Not everyone celebrates the new year in the middle of winter; for 300 million people around the world, their new year begins at the moment of the vernal equinox. The holiday of Nowruz celebrates that “new day” by encouraging us to make poetic connections between life and death, and past and present. National Geographic photographer, Babak Tafreshi, reacquaints us with the shimmering origins of this ancient Persian holiday; they are above our heads, shining in the night sky.
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BABAK TAFRESHI (NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC PHOTOGRAPHER): At the age of around 13, I managed to borrow a telescope from a neighbor. I was trying to see some details of the moon. And as soon as I did the first look through this telescope, I think my whole life changed.
DAVAR ARDALAN (HOST): Babak Tafreshi is something of a nocturnal creature. A National Geographic photographer, his workday begins as the sun is going down. That’s because his subject is the night sky.
TAFRESHI: I was not expecting to see all these craters and mountains on the moon with the tiny telescope. As the Earth was rotating, the moon was just gliding across the field of view.
ARDALAN: The thrill of peering through a telescope at the moon never left Babak.
TAFRESHI: It was very stunning to me, and I think it was a milestone in my life.
ARDALAN: And photographing what he sees at night is his way of sharing that inspiration.
Born in Tehran, Iran, Babak’s love of astronomy became rooted early on in the ancient world—in particular, a World Heritage site called Persepolis, in southwestern Iran. Babak visited Persepolis as a teenager. It was the beginning of spring.
TAFRESHI: As I entered, I realized there is something growing all the sudden inside me that was hidden for a long time.
ARDALAN: This 2,500-year-old site is considered by many to have been one of the most majestic places in the Persian Empire. As Babak walked across the ruins of its vast stone terraces and up its sweeping staircases…
TAFRESHI: A connection to the ancient world was just unfolding within me.
ARDALAN: In particular, the young astronomer became fascinated by several bas-reliefs: ancient images carved into the stone walls. They depicted a ferocious lion biting the haunches of a terrified bull. They appear to be in a fight to the death.
TAFRESHI: And the winner is obviously the lion.
ARDALAN: Babak learned that this was not a hunting scene emerging from the walls, but an astronomical event: the vernal equinox. According to one theory, the bull represents the constellation known as Taurus—which sets in the sky to the west—and the lion is the constellation Leo.
TAFRESHI: And this bas-relief of these two fighting, with the winner Leo, it means it’s rising in the skies, bringing the springtime.
ARDALAN: And in fact, the lion was winning the battle with the bull. Spring had just begun, and young Babak found himself in an archaeological reflection of that specific moment in time. Which was even more meaningful, given the ancient site: Those bas-reliefs at Persepolis were there to tell a story.
TAFRESHI: And that could be the very obvious relationship of Persepolis with the night sky and probably Nowruz celebrations.
ARDALAN: Nowruz—an ancient Persian celebration that takes place for 13 days beginning at the moment of the vernal equinox—may have been the centerpiece of Persepolis. Babak was standing on the very site where Nowruz took place, at the time it would have been celebrated, astronomically speaking.
Even though, during the day, he wasn’t able to see it.
TAFRESHI: So that was the moment that I felt Nowruz is much more connected to me because it was very much related to my true passion: astronomy.
ARDALAN: Babak would go on to build a career as a photojournalist with a mission of sharing those connections with the rest of the world. In order to tell those stories, however, he would have to travel to places where the skies are still dark, and wait long after the sun goes down, when the night sky tells the oldest story of all.
On today’s episode of Overheard, we’ll go back in time to the Persian origins of Nowruz, a holiday celebrated by 300 million people around the world—from Afghanistan to India, Kurdistan to Turkey, and throughout the Middle East—at the precise moment when our planet is halfway around the sun.
I’m Davar Ardalan, and this is Overheard, a show where we eavesdrop on the wild conversations we have here at Nat Geo and follow them to the edges of our big, weird, beautiful world.
This week, as Earth reaches its vernal equinox, we’ll reflect on the astronomy, the imagery, and the poetry that together build the long bridge between Nowruz of the past and haft-sin tables being set around the world this week.
Nafase bade saba moshkfeshan khahad shod
[Short bit of FARSI here / up under first line of poem that follows]
NADER ARDALAN (HOST’S FATHER):
The gentle breeze will blow a new
Vitality to the frozen earth.
The old will become young.
ARDALAN: That is the voice of my father, Nader.
Persian lilacs will offer the white lily
Their fragrant red cup.
The narcissus eye will glimpse the anemone.
Because of the tyranny of separation endured
The nightingale shall speed
Into the rose garden bursting with song.
ARDALAN: He is reading Song of Spring, a poem by the ancient Persian poet Hafez—a poem and a poet that have deep significance at this time of year.
I have vivid childhood memories of my father and my late mother, Laleh, preparing for Nowruz.
She grew seeds into bright green shoots, and he built a fire for us to jump over. We would yell, “Sorkhi-ye to az man, zardi-ye man az to–let your redness be mine and my paleness be yours,” to burn away the bad energy from the past year and welcome the good energy of the New Year.
I was born in San Francisco and raised in Iran. And for me, Nowruz has always been an incredibly meaningful and joyful holiday. We celebrate surrounded by family, young and old, and carry out rituals that connect us to each other, as well as to our past.
Babak Tafreshi, who is also Iranian American, is celebrating Nowruz as well.
National Geographic photographer Babak Tafreshi, thank you so much for joining us.
TAFRESHI: Thank you.
ARDALAN: Eid mobarak.
TAFRESHI: Nowruz mobarak.
ARDALAN: I have so many incredible memories of celebrating Nowruz in Abadan. Can you describe your family’s haft-sin, and maybe I’ll just let the audience know that haft-sin is a ceremonial table where you place seven symbols of spring beginning with the letter “s” in Persian. So you might have an apple, or seeb; you might have garlic, or seer. So tell us about your haft-sin table.
TAFRESHI: So our haft-sin table was like any other family in Iran. But you know, the power of haft-sin table is not only bringing all the family together, but it’s bringing elements which are not really related to any person, any religion, or any belief.
ARDALAN: As you mentioned, Nowruz is a secular holiday in terms of symbols of spring. We had a book of poetry by Hafez, but we also had actually my mom’s translation of the Quran, a gender-neutral translation of the Quran, and that’s what we placed on our Nowruz table.
TAFRESHI: So a lot of cultural diversity in Iran, so depending on your culture root or beliefs, you have a little bit of improvising your haft-sin table. It could be the poems of Hafez or a combination of Hafez and Quran. And sometimes it’s just Quran on the table. For us, it was a mix of the two.
ARDALAN: What was the role of poetry and Nowruz for you?
TAFRESHI: When I was a teenager, I can remember I have completely memorized the Omar Khayyam Rubaiyat—all the poems, because it was so much related to the night sky and astronomy, and that was my deepest connection with Persian poetry.
ARDALAN: Omar Khayyam—who lived in the 11th and 12th centuries—is most famous in the West for being the author of the lyric poem The Rubaiyat. But he was also an influential mathematician and astronomer who helped develop an accurate solar calendar, one that has been in use for nearly a thousand years.
TAFRESHI: For me, myself, I usually have Hafez on the table. We read the poems in the first day of Nowruz. My son, who is now five years old, is fluent in Farsi, and we read a few of these poems by Hafez or Khayyam.
ARDALAN: The connections that Babak makes to the ancient origins of Nowruz stretch all the way back to that springtime trip to Persepolis and the story of the vernal equinox that was told on those walls.
TAFRESHI: I think Nowruz has two unifying powers. One is that Nowruz is unrelated to any religion, race, or belief. It’s simply nature being reborn at the beginning of spring equinox in the Northern Hemisphere. So it could be celebrated by any person from any background, any culture in any country. The second part is Nowruz is not celebrated on different hours of one day. It’s celebrated at one single moment. So this is a moment related to the center of the planet and can be celebrated around the world at exactly the same time.
ARDALAN: While the universality of Nowruz may be evident, the astronomical underpinnings of this ancient holiday are not so widely known.
In ancient Persia, it was crucial to understand the positions of those constellations: Taurus and Leo. That’s because predicting when spring would come in the Northern Hemisphere was serious business, for religious and cultural reasons but also for practical ones.
The role of the astronomer was critical back then, not only in the ways that we determined the seasons, but also in how we built our cities and how we advised our kings and rulers to build. What was the role of the astronomer?
TAFRESHI: As human beings started to leave caves and start agriculture, so from the beginning of [the] agriculture era, humans needed a calendar. The first calendars were just simply following the phases of the moon, while with a solar calendar, if you keep the vernal equinox point as the beginning of your calendar, [it] continues with the change of the seasons, and that was very crucial, essential to ancient civilizations. And in order to follow that, they need people—experts—to do that.
ARDALAN: As we look at the spring equinox in 2022, if we were to have a clear sky and were to look up at the night sky, depending on where we are in the world, would we see the same night sky as Omar Khayyam would so many years ago?
TAFRESHI: So the night sky we are going to see during the spring equinox this year is almost the same as what Khayyam would have seen.
ARDALAN: And what are you looking for in the night sky? Well, think back to what Babak saw carved into the walls in Persepolis: a bull and a lion.
TAFRESHI: At this time of the year in the Northern Hemisphere, where you’re listening to this episode and manage to go outside and have a look at the stars, look to the west in the evening sky after dusk. This row of winter constellations above the horizon, from Orion to Taurus, and next to it is the Pleiades star cluster.
If you have open horizon on the opposite side towards east, look for the iconic constellation Leo, lion. The head of lion looks like a reverse question mark, and there is a brighter star which shows the heart of Leo. And it’s not an easy constellation like Orion to find at the first glance, but with a map or an app, you can easily find it. And that’s the symbol of spring coming to the Northern Hemisphere.
ARDALAN: That’s so fascinating to think that our ancestors a thousand years ago were looking at the same night sky that we will.
SAMIRA ARDALAN (HOST’S DAUGHTER):
If I’ve left the mosque for the tavern,
Don’t complain: the ceremonies stretch on for far too long
And time is short.
Heart, if you deposit today’s joy for tomorrow
You may be left with nothing
For who will guarantee it?
ARDALAN: That’s the voice of my daughter, Samira, who has helped me cook Nowruz feasts since she was a little girl.
In the month before the fast
Drink your fill of wine
For this sun, too, will set
These will be out of sight.
ARDALAN: When we come back, we’ll talk to Babak about what the night sky can teach us—not just about Nowruz, but about our place in the universe.
And I’ll tell you about a new project here on Overheard, where we’ll introduce you to sounds, like the one you’re hearing now, gathered by National Geographic explorers and photographers from around the world.
ARDALAN: As Babak’s curiosity about the universe grew, he became inspired by a muse who would guide his work as a photographer: the night sky.
TAFRESHI: When I started night-sky photography in Iran, I was going to different places around the country because my passion to astronomy and archaeology emerged almost at the same time.
ARDALAN: He began traveling around the world, capturing vistas of ancient places beneath dark, celestial skies. In 2007, he developed a framework for what he saw. He called it “The World at Night.”
TAFRESHI: I was trying to document these landmarks of archaeology, from castles to ruins of a church or a temple or mosque. Viewing this at nighttime is totally different because you feel a connection between Earth and the sky, which is not visible in daytime. You feel like being on a single planet under this galaxy of the stars and you look at your own changing and transient landmarks of civilization, but the eternal sky above us. But another message I realized over time was the sky is like a single unifying roof above all of these. And if you look away from the planet, you see, just see, one single home. That’s why we were doing this project with the slogan of “one people, one sky.”
ARDALAN: One people. One sky. Babak’s project, the World at Night, has mounted dozens of exhibitions by “nightscape” photographers from around the world.
TAFRESHI: The project is currently a group of 40 photographers. They are dedicated to this type of imaging, combining earth and sky in one true photograph.
ARDALAN: Babak’s images are profound. He transports you to a place where the stars appear to be just overhead. As you are absorbed into them, the light around you fades to darkness, and your entire field of vision becomes the sparkling sky or the cloudy streaks of the Milky Way. You’re on Earth, but you’re also a part of what’s out there.
Walk us through what it would mean if more people had an active relationship with the night sky.
TAFRESHI: It’s part of our environment.You look at city skies, and the night sky is almost empty of stars due to light pollution. And that happened around the world. More than two-thirds of human population live in places which is affected by major light pollution. So two-thirds of human population cannot see the night sky. So there is a disconnection with a huge part of the night sky.
That’s why my images are trying to reclaim this forgotten part of nature. There are generations of people, young kids who constantly message me on social media that, are these images real? Do you really see the Milky Way with your own eyes, or it’s just through your camera? Because they have never seen it out there. The Milky Way is visible indeed away from the city light. So this disconnection can be resolved by sending out people to places which dark sky is still preserved.
ARDALAN: Reconnecting with the darkness, and the stars that emerge from it, is a profoundly human experience. It’s that sensation that Babak works to pass along through his photographs.
TAFRESHI: You feel this unique moment as you’re connected not only to Earth but to the entire universe. You forget about all your busy, messy life in daytime, and for some seconds you’re within the entire universe, and I would give anything to experience that some seconds again and again.
ARDALAN: Beautiful. What is it like taking pictures at night?
TAFRESHI: It’s a life-changing experience because you go to these places, which are often busy in daytime with tourists. But now you’re at night, listening to the sounds which most people don’t hear because nocturnal species are now active. And you start to get physically connected to these stars. But I think it’s also very beautiful to have no knowledge of astronomy to start enjoying this. Start to discover the first constellations. They all look like poetry to you.
ARDALAN: According to Babak, once you find yourself beneath a dark sky, it’s easier than ever to capture images of the celestial sphere above you
TAFRESHI: Night-sky photography is very popular nowadays. With the digital camera that can reveal the Milky Way in a few seconds, photographers are finding new hobbies of taking pictures of the stars.
But there are challenges too. One of them is the technical challenge of low-light photography. In general, you need faster lenses, longer exposure, a steady tripod. But more important is you need to plan. You have to get a better understanding of the night sky.
ARDALAN: What advice do you have for people who want to try this at home? Are there applications on smartphones that allow for people who don’t have your background to take an image of the night sky?
TAFRESHI: There are many apps that you can add to your smartphone, generally known as planetarium apps, and they show the night sky above you using GPS coordinates. They know where you’re located. And as you move the phone around the sky, they show where you’re looking at.
ARDALAN: You capture the night sky through your lens, but do you speak to the stars?
TAFRESHI: When I photograph the night sky, I can communicate with the stars. They are like my friends. The night sky is like my second home. Sometimes my wife reminds me it’s my actual first home.
ARDALAN: Iran’s Mount Damavand rises through the center of one of Babak’s photographs. The mountain’s steep slopes glow with white snow, and its iconic, peaked summit is shrouded beneath a wispy cloud. Above that, the stars reach into the deep, indigo sky.
I was raised in the shadow of this mountain. Its presence always reminded me that I was home.
TAFRESHI: To me, this mountain is not only the icon of nature in Iran, but it roots back to my memories in child time. When I started nighttime photography, the slopes of Mount Damavand, that was my favorite location. It was reachable within two hours’ drive from Tehran, my home. From a very light-polluted city of more than 10 million population, I was getting to a place where the Milky Way was spectacularly visible above this majestic mountain, which has so many legendary stories in ancient Persian culture.
ARDALAN: Absolutely. I remember many childhood picnics on Mount Damavand, and if I only knew to have my family stay to watch the night sky.
How do you think science, archaeology, astronomy, and then photography can help remind people of the universality of life, of what is still much beyond our reach, and how it can inspire us to want to turn to it for knowledge?
TAFRESHI: To me, sometimes the night-sky photos is a bridge, is a portal for a general public to science, because science could be very complicated-looking to a general audience. And you need bridges to bring people in connection with science and everyday life. And one of them is art. Connecting art and science can be this bridge.
ARDALAN: The narrow columns of Apadana Palace in Persepolis stretch into the darkness, each one as tall as an eight-story building. But in Babak’s 2009 photo, all the columns appear to hold up is the sky itself.
This photograph depicts a site that was once the grandest in the Persian Empire, where Nowruz celebrations were likely held. Now, even though it’s in ruins, the star trails in the photo tell a deeper story: Persepolis may be dormant, but it is still very much alive.
Let’s go back to Persepolis, but this time you’re visiting as an adult, you’re visiting as a professional photographer. You’re at one of these ancient sites close to Persepolis. Tell us what you’re seeing in the night sky.
TAFRESHI: There are four giant tombs of the Persian kings made inside the cliff. The cliff is about 60 meters high, 180 feet. We didn’t see any stars at the beginning because floodlights on the tombs were on. But then, with our permission, we managed to switch off the lights one by one. As each light was turning off, more and more stars were revealing in the sky to our eyes until it came to a total darkness. And that moment an ocean of stars appeared above them, similar to what the ancient astronomers were looking at: these sites, perhaps, or similar to what Omar Khayyam experienced a thousand years ago. And you feel that ancient astronomer looking at the same thing to mark the calendar for the royal empire.
And you look at this bas-relief of Taurus and Leo, the lion fighting with the bull. Then you start to feel the connection.
ARDALAN: This is Babak’s son, Aban. He is five years old.
ABAN TAFRESHI (BABAK TAFRESHI’S SON):
The rose’s beauty is very dear.
Enjoy its petals while it is here.
As soon as it comes, it is gone.
ARDALAN: As I approach Nowruz this year, I am thinking of Mount Damavand in northern Iran and Babak’s photo of it rising into the stars.
This mountain has always been a kind of cosmic marker for me. It figures prominently in the poet Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh, which tells the mythical origins of Nowruz. But it was also a place that my family would visit towards the end of Nowruz, which, coincidentally, falls right around my birthday.
We would travel to Mount Damavand’s foothills for an early spring picnic, and bring along the greens my mother had planted for our haft-sin table. Placing them into the cold, running waters of the mythical mountain, we hoped to preserve their vitality and keep it with my family throughout the year.
That is the sensation—and significance—of Nowruz. As we take this time to reconnect to the past, to places, and to poetry, and we celebrate nature being reborn, as Babak says, we are also reconnecting to our own place in the universe.
Go outside tonight and see for yourself.
Eide Nowruz mobarak!
I wish you a happy Nowruz and an eide shoma mobarak.
Nowruz shoma mobarak!
Eide shoma mobarak.
Before we go, I wanted to share something new with you. This year we’re pushing our audio explorations even further to the edges of our big, weird, beautiful world. So I’m proud to introduce a new segment called Soundbank: Earth 30 Seconds at a Time. Soundbank brings you the world through the ears of National Geographic explorers and photographers on assignment.
Talking to Babak Tafreshi made me wonder: What does the night sky sound like? He shared this recording he made on his iPhone at a lake in Maine on a still, starry night. So lean in and listen close.
[SOUND OF LOONS CALLING ACROSS THE WATER]
That sound is coming from two loons talking to each other across the lake. Loons are a type of waterbird you’ll find all over the northern U.S. and Canada. Human-made light pollution is dangerous for loons. But when it’s peaceful and dark, the night belongs to the loons, the bugs, and the stars.
Drawing on the captivating adventures and scientific discoveries of National Geographic Explorers and photographers, throughout this year, in addition to seeing the work of these explorers visually through a photograph in the magazine or a video on NatGeo.com, here at Overheard, you’ll be treated to a distinct sound that reveals our audible Earth.
We’ll immerse you in this world, 30 seconds at a time.
So listen out for Soundbank in several episodes of Overheard in 2022.
If you like what you hear and want to support more content like this, please rate and review us in your podcast app and consider a National Geographic subscription. That’s the best way to support Overheard. Go to natgeo.com/explore to subscribe.
The International Dark Sky Association is working to protect our skies from light pollution. They can help you find your way to the starriest viewing on the planet.
As Nowruz approaches, it’s not too late to learn more about Iran’s long history of poets going back to more than 10 centuries.
And if you’d like to create your own haft-sin table, check out these gorgeous examples for inspiration.
All this and more can be found in our show notes. They’re right there in your podcast app.
This week’s Overheard episode is produced by Marcy Thompson.
Our producers are Khari Douglas and Ilana Strauss.
Our senior producers are Brian Gutierrez and Jacob Pinter.
Our senior editor is Eli Chen.
Our manager of audio is Carla Wills, who also edited this episode.
Our fact-checkers are Robin Palmer and Julie Beer.
Our photo editor is Julie Hau.
Ted Woods sound-designed this episode, and it was recorded by Jerry Busher. Hansdale Hsu composed our theme music. Musical composition for this episode, “Nowruz and the Night Sky,” by Barbad Bayat.
"Song of Spring" from Hafez: Dance of Life is translated by Michael Boylan and used with permission from Mage Publishers.
This podcast is a production of National Geographic Partners.
Whitney Johnson is the director of visuals and immersive experiences.
David Brindley is National Geographic’s interim editor in chief.
And I’m Davar Ardalan, executive director of audio. Thanks for listening.
The International Dark Sky Association is working to protect our skies from light pollution. They can help you find your way to the starriest viewing on the planet.
As Nowruz approaches, it’s not too late to learn more about Iran’s long history of poets going back more than 10 centuries.
If you’d like to create your own haft-sin table, check out these gorgeous examples for inspiration.
Babak Tafreshi has published a book of his beautiful night sky photography, The World at Night.
Learn more about how light pollution is affecting our planet through images that Tafreshi captured.