Historical articles



Kurd's, Persian's New Years and their relation to the Assyrian, Babylonian Akitu festival

March 2005

by William Warda

Some Kurdish writers in recent times have invented mythical origin for the Newroz or Noruz New year their people celebrate on March 21st which coincides with the spring equinox. They claim it is the celebration of Kawa's victory over the Assyrian king Zahak.

One website describes the origin of the Kurdish New year as follows:"On March 21st in the year 612 B.C., Kawa killed the Assyrian tyrant Dehak and liberated the Kurds and many other peoples in the Middle East. Dehak was an evil king who represented cruelty, abuse, and the enslavement of peoples. People used to pray every day for God to help them to get rid of Dehak. On Newroz day, Kawa led a popular uprising and surrounded Dehak's palace. Kawa then rushed passed the king's guards and grabbed Dehak by the neck. Kawa then struck the evil tyrant on the head with a hammer and dragged him off his throne. With this heroic deed, Kawa set the people free and proclaimed freedom throughout the land. A huge fire was light on the mountaintop to send a message: firstly to thank God for helping them defeats Dehak, and secondly to the people to tell them they were free. This is where the tradition of the Newroz fire originates."

The above claim is clearly fictitious intended to serve Kurds' political agendas. The Kurdish nationalists by using a convoluted version of the Persian myth of Zahak who was not an Assyrian hope to inspire their people to rise against the cruelty of the ruling governments.2 In doing so they portray the ancient Assyrians as cruel, the enemies of the Kurds and all other people thereby promoting hatred for the contemporary Assyrians.

To further add insult to the injury they claim their celebration of this day began in 612 B.C. which is the year when Ancient Assyrians were defeated by the combined forces of the Medes, Babylonians and the Scythians. However as we will shall see Kurd's Newroz or Newruz has nothing to do with the fall of Assyria or the Zahak's myth. In fact the New Year they celebrate is in reality that of the ancient Assyrians and Babylonians originated in the third millennium B.C. long before there was a mention of Kurds in history. Further more March 20-21 the first day of this event is vernal equinox and has nothing to do with the fall of Nineveh which happened in August of 612 B.C.. It is unconscionable for the Kurds who are eager to portray themselves as an oppressed people to further their political agendas at the expense of the Assyrians especially because the latter have been subjected to repeated massacres by the former during the last few centuries.

Evidently Kurds acquired their knowledge of the Zahak's legend from the 11th century Persian poet Ferdosi's Shahnameh (the Book of Kings) who identifies the tyrant king as Arab and not Assyrian. Furthermore According to Ferdosi Zahak lived in Jerusalem and was killed by Feraidoun and not Kawa (Persian Kaveh).

After crossing the river Tigris the forces of Feraidoun "turned their faces towards the city which is now called Jerusalem, for here stood the glorious house that Zahak had built. And when they entered the city all the people rallied around Feraidoun, for they hated Zahak and looked to Feraidoun to deliver them."
4 "And Feraidoun did as he was bidden, and led forth Zahak to the Mount Demawend [north of today's Tehran]. And he bound him to the rock with mighty chains and nails driven into his hands, and left him to perish in agony. And the hot sun shone down upon the barren cliffs, and there was neither tree nor shrub to shelter him, and the chains entered into his flesh, and his tongue was consumed with thirst. Thus after a while the earth was delivered of Zahak the evil one, and Feraidoun reigned in his stead." 5

The disparity between the real story of Zahak and the one advanced by the Kurds is either due to lack of specific knowledge of the myth or is a deliberate attempt to vilify the ancient Assyrians. It is clear that Zahak's ruling center was not in Mesopotamia and he did not die on March 21, 612 B.C. and and his myth has nothing to do with the Kurds or Assyrians. There is always a danger in defining historical event based on myths rather than documented historical evidences because myths and legends can be easily perverted to satisfy the prejudices and political ambitions of the moment. The same legend can be told in different ways to indirectly vilify this or that people without regard to the truth as the Kurds have done in this case.While there is no documented historical evidence for when and why the Kurds began to observe their Newroz or Nowruz there is no doubt that they learned to celebrate it form the Persians. The Persian new year Nowruz in addition to the Kurds is observed by the Afghan and the Persian speaking people of pakistan, India and Central Asia who were once part of that empire.

Although Persian writers have tried hard to credit the origin of their New Year to the Zoroastrian religious teachings historical evidences indicate that it was borrowed from the ancient Assyrians and Babylonians.The Assyro-babylonian new year originated during the Sumerian period in mid third millennium B.C.. It was the most important religious ceremony which was observed on the day of the spring equinox (March 20-21) considered as the day of creation and also of the rebirth of the nature.

Reports by the Greek historians about Alexander the Great indicate that the Persian new year celebrated in 330 B.C. shared common elements with that of the Assyro-Babylonians. When on the spring equinox of that year Alexander the Great participated in the Persian new year ceremonies he was asked to go through a ritual ordeal which consisted of fighting a "monstrous death demon" and emerge victorious. His participation in this event renewed his office as Ahura Mazda's vice regent on the earth.

The fighting of the "monster of death" brings to mind the Mesopotamian creation story of "Enuma Elish" which was recited and reenacted during the Assyro-Babylonian new year.


Assyrian depiction of battle between Assur and Tiamat

The epic describes how Marduk in Babylon and Assur in Assyria battled the monster Tiamat in the beginning of time and by splitting it in half they created the heaven, the earth, the mountains, rivers and later the plants and all the living creatures. The Assyrian king Senneacherib had the event engraved at the "Bet Akitu" at Assur on a pair of copper doors. His inscription reads: "I engraved upon the gate the gods who marched in front and the gods who marched behind him [Assur], those who ride in chariots, and those who go on foot [against] Tiamat and the creatures [that were] in her."

The Assyrian and Babylonian king was considered as the viceroy of god on earth and every new year he had to go through a ritual which led to his dethroning by the high priest in the presence of Marduk or Assur and after confessing he 'had not sinned against the land and had not neglected the divinity' his crown was returned to him by the high priest and his kingship was extended for another year.
8  This concept seems to have survived among the Persians as documented at the time of the Alexander the Great and even during the the Sassanian dynasty  show that the Persian kings were considered as the regents of the Ahura Mazda and were known as "Bokh" or "Minu Chehre Az Eazadon" i.e. 'related to god', also 'Farah Eizadi' i.e 'guided by god".9 Bas-reliefs left behind by some Sassanian kings show them receiving their crown form the Mobed Modbedan i.e. the Zoroastrian high priest.10 It is interesting to note that the Persian emblem of Aura Mazda seem to be almost a replica of the Assyrian god Assur.

Evidence suggest that the practice of the Sacred Marriage of the Assyro-Babylonian new year intended to insure the fertility of the land became part of the Persian New year celebrations also.  "..the [Achaemenian] king spent the first night of the New Year with a young woman. The offsprings of such union would be sent to a temple and they would normally end up as high-ranking religious officials."

Another aspect of the Persian Nowruz celebrations, not practiced since the medieval times, was called 'Kosa Rishin' which seems to have had Mesopotamian origin.  It was a play acted at the market place involving a temporary king or False Ameir who was mocked and made fun of and ultimately driven away.  We know that during the Sumerian period one aspect of the Akitu festival involved the mocking of a substitute king for a day usually a criminal dressed in royal regalia. In one instance when the real king unexpectedly died the false king Enlil-Bani inherited his throne.
12 Though there is no record showing that this was officially practiced during the Assyrian and Babylonian period undoubtedly it continued to be part of the people's celebration.

The new Year festival was usually canceled in Mesopotamia when the ruling King was not present in the city . Such was the case during the Nabunid (556-539) period in Babylon which led to the conquest of the country by the Persian king Cyrus in 539 B.C. Religious conflicts between Nabunid and the priests of Marduk had created great resentment of the population against his rule. In describing the Babylonians disappointment at his failure to participate in the New Year festival one inscription asserts:
"On the eleventh year [of the Nabunid rule] ... 'The King did not come to Babylon  for the Ceremonies of the month Nissanu, Nabu did not come to Babylon, Bel [Marduk] did not go out in procession, the festival of the New Year was omitted.."

Another inscription after the invasion of Babylon by king Cyrus states:
"Nabunidus was heretical; he changed the details of worship. He was also an oppressor....But Bel-Marduk cast his eye over all countries, seeking for a righteous ruler.. Then he called by name cyrus, King of Anshan and pronounced him ruler of the lands."

In another inscription Cyrus declares that Marduk the great lord was pleased with his deeds and sent friendly blessings to 'the King who worships him' and his son Cambyses.'
15  Clearly Cyrus and his son were eager to portray themselves as patrons of the Babylonian religion and way of life because the priests of Marduk had helped the Persians to conquer Babylon. Their goodwill would insure a peaceful rule in the future.

In 538 Cambyses the son of Cyrus was installed as the king of Babylon and on the 4th day of Nissanu [March 24 of the western calendar] he went through the historic New Year ritual of paying homage to Bell [Marduk] and Nabu thereby he was appointed officially the viceroy of Marduk in Babylon with a headquarter in Sippar.16 This is the first mention of a Persian king participating in the celebration of the New year festival which later became to be known as Nowruz. When Cyrus was killed on the battlefield in 530 B.C. Cambyses inherited the empire's throne. As king of Babylon he had presided for eight previous years over the Babylonian New year celebrations which by then had been gradually passed on to the Persians.

In Persapolis or Istakhar which was founded by Cambyses and developed by Dariush along the side of the stair cases leading to the Great King's palace carvings show various nations of the empire bringing gifts to the King during the New Year's celebrations. There is no historical documentation to show that either the Medes or the Persians celebrated the Spring Equinox as New Year before the conquest of Babylon.

Above mentioned facts clearly show the process by which the Assyro-Babylonian new year of the spring equinox was transferred to the Persians which the Achaemenian kings embraced. If the Persian Nowruz had a Zoroastrian origin, as some claim, elements which were not of the Persian religion would not have been incorporated into it. Ruling nations seldom adopt the traditions of their subjects but in the Persian's case Cyrus and Cambyses were eager to please the Babylonians by showing they respected their religious practices. Since the New Year celebration was a very important event for the Babylonians during which the legitimacy of the ruler was acknowledged it was to the benefit of the early Persian kings to accept this tradition as their own.

Regardless of its origin Nowruz during the last 2,500 years has evolved into a tradition which is uniquely Persian and no longer resembles its ancient version. The Kurds undoubtedly learned form the Persians to celebrate this event which explains the similarity of name by which it is known among both people and the lack of knowledge of its origin by the Kurds. While myths may have been enough for the primitive societies to explain important events in their life in today's world nothing less than documented facts will do. The Kurds attempt to explain their new year or so-called "National Day" based on a questionable myth is not only out of step with reality but also improper because it is meant to promote hatred against the Christian Assyrians who in the past have been persecuted by their neighbors including the Kurds primarily because of their faith. During the last few decades Kurds have changed their predatory practices against their Assyrian neighbors but falsely explaining their New Year celebration as an anti Assyrian expression threatens to transform their relations with the Assyrians into a form of national hatred celebrated annually.

Persians greatly benefited from the Assyrians and Babylonian civilizations which predated them by thousand of years. After the conquest of Babylon by Cyrus in 539 BC, the Babylonian cyclic calendar became standard throughout the Persian Empire. From the Indus to the Nile. Aramaic documents from Persian Egypt, for instance, bear Babylonian dates besides the Egyptian. The royal years as in Babylon began on Nisanu 1, which coincided with the vernal equinox. "It is probable, however, that at the court itself the counting of regnal years began with the accession day while the Seleucids and the Parthians maintained the Babylonian calendar."

Assyrian limmu system, seems to have been adopted by the Persians. 'It entailed casting the lot (Pur) that decided who among the top brass would be chief minister for the year and that year was kown by his name. Such a Pur, a small inscribed die dated about 840 BCE, is now in the Yale Museum."

According to the Old Testament story of Esther during the Xerexe'x rule "lot was cast on the Persian New Year in Nisan and Haman's name came up to be Chancellor for the year "from day to day, from month to month, until the twelfth month, the month of Adar" (3:7). One of the Chancellor's duties was to collect the annual revenues for the Empire, The Hebrew word "pur" which appears in Esther 3:7, 9:24 and 26 is usually taken to mean 'lots'. It is derived from the Assyrian puru  meaning a pebble used for casting lots. The Esther holiday celebrated by the Jews is called Purim.

From the 1st century BC, on the fiscal administration in northern Iran, used Zoroastrian month and day names in the Pahlavi (the Iranian language of Sassanian Persia). "The origin and history of the Zoroastrian calendar year of 12 months of 30 days, plus five days (that is, 365 days), remain unknown. It became official under the Sassanian dynasty, from about AD 226 until the Arab conquest in 621. The Arabs introduced the Muslim lunar year, but the Persians continued to use the Sassanian solar year, which in 1079 was made equal to the Julian year by the introduction of the leap year."

1- (Newroz @ May 2004)

2- (Tahiri, Hussein "Is Newroz the Kurdish national day?", @

3- (Ferdosi, "Shah-Nameh", Moasseseh Chaap was Entesharrat Ameir Kabeir, Tehran Iran, Chaape sevome 1344 pp.28-35.)

4- (

5- (ibid)

6- (Green, Peter "Alexander of Macedon, 356-323 N.C. A historical biography" copyright 1991, p. 314.)

7- (Alexander Heidel, "The Babylonian Genesis, The Story of Creation", The University of Chicago Press 1951 pp. 16-17.)

8- (Grankfort, Henri "Kingship and the Gods, as Study of the ancient Near Eastern religions", Chicago University Press 1948 p.320)

9- (Nafissi, Saeid "Masseheyat Dar Iran", Noor Jahan Tehran, Iran 1964 pp. 40-41)

10- (ibid p.41)

11- (Massoume, "Iranian New Year Nowruz", @, May 2004)
12 - ibid.

13- (Pritchard, James B. "The Ancient Near East, An Anthology of Texts and Pictures", Oxford University Press, London 1958 p.204)

14- (Burn, Andrew Robert "Persia and the Greeks, the Defense of the West 546-478 B.C.", Stm Marin's Press, Inc. 1968 p. 58.)

15- (Prichard p.207)

16- (Burn p. 58)