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Some thoughts on the celebration of #Newroz / #Nowruz, its influences, and a particular narrative attributed to it by many Kurds: the myth of Kawa the Blacksmith, whose statue in Afrin, Syria you can see here recently surrounded and being taken down by Turkish backed Islamists.
First on Nowruz: the celebration of Nowruz falls on Spring Equinox - many trace its origins wholly in Zoroastrianism as practiced by the Persians and Median cultures. Few however recognize how significant Assyrian-Babylonian influence was on both its practice and derivation.
The Assyrian empire's demise was a political event; it did not preclude custom & tradition etc from persisting in other cultures, empires. Scholar Peter Green notes that Alexander the Great partook in the festival of Akitu upon his arrival in Persepolis, Achaemenid Persia 330 BC.
Older Assyrian-Babylonian New Year celebrations are synonymously associated with the Akitu festival, symbolic of light and life, and are celebrated at the same time and for the same duration as Nowroz, ultimately terminating in Kha B-Nisan, 1st April, the Assyrian New Year.
The world first as darkness & chaos; the victory (or creation) of life by a supreme deity; the anointing of an earthly being to embody the will of the deity all originate in Assyro-Babylonian storytelling and have influenced not only Persian-Median religion, but Judeo-Christian.
Alexander defeating a “death demon” to win Ahura Mazda’s favour in the ritual ceremony at Persepolis directly corresponds to the Assyrian-Babylonian story of “Enuma Elish” which was recited and re-enacted by their great kings during Akitu to renew favour from Marduk and Ashur.
The prominence of Assyrian tradition in Achaemenid Persia in the case of Alexander is not limited to that case: everything from iconography, architecture, administrative practices all manifested in successive political hegemons in the region, well into even the Arab conquests.
The winged disc of Zoroastrian Ahura Mazda as found here in Persepolis correspond to earlier depictions of Ashur found all over Assyria - the prime (and eventually sole) deity among Assyrians. A thousand miles and different political authorities separate these artifacts.
This Kurdish calendar hanging in an office in modern day Syria demonstrates how enduring Assyrian influence is (much in the same way Norse influence is on European culture). Months of the year as listed here largely derive from original Assyrian words – some are even unchanged.
Anyway. Fast forward to modern times, Kurds unsurprisingly celebrate Nowroz together with Iranians. However, Newroz as practiced by some Kurds transforms it from being an apolitical Spring Equinox festival originating in Assyrian-Babylonian traditions into a nationalist fable.
We saw the fall of multi-ethnic empires and the rise of nationalism, national consciousness in the 20th C. This phenomenon was most potently seen in the collapsing Ottoman Empire and emergence of the Turkish Republic, housing an overwhelmingly Muslim Kurdish & Turkish population.
After answering the call to Jihad and massacring the indigenous non-Muslim Assyrian, Armenian, and Greek populations in Anatolia; the Kurds, who largely benefited from this genocide, found themselves gradually on the menu as Turkey now moved on to emphasizing its Turkishness.
A struggle has since ensued in Turkey unlike the struggle Kurds face in the fledgling Syrian/Iraqi states. Turkey was a wounded and fallen power, but one with a national identity & established institutions, meaning the pressure to conform to something was more acutely felt here.
Kurds in Turkey, not immune to the changing winds re: how people were starting to identify & organize themselves, began differentiating themselves from their neighbours intellectually/culturally in order to legitimize land claims and plot history; to take their place as equals.
According to Kurdish writer Cengiz Gunes, Newroz was identified early in the 20th C as a point of differentiation and then politicized in the 1970’s by other Kurdish nationalists in the form of Kawa the Blacksmith defeating the evil Assyrian king Dehak and freeing the Medes.
If you understand transitions, you understand history. The myth of Kawa (Persian Kaveh) is derived from Ferdowsi’s 11th C epic Shahnameh. The defeated King named Zahak was Arab and in Jerusalem, not Assyrian in Assyria, and the victorious hero was named Feraidoun, not Kawa.
This politicization of Newroz serves three purposes:
1. To designate a day of cross-border national unity
2. To annually renew calls for revolt/liberation
3. To anchor the Kurdish struggle and identity in the historical conflict (and geography) between Assyrians & Medes in 612 BC
This is elaborated further by Kurdish writer Ozlem Belcim Galip’s, where she outlines the intentions of PKK nationalists in attaching Kawa to “golden age” Median history to inspire Kurds to revolt against the modern states occupying Kurdistan (as well emphasizing non-Turkishness)
Disclaimer: I view these writers as good sources in understanding the history of the PKK; I’m not so keen on their uncritical grasp of other history flavoured by their own biases, e.g:
Gunes “the Medes – the ancestors of Kurds”
Galip “Kurdistan, historically known as Mesopotamia”
This modern Kawa myth not only idiosyncratically isolates & vilifies ancient Assyrians in an effort to build a national story out of prolonged victimhood and struggle among Kurds, but inspires hatred of today's beleaguered Assyrians whom Kurds imagine as the old vanquished enemy.
Reading the myth, I found it strange that the entire story of a people could be placed precisely at the fall of the Assyrian Empire by 20th C Kurdish nationalists. How much of it can I attribute to the innate hatred and racism from Kurds towards Assyrians today? Only Kawa knows.
I understand there's been a vicious cycle of banning/politicizing but there's no need to politicize festivals which are millennia old in this way to emphasize some kind of moral and political legitimacy. Everyone deserves dignity, but not at the expense of others. Happy #Newroz
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