Does Nowruz symbolize a return to the roots for the former soviet socialist republics of Central Asia?


Nowruz is a celebration coming from the Zoroastrian practises, a pre-Islamic religion established in various regions from Iran to the Aral Sea (in Uzbekistan), as well as in Afghanistan. It is still practised nowadays between the 20th and the 22nd March, at the time of the spring equinox. While Islam is predominant in these areas, Nowruz appears to be one of the few vestiges of Zoroastrianism that is still widely celebrated.

Even though it originates from religious traditions fallen into oblivion, this celebration was forbidden by the soviet authorities as early as 1937, due to a vast anti-religious campaign. As it was more traditional than religious, some soviet republics used to celebrate it in a non-official way, in Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan or even Tajikistan for instance. It was not until the Perestroika in 1985 that Nowruz was once again celebrated as an official holiday, and then in 2016 that it was included in UNESCO’s intangible cultural heritage. Thus, many identity markers specific to Central Asian civilisations have been reshaped or even suppressed by Soviet policies, just like Nowruz. Since the fall of the USSR, some Central Asian republics have found themselves almost without cultural or identity markers, forcing them to reconstruct a national narrative from scratch. Is the Nowruz festival a symbol of this desire to emancipate themselves from the Soviet historical narrative for the current Central Asian republics?

From a civilisational point of view, Nowruz does not have any border. As a matter of fact, although originally a Persian religion, this festival is celebrated in Central Asia by both Turkic-speaking (Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan) and Persian-speaking (Tajikistan) ethnic groups, both nomadic and settled. However, it is necessary to bear in mind that the physical borders do not consider the ethnic distribution of the populations, so that Persian-speaking populations can be found in Turkic-speaking regions and vice versa. As the Silk Road allowed many cultural and religious exchanges, not only economic ones, many traces of Zoroastrianism have also been found in the region, especially in Kyrgyzstan. During the process of Islamisation of these territories from the 8th century following the battle of Talas, the evidence of Zoroastrianism’s past was annihilated, and there are few physical traces of its existence in the region, although some of them are exhibited in national historical museums. How can we explain that an intangible heritage has survived centuries of Islamisation and then Sovietisation?

Contextualising the Cultural and Religious Landscape in Central Asia

At the dawn of the 21st century, the former Soviet socialist republics of Central Asia are questioning the different ways of redefining their culture and especially the predominant previous cultural influences to preserve or not. It is necessary to go back to the Soviet period in order to better understand the choices made by the current leaders of the various republics. As early as 1921, the revolutionary Mirsäyet Soltangäliev noted that nomadic peoples such as the Kyrgyz and Kazakhs were much less favourable to the strict practice of the Muslim religion, unlike sedentary peoples such as the Uzbeks. This is still reflected in the influence of religion in the different states, and it is not surprising that Uzbekistan has one of the largest religious activity in the public space. Since it is a necessity to put aside Russian and, above all, Soviet influences in order to start anew, the Central Asian republics are giving in to external influences from countries with which they share common identity markers such as religion. We find two actors: Turkey, officially secular but with a Sunni majority, and the Islamic Republic of Iran, with a Shiite majority. At the end of the USSR, Iran’s influence in the region was in fact minimal, and it is mainly in Tajikistan that we observe a relative Shiite religious activity influenced by Iran. On the other hand, Turkey has been able to increase its soft power extremely effectively even today in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan in particular, both culturally and from a religious point of view. Thus, although remaining secular, these republics are widely influenced by Turkey in their cultural and religious practices. However, countries with a nomadic tradition tend to counterbalance this Turkish cultural influence to preserve the rites and traditions linked to nomadism such as the Jailoo (in summer, the Kyrgyz move to the mountains for pasture). Similarly, it is especially in Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan that certain ancient traditions are resurfacing, notably with the relative rise in popularity of Tengrism and shamanism, which are specific to Turkic-speaking nomadic populations. Nowruz seems to fall into the category of cultural and religious practices that allow populations to gather around common ancestral roots.

Nowruz: a universal symbol

Although the disappearance of the USSR has left a great void in the eyes of many people in Central Asia, the fact remains that we are witnessing a fading of Soviet influences in favour of a revival of even older traditions. Nowruz nevertheless conveys a message that is in fact universal: the arrival of spring, the renewal of nature, peace, etc. These values can be found in many ceremonies and traditions, be they Christian (Easter symbolising the passage from death to life, at the beginning of April), Hindu (Holi or the festival of colours symbolising peace and love, at the beginning of March) or Japanese (Shunbun no Hi, celebrating the arrival of spring on the 21st of March). Similarly, the universal character of Nowruz is accentuated by the wide range of territories where it is celebrated. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan addresses the nation but also other countries celebrating Nowruz every year: “I would like to celebrate the International Day of Nowruz, harbinger of spring and symbol of peace and brotherhood”, (speech on 21 March 2021).

The international character of the Nowruz festival, as emphasised by the Turkish President, allows for a true unification of divided populations, since it sets aside ethnic differences and differences concerning the various branches of the Muslim religion. In short, despite the persecutions that led the followers of Zoroastrianism to convert to Islam, the symbolism of Nowruz has allowed this celebration to retain its importance over the centuries. In Central Asia, emphasis is often placed on the importance of the Ummah, i.e., the unity of the Muslim community regardless of ethnicity or other affiliation. Although it is not a Muslim festival, Nowruz paradoxically acts as a link between these communities.

Short account of the Nooruz festival in Bishkek on 21 March 2022

Accompanied by a gallery of portraits immortalised at the end of the festivities.

        “Ten o’clock in the morning in the heart of the Kyrgyz capital on Ala-too Square, hundreds of passers-by are lined up, all of whom have come to attend the traditional Nooruz show. A manaschi recites verses from the Manas epic, accompanied by a komuz. Behind him stand dozens of artists ready to start their performances. Huge screens are set up to allow the crowd a glimpse of the festivities. Distinguished guests, senior government officials, diplomats, journalists, but also and above all the Aksakal wearing kalpaks and their wives wearing the traditional elechek are comfortably seated at the front of the square facing the artists. The ceremony begins with folk dances and continues for more than two hours to reveal some of the richness of the Kyrgyz cultural heritage. Behind the square are the vendors of somoluk, a culinary speciality made from wheat and prepared for Nowruz, which is widespread throughout Central Asia. From there, you can see the decor, which consists of large, coloured posters, hardly masking the dull grey concrete of the Soviet architecture. However, the square seems cheerful: from the youngest to the oldest, everyone has made the effort to dress in traditional clothes for the occasion, kalpaks, hijabs, scarves, all more colourful than the others. Entire families gather once the festivities are over to share the traditional Nowruz meal, but before anything else, everyone takes the time to be photographed proudly by the photographers and journalists who have come especially for the event.



Previous Article

Eastern Europe Geopolitical Watch – From 25 to 3 March 2023

Next Article

Geopolitical News from the South Caucasus in February 2023: Armenia – Azerbaijan – Georgia