March 21st marks one of the most important days in the Central Asian calendar: the Spring Festival, or 'Navruz' as it is known there. It's an ancient tradition, having been celebrated throughout Persia and beyond for up to 5,000 years, and was once considered as the first day of the New Year.
Today, the festival is celebrated by hundreds of millions of people throughout the region, with Uzbekistan (amongst others) observing it as a national holiday. A few days before the festival begins, people gather to clean up and decorate their houses (a 'spring clean', if you like) and prepare the many dishes to be eaten during the festival. On the 21st itself, different national dishes are served up including 'pilov' (a meat dish with rice), shurpa (vegetable soup), boiled mutton or beef, kuk-samsa (patty with spring onions) and sweet nishalda (dessert made of eggs whisked with sugar). But the quintessential Navruz dish and height of the festivities is sumalaq – a ritual meal served once a year and made from flour and wheat sprouts , symbols of eternal life (there's also molasses to make eternal life a bit more palatable). It takes 24 hours to make the dish, cooked on special large pots and served to friends, relatives and neighbours as a treat. Local people believe that it is a good omen if you find a small stone in your sumalaq dish: it means you will be lucky and healthy till the next Navruz. The main celebration culminates in the central square, where everyone makes a procession behind figures symbolizing Bahor-Hanum (Spring), Dehkan-Bobo (Old farmer), Momo-Er (the Earth), who, accompanied by musicians, drive along the streets in the car decorated with the flowers.
In the following thirteen days, it's common practice to visit friends and relatives, plant seeds and look forward to prosperous summer days.
Kieran Meeke accompanied Imaginative Traveller to Uzbekistan on our 11 day 'Uzbekistan Explorer' trip. His article will be appearing in 'Metro' on Friday 23rd March.
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