HISTORY OF ASSYRIAN NEW YEAR
The Assyrian New Year, also called Akitu or Neesanu Festival is one of the oldest recorded religious festivals in the world, originated in the ancient Sumerian civilization of southern Mesopotamia and it was celebrated for several millennia throughout ancient Assyrian Empire.
In ancient Sumer the year was divided into two “seasons” – a “summer” season, which began on the vernal (spring) equinox – and a “winter” season, which began on the autumnal equinox. These were marked by two agricultural festivals marking the sowing of barley in autumn and the cutting of barley in spring.
In Ancient Mesopotamia, agricultural life played a key role in the economy of the Fertile Crescent. This lifestyle was also portrayed in the lavish celebrations of the Assyrians during 12 sacred days of the New Year celebration, one for each month of the calendar year.
This oldest celebration of New Year, acted as a doctrine, with two different approaches to address the beliefs and governing structure of the society.
As it is derived from spring and renewal of nature and life, it originated as a nature festival, with features simultaneously expressing nature’s grief at the death of all growing things and its joy at their rebirth.
The festival, also, acted as a political device employed by the monarchy and / or the central priesthood to ensure the supremacy of the king, the national god, and his capital city. Politics and religion in Assyria were irrevocably intertwined.
The arrival of spring season was celebrated lavishly in Nineveh for twelve days in what is documented as the New Year Festival.
For twelve days beginning with the first day of the Nissan, as the day of the spring equinox, different enactments performed by the public, the priest and even the king conveyed these important massages:
Death is conquered; life has once again risen from the cold and dark days of winter; spring has returned and good has won over the evil.
In Babylonian era, the festival came to be dedicated to Marduk's victory over Tiamat.
People from different cities brought the statues of their gods and goddesses in a sacred procession to the city of Babylon.
Although believed in gods as forces of nature, despite the contrary beliefs, they had the very first sophisticated monotheistic belief system, and it was because of this belief system, that this Assyrian nation as a whole, was the first to convert to Christianity.
Assyrian New Year Celebration Post Babylon Invasion by Cyrus, king of Persia 1
Historical evidences suggest that the Persian Nowruz was borrowed from the Babylonians after the Cyrus, King of Persia conquered the Babylon as it was facilitated by the Priests of Marduk.2 The book of Isaiah implies that Jews were also part of the effort to help Cyrus invasion of Babylon which it would pave the way for their return to Israel.
After the invasion, Persians adopted many of the Assyro-Babylonian social, political and administrative innovations and cultural celebrations. 3
In 538 B.C. Cambyses the son of Cyrus was installed as the king of Babylon and on the 4th day of Nissanu, he went through the historic New Year ritual of paying homage to Marduk and Nabu thereby he was appointed officially the viceroy of Marduk in Babylon with headquarter in Sippar. 4 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.
In the Persian capital Persepolis or Pasargad founded by Cambyses and finished by Dariush engravings show various nations of the empire bringing gifts to the King during the New Year's celebration, There is no historical evidence to show that either the Medes or the Persians observed the Spring Equinox as New Year before the conquest of Babylon. 5
Following this conquest, Persians continued to celebrate Nowruz maintaining many of Assyro-Babylonian traditions.
Many political, religious and economical reasons were contributing factors to Assyrians neglecting their oldest and most cherished celebration as Nissanu or Akitu, Celebration of New Year and New Life. Living under continued oppression and genocides were no helping factors either. Despite all these obstacles, however, Assyrians maintained the spirit of Spring and their ancestral celebrations in some symbolic ways.
Some of these traditions on the first day of Spring include display of Wheat and Bulgur (cracked wheat) in small plates at the front doors of their homes, as well as seven kinds of seeds and nuts in front of their houses. They would also display a bundle of flowers, in echo of the “Spring’s beard” tradition practiced in the old towns. Inside their homes, they would adorn their dinner tables with seven types of fruit (especially apples and pomegranates, but also peaches, pears, plums, apricots, quinces or figs), seven types of seeds and nuts (such as pistachios, walnuts, almonds, sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds, and chickpeas), and flowers. These would be laid out every year on 1st of spring, regardless of whether or not one would be receiving guests. These traditions are the basic sandstones of later what Persians called the Sofreh Haft Sin. Significantly, seven was a holy number in ancient Mesopotamia as well as Syriac Christian tradition, fruit, seeds and nuts were potent symbols of fertility, and wheat was especially important to the celebration of the holiday. 6
Assyrian Tree of Life
Celebration of life and renewal of it in all the natural forms, Spring and fertility, gods and story of creation in Gilgamesh all have a close relation to Assyrian New Year as well as Assyrian Tree of Life or Sacred Tree.
As it is evident in Slab B-23 of the throne room of Ashurnasirpal II,
King and its mirror image are on two sides of the Tree of Life, fertilizing it with the Palm Leaves, or Palm Cone in different versions and the god Ashur on top of the tree. The Iconography of the Tree shows the relationships between gods, symbols of life and the divine order which was also a doctrine of the Assyrian belief system. A detailed description of the Tree of life and its iconology is explained by Dr. Simo Parpola in Journal of Near Eastern Studies, Vol. 52, No. 3 (Jul., 1993), pp. 161-208 7
Ideas and Suggestions for Table Decoration of the Assyrian New Year
Some elements of Ancient Assyrian traditions during the 12 sacred days celebrations:
(Vinegar, Incense, Gold, Jewelry crown; Myrrh, Frankincense, Fish,
Vinegar: was a basic and most convenient household item to use in order to sanitize the house and its items; The purification was also meant to address one’s body and soul; This is also an element of the Tree of Life
Incense: also used for purification,
Crown & Jewelry; Kings Crown submitted to prove his humility
Myrrh as symbol of death the ultimate submission
Where the temples to celebrate the New Year were located; Assyrian artifacts of high powers, king, deity and carobs signifying the arrival of gods at the temples for celebration of the Assyrian New Year
Frankincense can be used as symbol of deity
Gold signifies King and Glory
Chaos & Disorder
Wooden effigies to burn; Reminder of Justice & stable; rule and triumph of order over chaos
Banquet Fish of Nissan; People of Nineveh were the fishermen so fish was in abundance for celebration; ** Wine and Bear; Assyrians were the first to discover fermented grape and barley too can taste good and be celebratory, ** Bread made of Barley and Wheat; Assyrians were the first farmers who cultivated the grains and prepared food with
Modern Assyrian traditions during Assyrian New Year festivities:
Considered sacred number
Symbols of fertility
Seven was a holy number in ancient Mesopotamia
Use counts of his number in elements you use for your decoration
From Barley, wheat and any 7 grains
Displayed by people of Hakkari in mountains of Turkey in front of their homes for the entire month in celebration of the New Year; red being sign of happiness, joy and love
First flowers and herbs of the season as a symbol of blessings bestowed upon earth with revival of nature; in Hakkari this was called “Digna d Nissan”
Iris (Assyrian Royal Color); Daffodils (Yellow, sun), Tulips (Love, Ishtar); Daisies (Used in many Assyrian artifacts, geometric shape)
Dried or Fresh
Sumerian had great affection for Flora species and herbs. They found great culinary and medicinal use for herbs. In search of ethernal life, Gilgamesh was even set out in search of the plant of life which was believed to be a miraculous herb. Babylonians knew more than 250 herbs
Use 7 spices of herb, or herbs that you know have medicinal benefits
Decorated symbol of circle of life
Seven kinds of Seeds
A tradition observed in the city of Mosul to be kept alive as a symbol of past meanings
Seven kinds of Nuts
A tradition observed in the city of Mosul
Seven types of Fruit
A tradition observed in the city of Mosul (specially apples and pomegranate)
Assyrian Tree of life:
Following are some symbolism's and elements used in the Assyrian tree of life that might inspire you to a theme decoration:
Balance & Harmony
Is quite evident in the tree of life; Assyrians believed where there is development with no balance and harmony, chaos follows. You may use a scale or anything that signifies balance and harmony in that sense; Assyrians were also the first to invent the scale and have decorative pieces that used as scale measures; They can be nice decorative elements in your decoration
Circle consists of 360 degrees; 360 has been a sacred number in Assyria, and the Assyrians based their calendar on 12 x 30 days = 360 days;
Pinecones and pomegranates
Are traditionally symbols of unity; Later in Christianity pomegranate represents multiplicity in unity as the Church, with the seeds as its many members and secondarily regeneration and resurrection
The tree consists of 9 great gods all of whom are Ashur’s powers: Ashur being god of all beings the Assyrians believed nine was an optimum number. Systems built based on nine, mysteriously and magically were more optimum. And to support the idea, some traces of nine shall be mentioned, for instance, nine planets in our solar system, nine levels of angels, the highest single digit number, nine ministers in the ancient “Assyrian Cabinet”, nine levels of priesthood in the Assyrian Church, and nine natural months of pregnancy for human being.
Use the number nine as one of the measures for combination of items used in your decorations; what would be your theme decoration? 9 planets? 9 gemstones representing each planet? Or 9 of many Assyrian inventions! Let your imagination be your guide.
Symbolisms of the gods as nine powers of Ashur in the tree of life are as following
(You can associate color with these symbols or any element in nature)
Anu Authority **Heaven and the Sky
(What do you see as a symbol of authority?)
Ea (Enki) Wisdom & Knowledge ** crafts, water, intelligence, mischief and creation
(For instance, you can use artsy items, crafts, water, …)
Sin Purity and prudence ** god of moon
(Often Lapis Lazuli is associated with Sin, god of moon)
Marduk Creativity and Mercy
Samas Justice and Righteousness **god of sun
(Gold elements and shapes)
Ishtar (Inanna) Love and Beauty ** the mother representing the love, spirit, and energy
(Red color, tulips, your own picture)
Ninorta Crown & Victory
Adad Glory ** storm and rain god
Nergal Destructive / Sexual Power also Foundation
1. AINA.org, March 20, 2007 by William Warda
2. James B. Pritchard edit. The ancient Near East, An Anthology of Texts and Pictures, Princeton University Press 1958 p. 203.
3. J.E. Curtis and J. E. reade editors, Art and Empire, Treasures from Assyria in the British Museum, the Trustee of the British Museum, 1995 p. 31.
4. Burn, Andrew Robert "Persia and the Greeks, the Defense of the West 546-478 B.C.", Sam Marin's Press, Inc. 1968 p. 58.
5. Alexander Heidel, "The Babylonian Genesis, The Story of Creation", The University of Chicago Press 1951 pp. 16-17.
6. Dr. Nicholas Al-Jeloo