Navruz is a spring festival held throughout Central Asia on March 21s around the time of the vernal (spring) equinox, which used to mark the beginning of a new year. A Muslim adaption of a pre-Islamic vernal equinox festival, it features poem reading, singing, wrestling, tug-of-wars, dancers and horseback riders. Navruz is derived from a Persian word meaning "new." Many people dress in traditional costumes and craftsmen bring out their best work. There are many traditional foods associated with this holiday. Huge pots of sumalak (a kind of porridge), meat stew, dumpling and milk dough. People believe these dishes clean the body and make people friendlier. Navruz is a grand occasion to say good-bye to the old, usher in the new, and hope for a better year.

Navruz (also spelled Novruz, Nowrouz, Nooruz, Nauroz, Nevruz, Noruz, Nowruz, Nowrooz and Nawruz) marks the beginning of the traditional new year for Iranians, Caucasians, Central Asians and the Turkic peoples. It is celebrated in Azerbaijan, Afghanistan, Albania, the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Pakistan, India, Iran, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, parts of Russia, Xinjiang (western China) and Turkey.

The Navruz celebration lasts for around two weeks and has links with the 3000-year-old Zoroastrianism fire rites and sacrifices to the sun. According to tradition ancient Muslims of the East withheld from quarreling and sought forgiveness, honesty and general goodwill at Navruz. Some Central Asians set fir tree branches on fire and spread its smoke around their homes as they believed that it would keep away potential misfortune and catastrophes. They also wore soft colors like blue and white. Today, people wear often don new clothes and prefer bright colors such as red as well as white and blue.

During Navruz, special dishes are cooked and gifts are exchanged between friends, relatives, neighbors. Parents give gifts to their children, close friends and to each other. Rich people usually give money, clothes and food to poor people. As this day marks the vernal equinox – the day is usually symbolized by the sun. Villagers light fires and jump over them to purify the heart, mind and soul. Congregational prayers are held for future good luck, harmony and protection from famines and other disasters. [Source:, official Kyrgyzstan tourism website]

Navruz is the biggest holiday of the year for Uzbeks. Families gather for large feasts. School children perform skits. From ancient times, the holiday was celebrated in agricultural oases with festivals, bazaars, horse racing, and dog and cock fights. Today, Uzbeks still serve a traditional meal of "sumalyak", which tastes like molasses-flavored cream of wheat and is made from flour and sprouted wheat grains. Sumalyak is cooked slowly on a wood fire, sometimes with the addition of spices. Sprouted grain is a symbol of life, heat, abundance and health. [Source:]

History of Navruz

Throughout the world, many other cultures have long celebrated the coming of the spring equinox. In Egypt, both Muslims and Christians celebrate the coming of spring on the Monday after Coptic Easter. This holiday, called Sham el Nessim, is thought to have its roots in ancient Egypt, when it was celebrated at the spring equinox just like Navruz. Ancient Slavs, Japanese and many Native American tribes also have holidays that were tied to the spring equinox. The longevity of Navruz and other spring celebrations indicates the significance still attached to the beginning of a new agricultural year and the triumph of life and warmth over the long cold winter. [Source: ]

According to Navruz has been celebrated for at least 2,500 years, and perhaps for as long as 5,000 years. Originating in Persia and long associated with the ancient Zoroastrian religion, its name means "new day" in Farsi because for ancient Persians it marked the first day of the New Year. On this day, Persian kings would have worn a crown with images of the annual solar cycle on their heads, participated in the divine mass in the Temple of Fire, and distributed generous gifts to citizens.

“Today, Navruz is celebrated each year on March 21, when the sun enters the sign of Aries on the astrological calendar. In the northern hemisphere, this date frequently coincides with the spring equinox, the day on which the number of daylight hours equals the number of nighttime hours. On our modern Gregorian calendar, the spring equinox varies from March 19 to March 21. Although their calendars were different, ancient peoples followed the course of the sun and moon closely, and knew that the seasons began to change on this date. For them, it was as if the powers of light had overcome the powers of darkness, allowing the earth to awaken and life to be rekindled. Many of us have similar feelings today, even though we understand the more scientific explanation: that the northern hemisphere begins to tilt toward the sun at this date, which results in longer and warmer days.

“As Turks and other nomadic peoples moved into Central Asia and areas around Persia, they adopted the celebration of Navruz. Just as the Saxon holiday of Ostara was embraced by Christianity and become Easter in the West, Navruz traditions, which had grown strong roots in the life of Eurasian farmers and townspeople, survived the coming of Islam to the area 1.400 years ago. Today, Navrus is celebrated widely and colorfully in Iran, Azerbaijan, Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and the western provinces of China, as well as the Kurds in Turkey, Syria and Iraq and the Tatars and Bashkirs in southern Russia. In the last ten years, the Central Asian republics have recognized Navruz as an official holiday. Its celebration is marked by concerts in parks and squares, trade fairs and national horse racing competitions. Celebrations of spring are a natural outgrowth of the Earth's rhythms. In most of the Silk Road countries, Navruz announces the joyful awakening of nature after winter and the beginning of the agricultural cycle of cultivating, planting, and harvesting.

Navruz Traditions

According to “Navruz traditions are similar throughout the areas where it is observed and have varied little over the centuries, except to embrace Islam. Unlike the western New Year traditions, Navruz is celebrated during daytime hours within the family circle. March 21 is the main celebration, but for the next 13 days it is common practice to visit friends and relatives, buy and plant seedlings of fruit trees and have cheerful gatherings in the fresh spring air. Traditionally, it is also a time to "clean up" one's life. [Source: ]

“People tidy up their homes, wash rugs and draperies, decorate with flowers, and buy new clothes that they will use for visiting. On the day of Navruz, all housekeeping - including the preparation of the meal, careful cleaning of the home and the arrangement of blossoming branches from apricot, peach, almond or pomegranate trees - must be completed before the rising of the morning star. Children enjoy the holiday because they often get presents of money, as well as blessings, from their elders.

“The activities of the first 13 days of the New Year are considered harbingers of the year to come. For this reason, it is traditional to end quarrels, forgive debts and overlook enmity and insults. It is a time for reconciliation, when forgiveness and cheerfulness are the dominant sentiments. As with the celebration of the Chinese New Year, there are traditions associated with the first visitor to the house during Navruz. To ensure good luck for the coming year, this person should have a "happy foot"; he or she should be kind, gentle, witty, and pious and have a good reputation.”


Sumalak based traditional foods eaten by ancient Turkish tribes and is the main dish — heart of the meal of friendship — of the holiday of Navruz. According to Makhmud Koshkari, a linguist who lived during the 11th century, Suma, which means swollen wheat, comes from an old Turkish word. The wheat is put in water until it begins to sprout. Then it is dried and crushed into a paste from which bread is made. The bread is eaten with Ugra Oshi.

According to Oriental Express Central Asia: “ Generally, Sumalak is cooked by women. They sit around the stove as it cooks, and talk, dance and tell tales while taking turns stirring the pot. The following are several traditions and superstitions concerning Sumalak: 1) Prayers are offered to the seven stones which are placed in the Sumalak, and agitated to keep it from burning. 2) Sumalak is offered to brides who have no children. 3) The bride wears an earring made of wheat grass in order to increase her fertility. 4) During the celebration of the Sumalak, unmarried girls must pray to the seven stars. 5) Old women plant new trees with young women who are not married. 6) The old women put a boy on the bride's knees, in order to increase her fertility. [Source:Oriental Express Central Asia |~|]

“How to Make Sumalak: Ingredients: 1 kilogram of wheat, 900 grams of oil, 4 kilos of white flour, 7 small stones, 3 buckets of water. Begin preparing seven to ten days in advance of the celebration. All participants in the making of the Sumalak must wash themselves carefully in advance of preparation. At the beginning of the seven to ten days, wash the wheat. Then put it in water on a plate, and let it sit for two or three days. Spread the seeds and cover them with gauze, and rinse it everyday three times with water. The wheat must be kept in a dark room at 16-18 degrees C (60-65 degrees F.). If the wheat is of light color, this may change. If the temperature is too low, the wheat will sprout slowly. If it is too warm the sprouts will wilt. To avoid mildew under the wheat you should tilt the table so the wheat isn't sitting in the water. With this treatment, after two days, it will begin to sprout. Remove the gauze from the sprouted wheat. Put it on a clean table and separate it according to size. The sprouts must be no longer than one and a half centimeters. |~|

“After seven days the sprouts will be 4-5 centimeters. They mustn't grow more than five centimeters. If they are larger, they will have a bitter taste when cooked. You will know it is ready when: you lift the sprouts they are tangled together and you crush them in your fingers and they crumble After seven days put the sprouts in a bowl, cut them in strips and crush them. Then put them through a meat grinder, and rinse through gauze three times, using the three buckets of water. All the sweet juices of the wheat will be in the water. Then squeeze the pulp to get out the remaining juices. The first bucket of water must look like milk. The second and the third will not be as white. |~|

“Put the first bucket of water in a pot, and then add 4 kilos of white flour. Stir, stir, stir until there are no lumps. Heat 900 grams of oil for each kilo of wheat. (Fry some dough in the oil to clarify it.) Add the oil to the wheat and turn on the heat. After it boils, add the second bucket of water, and after that water boils put in the third. The seven little stones in the bottom of the pot, as it is stirred, will keep the sumalak from burning. As it boils, it will thicken, but stir continually. It must boil for 13 or 14 hours. After 5 hours the color will begin to change. If it becomes too thick, add water. After this put it on medium heat and continue stirring. The Sumalak will be ready when it is thick. This usually happens after about 14 hours of stirring. There will be foam, the oil will have separated to the top, and the color will be a rich brown. Before partaking of the Sumalak, you should read the Koran, and stir it once more. An old man or an old woman must taste it, and then they will pass it on to friends. |~|

Legend of Sumalak

Long ago there was a woman who had two sons. Their names were Hasan and Husan. Because she was a widow and very poor, they had very little to eat, and her sons always cried from hunger. One day, their mother became very weary of their crying, and sorrowful that she had no food to give them. [Source: Dr. Oktyabr Dospanov, |~|]

That evening, after they had gone to bed, she asked her neighbor for some wheat, and then took a pot from the cupboard into which she placed seven stones, poured water over the stones and stirred in the flour. Her sons heard the commotion, and thought their mother was cooking something delicious to eat. Reassured that they would soon have a good meal, they became quiet, closed their eyes and fell asleep. A little later their mother also slept. When she awoke in the early hours of the morning, she saw 30 angels standing around the pot. She rubbed her eyes, and when she opened them again, she saw them licking their fingers. |~|

In her delight, she woke up her sons. In their excitement they ran to the pot and found it filled with a most succulent porridge. From that time forth the boys were never hungry. The name of the meal was called Sumalak which, the Uzbek people say, means 30 angels. |~|

Navruz in Iran, India, West China and Russia

In Iran and the small communities of Kurdistan, Iran and Northern India, where Zoroastrism has retained a strong influence amongst the populace, traditions require that the Navruz celebratory table contain specific elements. First, there must be a mirror, which reflects the past and shows the future so that people can make reasonable plans. Next, there must be candles. The flames hark back to the sacred nature of fire in the Zoroastrian religion, and personify the light and energy of a righteous life. The table must also contain an incense-burner for aromas and a water-filled vessel in which a live fish is placed to symbolize a happy life full of activity and movement. Most tables also include coins, fruit and a copy of a sacred book, such as the Koran. Various types of food and plants must be on the table, including seven dishes that begin with the Farsi letter "S" and seven dishes that begin with the letter "sh." These include vinegar, sumac berries, garlic, sprouted wheat, apples, berries of sea-buckthorn and fresh herbs as well as wine, sugar, syrup, honey, sweets, milk and rice. [Source: ]

In the western provinces of China, both Turkish and Chinese people celebrate the holiday of Navruz by wearing bright cheerful clothes and going to the temple with flowers and a small clay figure of a buffalo. A large bamboo buffalo is constructed near the temple and covered with paper painted in red, black, white, green and yellow, which symbolize the five elements of the universe (fire, water, metal, wood and earth). Near the temple people break clay figures down and burn the bamboo buffalo.

“In southern Russia, the Bashkirs probably adopted the celebration of Navruz from Persian tribes that once lived in the Ural Valley. The weather in these territories is not yet spring like in late March, so the holiday is somewhat different than in other regions. First, young men in a community collect products for the making of a common meal and embroidered "prizes" for the winners of running, dancing and singing competitions that will be held. On the day of Navruz, ceremonies are performed to cajole the natural forces and spirits of ancestors into assuring a successful new year. In addition to the common meal, each family cooks a celebratory dish from buckwheat groats and sweets.”

Navruz in Uzbekistan

Navruz in Uzbekistan has traditionally been celebrated with music, special foods, and pilgrimages to shrines and the graves of loved ones. Often prayers are accompanied by tying a brightly-colored ribbon around a pole sheathed with an emerald green cloth. Crowds make an effort to touch this special pole. Animals are often slaughtered and people visit local shrines.

There are many traditional foods associated with the holiday. Huge pots of sumalak (a kind of porridge), khalim (a meat stew), samsa (dumpling) and other traditional dishes are prepared. People believe these dishes cleanse the body and make people friendlier. A huge cauldron of sumalak made with seven grains is ritually stirred all night, accompanied by songs and special dances such as the “suskhotin” rain dance and the “mazhmun al” performed by girls with willow bud in their hair.

According to “From ancient times, the holiday was celebrated in agricultural oases with festivals, bazaars, horse racing, and dog and cock fights. Today, Uzbeks still serve a traditional meal of "sumalyak", which tastes like molasses-flavored cream of wheat and is made from flour and sprouted wheat grains. Sumalyak is cooked slowly on a wood fire, sometimes with the addition of spices. Sprouted grain is a symbol of life, heat, abundance and health. [ ]

Navruz in Central Asia

Central Asia has its own Navruz traditions. “On March 21, Kazakh and Kyrgyz households fumigate their homes with smoke from the burning of archa twigs (a coniferous tree of Central Asian that grows mainly in mountainous areas). This smoke is said to make malicious spirits flee. The main holiday dishes for Turkic Central Asians are pilaf (plov), shurpa, boiled mutton and kok-samsa pies filled with spring greens and the young sprouts of steppe grasses. According to tradition, people try to make the celebratory table (dastarkhan) as rich as possible with various dishes and sweets. Everyone at the table should be full and happy to ensure that the coming year will be safe and the crop will be plentiful. The holiday is accompanied by the competitions of national singers and storytellers, competitions of horsemen and fights between strong men.

“Tajiks, whose ethnic roots are more Persian than Turkic, have slightly different traditions. In a Tajik household, the owner of a house or his elder sons must prepare fried shish kebab and a sweet pilaf made of rice and other cereals. These dishes symbolize the wish for the coming year to be as "sweet" and happy. Some mountain settlements have a special custom. Before the holiday, young men will try to secretly clear out the cattle shed of a prosperous man with a marriageable daughter. If they succeed, the owner must treat them generously; however, if they fail, they must treat the owner. In Afghanistan, Navruz is called "Ruz-e-Dekhkan", the Day of the Peasant, or "Ruz-e-Nekholshoni" the Day of Planting Trees. Before going to their fields, farmers arrange parades with songs and dancing, and traditional instruments. The horns and necks of oxen that will be used for the first plowing of spring fields are sometimes rubbed with aromatic oil.”

Navruz Recognized by UNESCO

In the 2009, Navruz was included in the UNESCO Representative List of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. In 2010, the General Assembly of the United Nations recognized March 21 as International Day of Navruz. According to UNESCO: Navruz marks the New Year and the beginning of spring across a vast geographical area covering, inter alia, Azerbaijan, India, Iran, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, Turkey and Uzbekistan. It is celebrated on 21 March every year, a date originally determined by astronomical calculations. Novruz is associated with various local traditions, such as the evocation of Jamshid, a mythological king of Iran, and numerous tales and legends. [Source: UNESCO]

The rites that accompany the festivity vary from place to place, ranging from leaping over fires and streams in Iran to tightrope walking, leaving lit candles at house doors, traditional games such as horse racing or the traditional wrestling practised in Kyrgyzstan. Songs and dances are common to almost all the regions, as are semi-sacred family or public meals. Children are the primary beneficiaries of the festivities and take part in a number of activities, such as decorating hard-boiled eggs. Women play a key role in organizing Novruz and passing on its traditions. Novruz promotes the values of peace and solidarity between generations and within families, as well as reconciliation and neighbourliness, thus contributing to cultural diversity and friendship among peoples and various communities.

According to UNESCO Navruz was placed on the UNESCO Intangible Heritage list because: 1) The element is a celebration consisting of various customs practised within the family and the entire community, including traditional games, culinary traditions, music, dance, oral expressions and crafts, and forms a fundamental part of the cultural identity of the communities concerned; 2) The inscription of the element on the Representative List would encourage inter- and intracultural dialogue and mutual respect among cultures, while strengthening the transmission of the element to future generations.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan tourism websites, UNESCO, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated April 2016

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