, Asia Major, III, p.200.

Henning, Tang-I-Sarvak, p.176. 

Luschey, H. (1968), Studien zu dem Darius-Relief von Bistun, AMI I, p.92.

Nyberg, H.S. (1923), The Pahlavi documents of Avroman, Le Monde Oriental, XVII, p.189. This is very interesting for those interested in investigating the survival of Parthian usage of Zoroastrian terminology among the local Kurds of modern day Hawraman (Avroman).   

Shornik II, Moscow, p.153.