The coming of spring is fêted worldwide, but in Azerbaijan it is extra special and part of a month-long celebration leading up to the new year known as Novruz Bayrami
Novruz means ‘new day’. It falls on the vernal equinox, when day and night are of equal length. So? So it means nights are getting shorter and days longer. Winter is finally over, spring is just around the corner, and with it, a new year. New year, new you – time to put the past behind you and celebrate a fresh start.
In Azerbaijan, this is also a time of togetherness and family. The cobwebs are swept away and houses are given a thorough spring-cleaning. New clothes are bought, delicious pastries and traditional dishes cooked up in the kitchen, and neighbours visited and fed. Abundance and prosperity are the name of the game, and it’s all much more fun if you share.
The four weeks leading up to Novruz are filled with celebrations and various traditions and rituals. Each Tuesday is set aside to celebrate one of the four elements – water, fire, earth and wind. And then comes the day itself.
Su chershenbesi, or Water Tuesday, symbolizes water as a source of life. After winter, the ice thaws and water begins to flow again, replenishing rivers and streams and nourishing the dormant land around it. Some of the month’s activities include egg decorating (eggs, of course, symbolizing fertility), while unmarried girls may throw tokens into a jug filled with water. Before sunset, the jug is emptied outside – ridding them of bad luck.
Od chershenbesi is Fire Tuesday, evoking rebirth and purification. In fact, throughout Novruz, fire plays an important role, with jumping over bonfires an integral part of the celebrations. In the evenings, households light torches – one for each member of the family, who then jump over a fire while reciting a spell. The embers of the fire are then gathered and scattered outside, symbolically discarding the problems of the year before.
Yel chershenbesi celebrates the element of wind. With its sweet breath, the wind opens up the leaves of the trees and the buds of the flowers. Families also make the rounds of the neighbourhood carrying a tray, known as a khoncha, laden with homemade goodies including pastries such as shekerbura and pakhlava. On this day, there is also a tradition of fortune-telling to find out what lies ahead.
Torpaq chershenbesi is the final Tuesday and brings us to a celebration of Earth – as water flows and nourishes and fire cleans and purifies, so earth becomes fertile and ready for the first green shoots of spring. Whether digging up the garden or having a picnic, families pay homage to the life-bringing properties of the earth. It is around now that seeds are sewn – wheat, known as semeni, is grown on a plate, and will later become the centrepiece of the Novruz table.
On the eve of Novruz, the graves of family members are visited and tended, and special prayers said. A feast is laid out at home, including traditional dishes such as plov, and stuffed fish (sturgeon is popular) and aubergines. Your semeni is now part of the table setting, along with items such as a mirror, eggs, and seven dishes starting with ‘s’ including sumakh, sabzi (greens), skad (milk). The head of the family leads, and guests are offered rose water to wash their hands and served tea. On the last day of the old year, it is traditional to spray one another with water to wash off the previous 12 months and proceed cleansed and ready. This ritual is then repeated on the first day of the New Year, ideally in a spring or river.
A version of this story appeared in the Spring 2016 issue of Baku Magazine.
Photography courtesy of Richard Haughton
Styling by Tom Wolfe
Produced by Maria Webster