Picture Post: Afghanistan celebrates Persian New Year

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The Independent Online

After weeks of determined spring cleaning, frantic last-minute checks to ensure there are enough sugary pastries to satisfy even the sweetest-toothed relatives, and a quick dash to the clothes bazaar to buy a new outfit, Afghanistan was yesterday ready to celebrate.

In Kabul, and across much of the region, it was the start of the festival of Nowruz, a colourful celebration otherwise known as the Persian New Year. As the joyful scenes in these pictures suggest, it is also the most hotly anticipated festival on the annual calendar for the millions who celebrate it across central Asia and beyond.

The fortnight-long festival falls on the astronomical vernal equinox – the start of spring in the northern hemisphere. In Kabul, celebrations traditionally centre around the Sakhy Shrine, an area of the capital overshadowed by an enormous clifftop boulder offering families a bird's eye view of the heady celebrations.

In the dusty complex below, young men danced in groups while children queued to ride on a rickety blue Ferris wheel. Helicopters circled overhead as devotees erected a giant mace covered in bright green flags (a colour considered holy in Islam because it was the Prophet's favourite hue). Fully aware that previous celebrations have been targeted by suicide bombers, security remained tight.

From the Kurdish territories of eastern Turkey, across the mountains and deserts of Iran and Afghanistan, even as far as the Himalayan peaks of western China, Nowruz is celebrated by tens of millions of people. But for Afghanistan, the festival currently holds an extra significance. Under the Taliban, whose joyless regime made music and dancing illegal, it was banned for being "pagan" and "un-Islamic" – despite having been celebrated in the region for thousands of years.

In Kabul it is now the year 1387. The Persian calendar started AD631, a date chosen by the Sassanid Empire as the beginning of the new imperial era.

The festival traces its roots back to Zoroastrianism. Afghans celebrate Nowruz by cleaning their houses, visiting relatives, paying their respects to the dead and, above all, tucking into vast quantities of haft mewa, a specially prepared desert made from seven dried fruits served in their own syrup. The festival is also the best time to see buzkashi, Afghanistan's thrillingly energetic form of polo played with a goat's carcass in place of a ball.