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Nowruz, a Turkic Holiday, and Crimean Tatars

By Inci Bowman

The United Nations General Assembly recognized the 21st of March this year (2010) as the International Day of Nowruz, a spring festival of Persian and Turkic origin, celebrated by more than 300 million people all over the world. The UN Assembly called on those states which celebrate Nowruz to study its traditions and to share that knowledge with the international community by organizing annual festive events. The resolution notes the festival's "affirmation of life in harmony with nature, the awareness of the inseparable link between constructive labor and natural cycles of renewal, and the solicitous and respectful attitude towards natural sources of life."

Nowruz or Navrez (in Crimean Tatar) is celebrated on the day of the vernal equinox, March 20 or 21 depending on the year. It has been widely celebrated for more than 3,000 years in Central Asia and the Middle East. Today the people in the Balkans, Crimea, the Caucasus, Iran, Turkey and the Central Asian republics participate in Nowruz festivities. Throughout the Turkic world, the arrival of spring has been celebrated under different names: Nowruz, Nevruz, Navruz, Navrez, Nawrez, Nooruz, Noruz, Yıl Başı (New Year), Yeni Gün (New Day), Ulusun Ulu Günü (Great Day of the Nation) and Ergenekon Bayramı (Ergenekon Holiday). In this article, I am using the word Nowruz because it is the frequently used version in English.

Nowruz Celebrations in Crimea and Washington DC,

Before the Soviet rule and the deportation from their homeland, Crimean Tatars actively celebrated the arrival of spring. During the long years of exile, if they observed Nowruz, it was likely in the privacy of their homes. With the return of the Tatar population to their homeland, the Nowruz festivities are being revived in Crimea. The Cultural Center in Kerch (Crimea) announced an ambitious program of drama, music and various competions to celebrate the traditional Navrez holiday. In Simferopol, the Republican Committee for Interethnic Relations and Formerly Deported Citizens, the State TV Company 'Krym' and the Crimean Tatar Art and Ethnography Foundation organized an all-day Nowruz celebration on March 20, 2010. Activities included traditional dancing and music, kuresh (wrestling), a fashion show exhibiting national dresses and display of handcrafts. Various embroidery guilds also participated in the Nowruz festivities. The Azeri people living in Simferopol joined the Crimean Tatars and brought many sweets traditionally prepared for Nowruz.

Ayla Bakkalli and Christopher Murphy

Ayla Bakkalli and Dr.Christopher Murphy,
at the Nowruz event, Library of Congress

In Washington, DC, we had a chance to participate in a formal event to celebrate Nowruz. The newly formed Nowruz Commission organized a program to observe the arrival of spring at the Library of Congress on March 17, 2010. The event opened with a reception in the Great Hall, followed by a concert by Kazakh, Kyrgyz and Tajik musicians and singers, playing on traditional instruments and singing popular songs. The second part of the concert included Iranian popular singer Leila and her innovative group of musicians (Soshianse) who performed compositions in the spirit of Nowruz, all promoting peace and friendship. There were also several exhibits, featuring cultural tables.

The Nowruz Commission is a multicultural non-profit organization established for the purpose of promoting the arrival of spring. It provides a forum for people of all cultures who celebrate Nowruz. Honorary Co-Chairmen of the organization are mostly ambassadors representing countries where Nowruz is observed officially or countries with a population who celebrate Nowruz. That is, the list of Co-Chairmen included ambassadors from Afghanistan, Iraq, Kazakhstan, Kyrgystan, Tajikistan, Azerbaijan, Turkey, Russia and Ukraine. Iran was represented by members of the Iranian community because the US has no diplomatic relations with Iran. Please note that Ukraine was invited to join as an Honorary Co-Chairman of the Nowruz Commission because of the Crimean Tatars who have traditionally celebrated the arrival of spring. Was it not good of the Commission to think of the Crimean Tatars and the Ukrainian diplomats who officially represent them in Washington? As a result, Ayla Bakkalli, President of the American Association of Crimean Turks in New York, and I were invited to attended the Nowruz Celebration at the Library of Congress. We felt honored to be included in this joyous event in the company of distinguished guests.

Model Nowruz table

Model table, with traditional Nowruz delicacies,
provided by the Embassy of Kazakhstan

Nowruz as a Turkic Holiday

As we celebrate the arrival of spring, we note that Nowruz has been observed by Turkic peoples living in a wide territory extending from Central Asia and Siberia to the Caucasus, Crimea, Anatolia and the Balkans. It is an official holiday in Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and a public holiday in Turkey. Other Turkic peoples such as Uyghurs, Yakuts, Karakalpaks, Volga or Kazan Tatars, Bashkirs and Crimean Tatars also participate in spring celebrations. Nowruz is also a holiday in Iran, a day that marks the beginning of the Persian New Year.

According to the pre-Islamic Turkic calendar, the Twelve Animal Calendar, the New Year began in March. Hence the association of spring with the New Year. Each year was named for an animal and twelve years defined a period. This year (2010), for example, is the year of the Tiger and so was 1998. However, this calendar is no longer used by Turkic nations. Nowruz is also regarded by some groups as a celebration of independence, a tradition rooted in the "Ergenekon Destan" (Epic). Accordingly, the forefathers of Turkic people set themselves free on the day of Nowruz and left the valley named Ergenekon, where they were confined.

Traditionally, preparations for Nowruz involve cleaning houses, purchasing new clothes and cooking special meals and sweets. On the day of Nowruz, families gather for a festive meal, visit relatives and friends, and share meals with them. Special meals are prepared and tables decorated for the occasion. They also visit cemeteries to honor their deceased relatives. Holiday activities may include horseracing and related games on horseback, wrestling, singing, folk dancing, storytelling, and reading of poetry and destans (epics).

Nowruz is also a great holiday for children who go around in their neighborhood, singing and reciting traditional rhymes, and collecting small gifts. We know, for example, that in Crimea and Crimean Tatar communities in Romania, children decorated a dry branch with early spring flowers such as snowdrops and crocuses and walked in neighborhoods, singing folksongs. The gifts included sweets, dry staples such as grains or legumes, money, and handkerchiefs or scarves, placed on the branch with early spring flowers.

The Crimean Tatar folk literature includes many Navrez (or Nawrez) ballads. As the first appearance of migratory birds is a joyful sign of spring, the folksongs relating to Nowruz are replete with references to birds such as storks, geese and swallows.

The geese soar in the air,
I'll be the storyteller, you the scribe,
First arrives spring, then summer,
Happy Nawrez to all!

Nawrez ushered in the spring,
Then arrived ducks and geese,
Also arrived the chirping of birds,
Happy Nawrez to all!*

Ukrainian and Crimean Tatar dolls

Ukrainian and Crimean Tatar dolls,
provided by the Embassy of Ukraine

The arrival of the spring is welcomed by all. Nowruz is an occasion for friendship, renewal and joy. It is a holiday that has been observed by Turkic peoples for centuries, a celebration closely linked to their traditions and cultures.

While most of the people who observe Nowruz are Muslims, it is not a religious holiday and predates the acceptance of Islam. Nowruz may seem to be a religious holiday, however, as prayers are said with meals served. In rural communities, the first sowing of grains in the spring may often be accompanied with special prayers. Over the centuries, certain beliefs and legends evolved, linking Nowruz with religious teachings. Some of these beliefs are as follows:

  • God created the Earth on Nowruz, when the night and day were equal.
  • God created Adam on Nowruz.
  • After Noah's Ark ran aground on Mount Ararat, the Prophet Noah sent a crow to find out whether the earth had dried. But the crow did not come back. He sent a pigeon which returned with a branch in its beak. That was the sign that the earth had dried and the spring had arrived. Noah then stepped off the Ark and touched the ground on Nowruz.
  • The day when the Prophet Moses led his followers to safety by opening a path across the Red Sea, as they fled Egypt, coincided with Nowruz. Of course, these beliefs have nothing to do with historical facts. Despite the appearance of being a religious observance, Nowruz is a traditional or in some countries also a national holiday.

I sense that some people in Crimea object to observing Nowruz, thinking that it is an archaic (traditional) custom or celebrating the arrival of spring is linked with paganism.

Well, what do people do to celebrate Nowruz? In preparation for Nowruz, they clean houses, make or purchase new cloths (especially for children), cook special meals. On the day of Nowruz, families may get together to share a special meal and visit relatives. They may also visit the cemeteries to honor their deceased relatives. They may participate in sports or games, and so on. These are all activities that strengthen family and communal ties and renew friendships. How could anyone object to them?

I would like to conclude by a poem by the well known Crimean Tatar poet Riza Fazil that appeared in Yanı Dünya, 21 March 2009, and translated from Crimean Tatar by Mubeyyin B. Altan.


When the plow is lodged into the misty soil,
And the sheppard drives his flock to the desert,
I rejoice seeing the early appearance of Navrez,
Seeing the smiling sun's greeting life.

Navrez is the first step taken towards the fields,
It lets you appreciate the gratifying feelings of labor,
Navrez, it is the celebration of spring for us,
As the most pleasant sentiments begins with Navrez.

I walk around envying the world that day,
I smell the fragrance of spring everywhere,
Navrez, it brings beauty to the homeland,
Since my youth I have been in love with her.

Riza Fazil

Posted: 20 April 2010


*I am grateful to Mubeyyin B. Altan for giving us permission to publish the English translation of the Crimean Tatar ballads and the poem Navrez by Riza Fazil.

The article is based on the four separate messages I sent to Crimea-L on Nowruz between 20 and 23 March 2010.

There is considerable literature on Nowruz in Turkish, including an encyclopedia. A few titles are cited below:

Çay, Abdulhaluk M. Nevruz: Turk Ergenekon Bayrami, 8th ed. Ankara, 1999.

Güzel, Abdurrahman. "Nevruz in Turkish Culture and National Unity-Solidarity."
Online, in English:

Kartalligolu, Yavuz. "Kirim Turklerinde Nevruz," pp. 309-315. In: Turk Dunyasi Nevruz Ansiklopedisi [Turkic World Encyclopedia of Nevruz], ed. M.O. Oguz. Ankara: Ataturk Kultur Merkezi Yayini, No. 298, 2004.

Photo credits: Inci Bowman

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