The Story of Newroz and the fabled town of Akra

For those of us in the northern hemisphere, spring has arrived, and that means Newroz (or Nowrūz derived from Persian meaning “new day” or “new sun”), a spring festival of Zoroastrian origin that has been celebrated for over 3,000 years.

Walking among the budding Cherry Blossoms and mating songbirds, there are few arrivals that I welcome more than the grand entrance of spring. My young son Caleb could not agree more! Indeed, the occasion has excited the hearts of humankind for as long as recorded memory.

According to Wikipedia, the Shahnameh, an epic poem by the Persian poet Ferdowsi that covers the history of Iran and related societies from the creation of the world to the advent of Islam, “dates Newroz as far back as the reign of Jamshid, who in Zoroastrian texts saved mankind from a killer winter that was destined to kill every living creature.

With the spread of Iranian peoples (speakers of Iranian languages, a subfamily of Indo-Iranian languages) through the Millennia, Newroz today is observed by countries and communities across Central Asia, the Caucasus, South Asia, Northwestern China, the Crimea, and some communities in the Balkans. Each and every one of these celebrations is as rich and varied as the diverse languages spoken by the Iranian peoples, which includes Persian, Pashto, Balochi, and Kurdish. In addition, Zoroastrians are not the only faith community to see Newroz as more than just a holiday. Sufis, Ismailis, Alawites, Alevis, and followers of the Bahá’í Faith also hold the day to be holy, and according to the Encyclopædia Britannica, the Jewish festival of Purim is believed to have its origins in the Persian New Year.

In March 2010, I had the pleasure of traveling with dear expat and Kurdish friends to the fabled hill town of Akra (or Aqrah) in Ninewa (or Ninevah) Governorate. Akra means “fire” in one of the old Kurdish dialects, and the town figures strongly in Kurdish folklore about Newroz.

The fresh rose of spring (Photo by Erik K. Gustafson/EPIC, Iraqi Kurdistan, March 20, 2010).

My journey started at the Sulaimani garage. At the time, I was living in the city of Sulaimani (aka Sulaymaniyah in transliterated Arabic) in eastern Iraqi Kurdistan. With my broken Sorani Kurdish and a little help from my friend Ali Kurdistani over my mobile, I booked a shared taxi (or “taxsi” as they’re known in those parts). Once the car was full, we sped off to Erbil (aka Hawler among Kurdish speakers) via the Kirkuk road, passing oil fields and sprawling neighborhoods of cinder-block houses, many of them built as small palaces in the ironic neo-Baathist style. Since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion and overthrow of Saddam Hussein, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) have funded construction of homes for mostly Kurdish returnees in a program to reverse Saddam’s Arabization campaign.

In Erbil, I linked up with my expat and Kurdish friends. Our camera-packing troupe included the lovely Italian writer and researcher Francesca Recchia (@kiccovich), acclaimed photojournalist and everyday New Yawker Sebastian Meyer (@sebphoto), an equally talented Kirkuki photojournalist Mister K., his comical old school chum Brwa Hijrany, and our wonderful hosts in Akra, Kak Ayad and Kak Safin.

In two hired taxis, we drove north from Erbil passing various townships and villages as we cut across rich farmlands, fields of yellow flowers, and rolling green hills under the distant gaze of the snow-capped Zagros mountains. As we drove, the clear blue horizon was interrupted here and there by black columns of smoke rising from burning tires on hill tops. Around these fires were knots of young men getting their pyromania fix. It was still somewhat early for the family celebrations around the bonfires that would come later in the evening.

Mister K. told me the story about how tires became a fuel of choice for Newroz fires as an act of defiance against Saddam Hussein’s tyranny. Unfortunately for health and environmental reasons, the practice is now tradition.

The tradition of setting torches and bonfires ablaze is part of one of the founding folktales of Kurdish identity: the story of Kawa the blacksmith. Here’s a link to Mark Campbell’s telling of the legend.

In his Newroz message, the KRG representative to the U.S. Qubad Talabani (@qubadjt) offers this short summary:

According to Kurdish myth, Kawa the blacksmith lived with his people under the tyrannical rule of Zuhak. Zuhak’s evil reign caused spring to no longer come to Kurdistan. March 20 is traditionally marked as the day that Kawa defeated Zuhak after which he is then said to have set fire to the hillsides to celebrate the victory leading to spring returning to Kurdistan the next day. For thousands of years since that legend, Newroz has been a symbol of resilience, highlighting the fact that nations cannot be annihilated by tyrannical regimes.

As such, the holiday celebrates the deliverance of the Kurds from a tyrant and the welcome return of spring.

The Newroz legend of the blacksmith Kawa has its roots in Akra, our destination. The town is located at the northeastern tip of Ninewa, which is part of the disputed territories under the de facto administration of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). It is also within 20 miles of Barzan, putting it squarely within the heartland of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP).

The town of Akra, birthplace of the Newroz legend of Kawa the Blacksmith (Photo by EPIC director Erik K. Gustafson/EPIC, March 20, 2010).

After an hour and a half drive across beautiful landscapes and raucous conversation over a soundtrack of traditional Kurdish music, our taxis turned onto the shoulder of the road and parked on the outskirts of Akra. Built into the foothills of the Zagros Mountains with cross-cutting streets and stair step buildings, Akra evokes MC Escher’s woodcut of the Italian hill town Morano, Calabria. Predominantly Kurdish with a significant Assyrian minority, Akra has a modest church and half dozen mosques, their minarets punctuating each neighborhood. The largest mosque stands near the central square and former administrative building of Ottoman days.

We made the remaining journey by foot, entering the town’s interior of steps and narrow alleyways. Throughout most of the city’s interior, the only traffic is that of pedestrians and occasional donkeys.

We dropped our bags off at Kak Safin’s sister’s house, and set off to explore the jubilant city. Already, the singing and dancing had begun, and M-80 fire crackers were being thrown haphazardly about. On the ascent to one of the signal fires, we came across a large rooftop of a dozen or more Barzani Kurds dancing in traditional tribal dress as one of them sang. They wore shirts and baggy pantaloons (tan or dark colored) that billowed as they moved up and down in cadence, cummerbunds, and red and white patterned turbans (or jamadanis) thrown casually over their shoulders. Traditional Kurdish folk dancing is similar to dabke with participants linking hands and dancing in a circle. The final dancer at each end usually waves a handkerchief. In this case, each man waved a large flag, one for Kurdistan and the other for the KDP. The genuine enthusiasm of the dancers and the simple joy of motion were contagious, and the moment one of the dancers noticed me bobbing along to the beat, there was no backing down. Soon I was pulled into the line and dancing (somewhat out of step) with Sebastian there to capture the moment forever. One snapshot has me in descent as a blast of air puffs my shirt outward, making me look almost as ridiculous as if Hans and Franz joined the Rockettes.

From there we walked back down through the town and up to large overlook of the public square and mountains to the north, and the smaller green foothills and valleys to the south. This was where the largest crowd gathered for the best view of the evening’s festivities, while Peshmerga standing watchfully on guard.

One of the main attractions was a campy outdoor theater performance of Kawa’s epic battle against the snake king Zuhak. As the sun set on Kawa’s triumph, Akra’s first signal fire was lit atop a nearby mountain. From there, a procession of torch bearers ran zig zag down the mountainside and through town to the next summit, lighting a second signal fire. This was capped off with a fireworks show that brightened the dark recesses of the town and the hearts of every young onlooker.

The torchbearers make their descent, proceeding to the next signal fire in honor of the legend of Kawa. In the foreground is the old district government building used by Ottoman administrators from 1877 to 1918, and later by Iraqi officials. Today the town and district of Akra is under the de facto administration of the Kurdistan Regional Government (photo by Erik K. Gustafson/EPIC, March 20, 2010).

From the second summit, the torchbearers reentered town and went directly to the public gathering, cutting across the applauding crowds and igniting a third massive bonfire. Many in the crowd were snapping photos on their mobile phones or joining hands with each other in dance. On stage, singers kept the dancers joyously in motion.

Newroz remains the oldest continuously celebrated spring festival in the world, and Akra is one of the best places to see a distinctly Kurdish celebration of that sacred day. Moreover, when you see the drab terrain of the region transform into an explosion of color (bright greens, yellows, and dots of red and purple), you can understand what all the fuss is about, and even find yourself moved to dance a jig or two.

Here are more photos of my 2010 Newroz adventure.

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Happy Newroz dear readers! Newroztan Pîroz bêt!

Erik K. Gustafson

About Erik K. Gustafson

Erik is EPIC's founder and director. As a U.S. veteran of the 1991 Gulf War, Erik has devoted his life to humanitarian action and empowering youth in support of Iraq's peace and development.