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Although some researchers criticise the trending celebration of the Syrian new year, many others consider it the oldest recorded holiday in the history of the Near East.
The origin of the Syrian New Year’s Akitu celebration has sparked controversy, accompanied by debates fueled by history and religion. The validity of the ritual is disputed as it is not widely celebrated locally, and its relevance is not generally accepted by academia.
Some would argue that the celebration of the Syrian New Year is useless. Among them is Bachar Khalif, a history researcher specialising in the Mashriq. Khalif says celebrating Akitu “stems from nostalgia and an attempt to escape the present.”
Origins of Akitu
Akitu, which marks the Assyrian and Babylonian New Year, is observed starting 1 April and lasts 12 days. The Akkadians and Chaldeans have also celebrated the holiday. Dr Joseph Zeitoun, an expert in ecclesiology and Syrian history, considers Akitu “the oldest recorded holiday in the history of the Near East.”
The earliest reference to this holiday dates back to 2500 BC in Ur. According to Syrian Researchers, it was “held for the Sumerian moon god Nanna.” For the Babylonians, it chronicled the god Marduk‘s victory over the goddess Tiamat.
During the Babylonian era, the first four days were traditionally reserved for religious rituals. The Babylonians used to offer prayers and sacrifices and recite Enuma Elish, the Babylonian epic of creation. The remaining days would include social and political rituals.
According to researcher Khazal al-Majidi, the Sumerians observed this holiday on 21 March every year, marking the start of the Sumerian year. On the other hand, Semitic peoples, such as the Akkadians, Babylonians and Assyrians, celebrated Akitu on 1 April.
There is no consensus among historians on the exact meaning of the word Akitu. However, al-Majidi details his theory in the books Sumer Corpus and Prehistoric Religions and Beliefs.
According to al-Majidi, the word Akitu is the name of the feast and the place where the celebrations were held. The word appeared in late Sumerian texts as “a – ki – it.”
The word is believed to be of Sumerian origin. The sign “a” means rain, “ki” means earth, and “ti” is a verb meaning to draw near. It, thus, roughly translates to drawing water closer to the earth.
According to Dr Jamil M. Shaheen, numerous ancient scriptures mention the name. For instance, the holiday bears the name “Akitu” in Aramaic, “Akiti-šununum” in Sumerian, “Resha d-Sheta” in Akkadian and “Kha b-Nisan” in Assyrian. Resha d-Sheta and Kha b-Nisan are often used in the Levant to mean “head of the year” and “first of April,” respectively.
On the other hand, Dr Mahmoud Hussein al-Amin pointed out in his book Akitu, or the Babylonian New Year’s Festivities and the Doctrine of Immortality and Resurrection that the celebrations were held at a specific location known as the House of Celebrations or “Akitu,” which was outside the city.
In ancient beliefs, the “Akitu House” refers to the gods’ dwelling on earth. The purpose of the feast is “to celebrate the gods choosing to temporarily reside in this city, and the purpose of this house is to guard and cherish that moment forever.”
The Syrian Calendar and April Fool’s
Dr Zeitoun believes it is more accurate to call the calendar starting on 1 April Syrian rather than Assyrian since all in Syria and Mesopotamia adopted it. He also thinks that the ancient Syrian year begins on 1 April and that “this calendar was present in multiple Syrian civilisations, including the kingdoms of Ugarit, Ebla, Mari, Palmyra and Damascus. Until the early 20th century, Syrians traditionally began their year on 1 April but transitioned to the Western calendar during the period of the French mandate.
According to Zeitoun, the rituals of the Syrian New Year are linked to April Fool’s. Rituals aimed at “humbling the king” starting from the fifth day of the celebrations. Lying was part of the celebrations, as the king would abdicate his throne in favour of a criminal sentenced to death. Enslaved people became masters, and people disguised themselves in costumes and masks to hide their identities until they awoke from the lie the next morning.”
Hanna Soumi, head of the Syriac Cultural Association in Syria, said, “After the common folk occupies the king’s throne, he blends in with the people incognito. Chaos ensues in Babylon, and on 1 April, the king is found, and joy prevails. And that is the origin of April Fool’s Day. The king did not truly disappear; it was but a charade.”
Dr Shaheen said, “Until 1564 AD, the Syrian calendar was adopted in most countries. In France, celebrations started on 21 March and ended on 1 April, just as the Assyrians and Babylonians did thousands of years ago.” After King Charles IX adopted the new Gregorian calendar, “celebrations began on 25 December and ended on 1 January, the beginning of the New Year.” However, the public continued to celebrate on 1 April and became the target of mockery by the nobility for believing in April Fool’s Day.
Historical Merit or a Fleeting Trend
In response to an opinion piece about the marginalisation of this holiday as part of “a systemic battle against ancient civilisations,” Dr Shaheen noted that “this prohibition has continued until recently. Different regimes and religious figures prohibited it because it is a pagan feast and has rituals, prayers and texts that offend the followers of the monotheistic religions.”
He added that “Akitu is witnessing a renaissance among the Assyrian, Chaldean and Syriac communities abroad, particularly as a result of religious freedom.” Will Akitu return, or is it merely a trend that will fade?