Barekendan: An Iranian-Armenian Festival of Fasting

Madi Jahangir – The big bowl of Ash on the breakfast table is a dish made of different herbs and beans. The breakfast table is decorated with Ash and other delicious food and fresh Iranian bread as colorful as possible. A night before the month of fasting begins, the family and relatives sit around such a table together regardless of their social class, wealth and position. They are all equal under the watchful eyes of God. They’ve started fasting a day before to celebrate start of the holy month. But no, this is not story of an Iranian muslim family. It is Barekendan, an old Armenian festival that Iranian Armenians celebrate it together with their Muslim fellow citizens.

Iranian Armenians are Iranian citizens of Armenian origin, mainly live in Tehran, Isfahan and Azerbaijan province. They are one of the most powerful and influential Iranian minorities and the largest Christian community in Iran. Iran remains one of the Armenia’s major trade partners and helped ease the hardships of sanctions on Armenia by its neighboring countries. However many Iranian-Armenians do not hold an Armenian citizenship.

After centuries living in Iran, they have become quite mixed with the Iranian culture and society. They maintain their own schools, clubs and churches and many of them served in the Iranian army, died during Iran-Iraq war and considered martyrs by the Iranian government. They are appointed two seats in the Iranian parliament and are the only minority with an official observing status in Iran’s Guardian and Expediency Discernment Councils . But the co-existence between Muslims and Armenians is not only political. The mutual cultural exchange has gone far enough to Iranian new year, the mourns in the month of Muharram, charity works and celebrations for the beginning of the month of fasting.

Barekendan which means “good living” or “good life” is a call for being happy and joyfull on the days preceding the fasting period. In Armenian texts, on the days of Barekendan the angel’s words addressed to prophet Elijah are fulfilled: “ Arise and eat, otherwise the journey will be too great for you.” But some also suggest that this festival is an Armenian festival rather than Christian, related to the before Christ period in Armenia.

In the past, Iranians used to celebrate the last days of the month of Sha’ban in the Islamic calendar. The celebrations would mark the beginning of Ramadan as the month of fasting and would be held from 7 to 10 days. Last day of the festival aka last day of the month of Sha’ban was Barekendan. The celebrations were much bigger and glorious in the past. Armenians in the city of Arak, the capital of Markazi province held a carnival and the kids wore masks and special bride and groom outfits. They would go to the houses of Armenians for the feast. The host welcomed them with sweets and smile and paid charity to the city’s Armenian club. In Tehran, the children gathered in the houses of Armenians of Narmak and in Isfahan’s Julfa, they held ballmasque festival and some of the participants wore masks.

Nowadays Barkendan is not as popular as before but for those Iranian Christians and Muslims who fast during the holy month of Ramadan, the happiness prevails around the colorful breakfast tables and with the promise of a good life based on mutual respect and understanding. They “arise and eat” together, so that “the journey will not be too great” for them.

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