On the night of the Tuesday 17 March, a group of close to one hundred gathered at the ANU Fenner fire pit to celebrate the ancient ceremony of Chaharshanbe Soori. The name of this annual tradition literally translates to “Red Wednesday” or “Wednesday of Light”. The celebration is held early in the week leading up to Persian New Year, called Nowruz, the date of which is dependent on lunar cycles. Chaharshanbe Soori has been practised in some form or another for four thousand years or more by modern day Irani, Kurdish and Azerbaijani people. The age of the ceremony varies greatly depending on the source and seemed to become older as the night wore on. This longevity is a matter of great pride amongst Iranians.
A raging fire burned in the middle of the congregation, a fundamental element of the Zoroastrian religion, Iran’s traditional faith and one of the first monotheistic religions in the world. Today Iran is a predominantly Islamic country, but cities such as Yazd still house fire temples, the houses of worship of the Zoroastrian faith. Only a small minority actually practice the religion within Iran today but traditions derived from it, such as this, still remain strong.
Aside from a handful of curious outsiders, particularly Persian students, almost everyone was Iranian. Everyone from the very young to the elderly could be seen jumping over the flames, a symbolic precursor to Persian New Year. Passing over the fire symbolises one’s “yellowness”, all the aches and burdens of the year before, escaping into the fiery depths and the fire returning its warmth to the participant, bringing prosperity in the year to come. As the night progressed people formed rings around the fire, gradually rotating as one, their bodies moving in the united movements of traditional dance as they had done for millennium.
Outsiders were made to feel very welcome and were continually pulled into the dance circles revolving around the fire. The event ran from 7:30 until around midnight, making curious the many students that passed by through the course of the night.
This is a tradition that extends from an epoch before the introduction of Islam to Persia in the mid-seventh century. The arrival of the Arabs in Persia sparked wide social and political change resulting in the gradual demise of Zoroastrianism. It is said that the vinegar that now sits on the Nowruz setting was once wine but under Islamic law the consumption of alcohol is prohibited. In addition to this, the Zoroastrian holy book, once included in the setting, was replaced with the Qu’ran, the holy book of Islam. This allowed the amalgamation of pre-Islamic traditions into the new cultural context. Nowruz and associated celebrations have survived into modern day Iran due to their ability to adapt.
In modern Iran moves have been made by the government to contain traditions associated with the Nowruz and the celebration of Chaharshanbe Soori in the public, citing safety concerns. Many people in Iran are Muslims by faith but still celebrate Nowruz because it’s such a well-established part of their nation’s past and allows them to maintain ties to their heritage. The amount of people practising Zoroastrianism in the world today is uncertain. It is practised by minorities extending from modern day Iran to India with estimates ranging from as little as 150,000 to as many as 2.6 million.
Chaharshanbe Soori and greater Nowruz celebrations in the context of Iran today are a great example of how cultural traditions can exist in harmony, each having partially amalgamated into the other. The ceremony has endured the centuries and now stands as a bastion of Iranian nationalism, a clear connection to a proud history spanning back thousands of years.