Persepolis and the New Year Festival

Lendering’s Note 12 with respect to Farrokh’s “…logical fallacies…” states that:

”…A textbook example of a secundum quid can be found on page 61, where it is stated that "it is a little-known fact that one of the most important functions of Persepolis was the celebration of the Persian New Year festival". The main evidence is that on the reliefs on the stairs of the Apadana, people are shown bringing presents, which suggests that gifts were offered to the great king. But it does not prove that this happened at the New Year Festival. Another secundum quid can be found on page 78.”

There are three distinct observations.

(1) First, Lendering fails to mention that the statement is not Farrokh’s personal opinion but a referenced statement by Culican (which he referenced by Farrokh in Footnote 47, pp.95):

“…the celebration of the Persian New Year festival which had acquired an imperial significance

Culican, W., 1965, pp. 89, in Chapter V “Palaces and Archives”, The Medes and the Persians. London: Thames & Hudson.

A more balanced review could point out whether there are dissenting scholars and research that provide a different view. But to say that “Farrokh states this and that” and ignore the scholarship in the field displays academic mediocrity. The fact that Lendering deliberately fails to mention Farrokh’s citation of Culican may be an attempt to mislead readers into believing that Farrokh has made a statement of opinion.  This is academically unacceptable in mainstream scholarship and is blatantly dishonest 

(2) Lendering’s statement is that “…it [bringing of gifts to the king] does not prove that this happened at the New Year Festival”. The logic of Lendering’s observation is unclear; is he talking issue with (a) that the bringing of gifts is not a central feature of Nowruz and/or (b) a New Year (Nowruz) festival never took place at Persepolis? With respect to the latter (a), Farrokh never stated that a central feature of Nowruz was the bringing of gifts to the king. However Lendering’s carefully crafted statement may be intended to lead readers to the erroneous conclusion that Farrokh actually stated that the bearing of gifts was central to the festival (which he did not).

The categorical assertion that Nowruz does not involve the bringing of gifts is incorrect, as this is a central feature of the ancient festival which endures among Iranian peoples to this date.

There are in fact a number of Kurdish tribes that engage in “Persepolis” types of gift processions for their “Pir” (wise one/old one) during Nowruz and Mehregan (Festival of Mithra) festivals.  Even Briant does acknowledge that “…the Great King frequently stayed at Persepolis throughout the year, in accordance with official cultic calendar…”.

(3) Lendering is suggesting that there is no support for the notion of the Nowruz taking place at Persepolis. This is clearly indicative that Lendering is engaged in a selective view and chooses to ignore those studies and theories that contradict his view. In essence he is guilty of what he accuses Farrokh of: selectively choosing those hypotheses that support his views and then presenting these as facts.

Perhaps Lendering may be unaware of the seminal research and extensive works that have already been completed in this area. In this endeavour we do suggest that Lendering familiarize himself with the following publications:

Persepolis, Vol.1: Structures, Reliefs, Inscriptions (Chicago, 1953); Vol 2: Contents of the Treasury and other Discoveries (Chicago, 1957); Vol 3: The Royal Tombs and Other Monuments (Chicago, 1970).

Porada, E. (1985). Classic Achaemenean architecture and sculpture. In I., Gershevitch (Ed.), Cambridge History of Iran: Vol.2 The Median and Achaemenean Periods, Great Britain, Cambridge University Press, pp. 793-827.

Shahbazi, Sh. (1978). New aspects of Persopolitan studies. Gymnasium, 85, 487-500.

An excellent article for Lendering to consult is Wener Felix Dutz’s:

New year’s festival of Darius the Great” (pp.97-105) in the text Persepolis and Archaeological Sites in Fars. Tehran, Iran: Soroush Library of Introduction to Persian Art, 1975.

Dr.  Dutz notes that:

The layout of the [Persepolis] palaces on four distinct levels with clearly defined function, support this (see Map below). The private palaces where the king lived during the ceremony, shielded from popular view by a recently discovered parapet of bullhead design, form the uppermost level. The Apadana on the next lower level, with a portico positioned on the platform possibly functioning as a stage, was obviously of ceremonial character. The reception area for the subject people was walled off from the upper two levels, consisting of the Gate of Nations, a small pavilion and the 100 Column Palace and was marked by massive Mesopotamian bull-man figures. The stores and service palaces are positioned on the lower level, copying the ziggurat principle of Elam, where the votive offerings were also stored in the lower story”.

It is not practical to cite the entire article here, but it suffices to show that the notion of Nowruz being celebrated at Persepolis is not simply Farrokh’s opinion or “logical fallacies”. Lendering is either unaware of the research or may be attempting to convince readers that no such research exists.

More researchers may be cited who have noted of the importance of Persepolis with respect to Nowruz. One example is Dr. Sylvia A. Matheson who noted that:

“…representatives of all the varied peoples of the empire gathered to pay homage, and bring tribute, to the King of Kings, probably each spring, at the time of the ancient Nowruz (New Year) festival

[Matheson, S. A. (1973). Persia: An Archaeological Guide. Park Ridge, new Jersey: Noyes Press, pp.224.]

In a sense, Lendering is narrowly focusing on the visual panels depicting dignitaries bringing gifts. He then extrapolates from this to state that this does not “prove” that Nowruz took place. But this is essentially an opinion by Lendering, one that is not shared by many of the established scholars on the subject.  In addition, Lendering has shown that he is unaware of the Mithraic rites in Kurdistan (see reference to “Pir” shortly below).  

Are there theories and researchers who oppose the “Nowruz Hypothesis” at Persepolis?

The answer is a categorical yes. Sancisi-Weerdenburg, Kuhrt, and Drijvers discuss the objections that were raised between 1974-1980:

Sancisi-Weerdenburg, W. A. M., Kuhrt, A., & Drijvers, J. W. (1991). Achaemenid history. Holland: Instituut voor het Nabije Oosten.

Pierre Briant also provides an excellent analysis as to why the connection between Nowruz and Persepolis may be questioned. Briant notes that the Nowruz-Persepolis connection was proposed by Arthur Opham Pope and Roman Ghirschman in 1957. However Briant also states that “…we must remain open to the hypothesis of an imperial festival… ” (From Cyrus to Alexander, p.910) at Persepolis, even if we question that the actual Nowruz took place there. On a positive note, Lendering often refers to Briant’s excellent works in his review but has inexplicably avoided mentioning this particular reference with respect to the Nowruz-Persepolis issue. This may be explained by Lendering’s primary objective of presenting Farrokh in a negative light, rather than engaging in a scholarly discourse (as Briant does) where various points of view are expostulated.   

Even if the actual “Nowruz” did not take place at Persepolis, the example of the Apadana is telling. The Apadana relief staircase represents a symbolic ritual procession with a rich display of abundance that is connected with “some kind” of religious festival or offering.

Also, the Nowruz festival did indeed exist at the time of the Achaemenids. There is a reference in Strabo that states ”And they celebrate their weddings at the beginning of the Spring Equinox” (Geography, 15.3.17). The Nowruz is very much related to the more ancient Babylonian Nissanu festival which was a vital event in Babylon.  

The key question here is whether this particular Nowruz festival did take place at Persepolis. There are researchers who speculate that this was not the case versus those who believe that the festival did take place.  Simon, Mattar, and Bulliet note that “…Art historians believe that the occasion [at Persepolis] depicted at Persepolis is the Nowruz (New Day) celebrations” (in Encyclopaedia of the Modern Middle East, 1996, p.1352). Other references can be produced to contradict this and so forth. Again the real debate is whether the Nowruz took place, but the notion that no cult or festival took place is very difficult to dismiss.

However, there is one source of information that western writers in particular either ignore or are not aware of: the post-Islamic Persian literature.

Omar Khayyam is one of ancient Iran’s most notable mathematicians and poets. Khayyam’s Nowruz-Nameh provides a very clear and picturesque description of the courtly traditions of ancient Iran:

From the era of Keykhosrow till the days of Yazdegard, last of the pre-Islamic kings of Persia, the royal custom was thus: on the first day of the New Year, Now Ruz, the King's first visitor was the High Mobed of the Zoroastrians, who brought with him as gifts a golden goblet full of wine, a ring, some gold coins, a fistful of green sprigs of wheat, a sword, and a bow. In the language of Persia he would then glorify God and praise the monarch. This was the address of the High Mobad to the king : "O Majesty, on this feast of the Equinox, first day of the first month of the year, seeing that thou hast freely chosen God and the Faith of the Ancient ones; may Surush, the Angel-messenger, grant thee wisdom and insight and sagacity in thy affairs. Live long in praise, be happy and fortunate upon thy golden throne, drink immortality from the Cup of Jamshid; and keep in solemn trust the customs of our ancestors, their noble aspirations, fair gestures and the exercise of justice and righteousness. May thy soul flourish; may thy youth be as the new-grown grain; may thy horse be puissant, victorious; thy sword bright and deadly against foes; thy hawk swift against its prey; thy every act straight as the arrow's shaft. Go forth from thy rich throne, conquer new lands. Honour the craftsman and the sage in equal degree; disdain the acquisition of wealth. May thy house prosper and thy life be long!"

Note that the Nowruznameh text is published in Persian [Tehran: Nashr-i Chashmah, 2000].

آئین ملوک عجم از گاه کی‌خسرو تا به روزگار یزدجرد شهریار که آخرین ملوک عجم بود، چنان بوده است که روز نوروز نخست کس از مردمان بیگانه، موبد موبدان پیش ملک آمدی با جام زرین پر می و انگشتری و درمی و دیناری خسروانی و یک دسته خوید سبز رسته و شمشیری و تیرکمان و دوات و قلم و اسپی و بازی و غلامی خوب‌روی و ستایش نمودی و نیایش کردی او را به زبان پارسی به عبارت ایشان. چون موبد موبدان از آفرین بپرداختی، پس بزرگان دولت آمدندی و خدمت‌ها پیش آوردندی. آن‌چه که موبد موبدان به شاه می‌گوید، : شها، به جشن فروردین به ماه فروردین، به آزادی گزین یزدان و دین کیان، سروش آورد تو را دانائی و بینائی به کاردانی و دی‌زی و با خوی هژیر و شادباش بر تخت زرین و انوشه خور به جام جمشید و رسم نیاکان در همت بلند و نیکوکاری و ورزش داد و راستی نگاه‌دار، سرت سبزباد و جوانی چو خوید، اسپت کامکار و پیروز و تیغت روشن و کاری به دشمن و بازت گیرا و خجسته به درم و دینار، پیشت هنری و دانا گرامی .ودرم خوار و سرایت آباد و زندگانی بسیار

The analyses cited earlier by Briant, Sancisi-Weerdenburg, Kuhrt, and Drijvers are of course brilliant, but their main weakness is in ignoring Persian written sources such as the above and the lack of expeditions in Luristan and Kurdistan. This may be understood by the fact that the aforementioned researchers may be aware such sources but have yet to consult these as such a task would require the reading of New Persian poetry. Khayyam makes clear that Nowruz was celebrated at the king’s court, and few would question that the festival existed in antiquity.  

(4) Finally, Lendering has actually provided an incomplete citation of the statement in Farrokh’s text. Below is the actual statement as it appears on p.61 (the italicized section is what Farrokh has referenced by citing Culican, the underlined section is what Lendering has omitted):

It is a little-known fact that one of the most important functions of Persepolis was “the celebration of the Persian New Year festival which had acquired an imperial significance".

Farrokh’s weakness here is that he should have discussed the western views that oppose the notion of a Nowruz festival at Persepolis in contrast to his referenced statement.

Lendering would have been more convincing had he refrained from citing out of context, withholding information about Farrokh’s cited source (i.e. Culican) and avoiding the mention of sources that oppose his own point of view. However, the main concern here is the Lendering’s knowledge of the Nowruz rituals (especially the Persian sources) is simply inadequate.

Like the case with the Lion of Ecbatana, he simply disagrees with a certain view – however he (like Farrokh) cannot categorically prove that he is absolutely correct. Instead of engaging in a scholarly debate however, Lendering again fails to disassociate the process of critical analysis from the person of Kaveh Farrokh.