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How the New Year Was Celebrated in Alexander the Great’s Empire

Alexander the great painting
How the New Year Was Celebrated in Alexander the Great’s Empire. Credit: Public Domain

Celebrating the arrival of the New Year is a popular custom around the world, as it has been for thousands of years. We find the same basic celebration—although expressed in different ways—in various ancient cultures.

In Greece itself, there is limited evidence for New Year festivals. However, among the nations encompassed by Alexander the Great’s empire, there are many examples.

In 334 BCE, Alexander the Great, the son of Philip II of Macedon, clashed against the Persian Empire. By the time of his death in 323 BCE, he had conquered the Balkans, Anatolia, Egypt, and the entire Middle East as far as India.

Within this enormous empire, there was a huge variety of cultures. What were some of the most notable New Year celebrations within this vast territory?

New Year celebrations in Egypt

Ancient Egypt Archaelogical Site
Ancient Egypt Archaelogical Site. Credit: Ville Pohjanheimo / Flickr CC BY-NC 2.0

When the Greeks took over Egypt, they did not interfere very much with the native culture. Alexander the Great even styled himself ‘Pharaoh’ of the country. The festivals that had already existed there for thousands of years continued mostly undisturbed during the era of Greek rule.

The Roman historian Censorinus provides us with some insight into the Egyptian New Year. Their New Year occurred in mid-July since the Egyptians did not use the same calendar as that of today. To the Egyptians, the start of the New Year transpired when the brightest star in the sky, Sirius, was visible again after not having been seen for seventy days.

Planet Jupiter, second brightest star
Credit: Jordan Condon / wikimedia Commons CC BY 3.0

While this was likely important for astrological reasons, the appearance of Sirius also happened to roughly coincide with the annual Nile flooding. This flooding was hugely significant to Egyptian culture. The fertility of the fields was dependent on it.

Hence, to the Egyptians, the start of the New Year was important for both practical and religious reasons. This occasion was marked by celebration, feasting, and religious rites. The festival was called Wepet Renpet.

New Year celebrations in Babylon

Hanging Gardens of Babylon
A hand-coloured engraving, probably made in the 19th century after the first excavations in the Assyrian capitals, depicts the fabled Hanging Gardens, with the Tower of Babel in the background. Credit: Public Domain

Alexander the Great especially admired Babylon. It had historically been a large, powerful city and the center of an empire. Although it had declined since its peak, he wanted to revive it and make it his capital. This plan was never fulfilled, however, and Babylon declined into insignificance.

For this reason, it may be that Babylon no longer had a New Year’s festival by the end of the Greek period in the area. We can nevertheless be sure that during the time of Alexander the Great himself, their New Year’s festival was in place. It was called Akitu.

This festival occurred in spring since the beginning of the Babylonian calendar was a month called Nisannu. It corresponded roughly to the time period lasting from the second half of March to the first half of April.

Much like the Egyptian equivalent, the Babylonian New Year marked an occasion of practical importance. It marked the harvest—not the sowing, despite what some modern sources say—of barley, which was agriculturally significant.

This New Year festival also involved reading a poem called “Enūma Eliš.” The poem described the rise to power of Marduk, the chief Babylonian god. The king and the priests performed various other religious rites as well.

Interestingly, the Babylonians had a location called ‘the house of the New Year,’ which was north of the city of Babylon itself. It was presumably a temple of some kind. Clearly, the New Year was very important to the Babylonians.

New Year celebrations in Phrygia

Asia minor map during Greco-Roman period
Asia minor map during Greco-Roman period. Credit: caliniuc / wikimedia commons CC BY-SA 4.0

One of the most significant groups in what is now Turkey were the Phrygians. They had been the most powerful nation of that region for some time but had declined considerably by the time of Alexander the Great. Even so, they had by no means disappeared completely.

Most famously, Alexander the Great cut what was known as the Gordian Knot when he passed through Anatolia on his way to Persia. This knot was said to have been in the temple of Sabazios, one of the chief gods of the Phrygians, which goes to show that the Phrygian religion was still active in the time of Alexander the Great.

The Gordian Knot was supposedly a real knot that was extremely intricate and difficult to loosen, according to a Greek legend.

The Phrygians celebrated the New Year by honoring the god Attis. He was the god of vegetation. Like the Babylonians, the Phrygians began their year in the spring at around the time of the harvest. It therefore makes sense that they would dedicate this time to the god of vegetation.

Specifically, they honored his death and subsequent resurrection. The appearance of vegetation in the spring, particularly in the sense of the crops being ready for the harvest, logically symbolized his resurrection. Nevertheless, scholars know very little about what this festival involved.

New Year celebrations in Phoenicia

Europa and Zeus in the form of Bull
Europa, the Princess of Phoenicia, is kidnapped by Zeus in the form of a bull. Credit: Following Hadrian/ Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 2.0

From the perspective of the ancient Greeks, Phoenicia was one of the most prominent places in the Levant. Alexander the Great’s conquest of this region is famously characterized by his dramatic siege of Tyre.

After taking that city, the rest of Phoenicia fell into his hands without any real trouble. The Greeks allowed the Phoenicians to retain their culture, so their religious festivals generally continued uninterrupted throughout the period of Greek rule.

Much like the Babylonians and the Phrygians, the Phoenicians began their year in the spring. However, rather than linking it to the harvest, the Phoenicians seem to have connected the New Year to the spring equinox.

Like the Phrygians, the Phoenicians associated this festival with the resurrection of a god. In the Phoenician festival, certain officials were tasked with performing rituals to resurrect Melqart, one of their chief gods. This New Year festival also probably involved feasting.

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