Last year I went to discover the celebration of Sultan Novruz at the Bektashi center in Tirana. This celebration was entered as an official holiday in the Albanian calendar in 1996, and it is related to the Muslim Bektashi community. In Albania people of different religions attend it. The roots of it go back to the beginnings of monotheistic religions.
What is Novruz?
The word Novruz, sometimes spelled Nowruz or Nevruz, comes from ancient Iranian, and it’s meaning word for word is “the new day,” meaning the New Year. Sultan Novruz in both Albania and Turkey can mean the King (Sultan) of the new day (Novruz), which means the very first day of the New Year. This ancient celebration was born during the Bronze Age in present-day Iran. It is linked to the spring equinox and takes place between March 20th and 22nd. It marks the beginning of the New Year; the renewal and the arrival of the beautiful days. This feast sometimes has been described as a pagan ritual. At times it has been called Zoroastrian. It was passed from generation to generation and has been able to keep up with the advent of various religions to this day. Today it is celebrated from Albania to India, and each country has its own traditions of honoring Novruz, whether by jumping through the big fires lit at night or by buying goldfish.
You might, however, ask me how this Persian Pagan fest, which symbolizes the arrival of spring, has entered the Bektashi calendar in Albania?
One of the hypotheses would be the desire to make this persistent pagan celebration a religious holiday at the time of the creation of the Persian Empire by associating Novruz, March 22 with the birth of Imam Ali, a central figure of the Shia Islam, a religion of the Empire. The date of birth of the first of the 12 Imams remains unclear, only the 13th of the month of Rajab is retained. Is it in 600, which would correspond to March 17, or 661 to May 23, but not to March 22?! This holiday would then have spread like Bektashism throughout the Ottoman Empire via the elite soldiers, the Janissaries.
Sultan Novruz at the Bektashi center in Tirana
Since 1929 Tirana, Albania has been the headquarters of the Bektashi around the world. This world center includes a Tekke (teqe in Albanian), a vast museum on Bektashism around the world, and turba (tombs of past Babas, which is the highest cleric in the Bektashi order). It is in this center that that on March 22 Novruz is celebrated. In the early morning, the center begins to come alive with some small local craft stalls and traditional Albanian dances while waiting for the beginning of the ceremony.
As we are in Albania and Albania likes to cultivate its particularity, the celebration of Sultan Novruz opens with the Albanian national anthem. While the Bektashis have worked hard for the recognition of the Albanian nationalism in the 19th century (in particular the Frashëri brothers). We find this patriotism throughout the ceremony, which went a little off-road from the religious ceremony.
Initially, the festivities focused on the revival, the arrival of spring, and the New Year with Albanian folk dances, polyphonies from different parts of the country. Songs and poems ode to the nature of the Albanian poet Lasgush Poradeci. Added to this are some interventions by personalities, including the totally surprising (or even heretical) speech of the president of Albania, Ilir Meta.
Finally, the ceremony focuses on the birth of Imam Ali. Then Baba Edmond Brahimaj spoke about the importance of this day for the Bektashi. He explained the figure of the first Imam, on the conditions of his birth, his inheritance, and his links with the Prophet Muhammad. Several prayers are pronounced in his honor. Baba Edmond Brahimaj then addresses the crowd and wishes, Bektashi and non-bektashi people, as well the country of Albania for peace and love for the New Year. The ceremony closes with the distribution of sandwiches with lamb meat, drinks, and sweets. The most pious can then talk with the Baba, or light candles and give prays near the Turba.