Comprehensive research project about the “Iranian Cultural
Continent” thrives on Riverside Drive
By Shira J. Boss '93
Quietly tucked away in a residential building on Riverside Drive,
just west of the bustle of Broadway and the Morningside Heights
campus, is a sumptuously academic suite of offices with creaking
wood floors, original artwork and an impressive collection of books.
It is the headquarters of one of the most ambitious and longest-running
research projects at the University. From this office, roughly every
two years bubbles forth another volume of the somewhat misleadingly
titled Encyclopaedia Iranica.
The Encyclopaedia doesn’t cover merely Iran, but
in the broadest terms the history, culture and science of all of
the lands that speak or once spoke any Iranian language —
what the editors refer to as the “Iranian cultural continent.”
Geographically, that includes modern-day Iran, parts of the Caucasus,
Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Northwest Pakistan, parts of Uzbekistan,
the Xinkiang region of China, and Kurdish areas that fall in the
three countries of Iran, Iraq and Turkey. It also covers interactions
between these peoples and neighboring regions, including the Arab
world, the Indo-Pakistan subcontinent, Turkic Central Asia, Anatolia
and China, as well as Europe, Russia and the United States. Not
only are branches of Islam covered, but also Christianity, Judaism,
Buddhism, Zoroastrianism and other religions.
“It looks like a pyramid with modern-day Iran at the top,
then the further back in history one goes, the broader the geographic
and subject areas become,” says Hamid Dabashi, chair of the
Middle East and Asian Languages and Cultures department.
In addition to history and politics, the encyclopedia contains
extensive essays on art, literature, religion, philosophy, geography,
customs, architecture, flora and fauna. To give an idea of the depth
within subject area, flora and fauna are not only considered in
terms of botany and zoology, but in terms of the uses of plants
and animals in folklore and popular medicine. Thirty-eight languages
and dialects have been covered thus far, with explanations of the
grammar and sample vocabularies. Various calendars and festivals
are catalogued; the stars and constellations are explored as astronomy,
astrology and folklore. Clothing through the eras and across provinces
is described, not just the style but the material, and not just
the cloth but the actual weaving. The clothing entry contains 28
articles. Entries extend right up to present-day topics, including
Iranian cinema, ecology and feminist movements. The encyclopedia
was used by journalists and others following 9-11 to learn more
A peer reviewer from the National Endowment for the Humanities,
which largely funds the project, called the encyclopedia “undoubtedly
one of the greatest research projects of our time.” Another
reviewer wrote that it “can fairly be compared in scope to
the human genome project.”
At the helm of the project since he founded it in 1974 is Ehsan
Yarshater, an eminent Iranian scholar with dignity and dedication
that place him in the elite of the University’s academic community.
Yarshater serves as director of Columbia’s Center for Iranian
Studies, which he founded in 1967. He is also the Hagop Kevorkian
Professor Emeritus of Iranian Studies and a special senior lecturer
at the University, and was chair of the Department of Middle East
and Asian Languages and Cultures from 1968–73.
Yarshater conceived the encyclopedia in 1973 when he became frustrated
that he could not send his students to any one reliable and comprehensive
source for their research on topics related to Iranian culture and
history. “The Encyclopedia of Islam is a good source
and does cover Islamic Persia up to a certain extent, but not fully
or adequately,” he says. “Most of Persian history is
With the University’s backing and initial support from the
Iranian government — until the revolution in 1979, after which
the NEH started funding it generously — Yarshater started
at the letter A and solicited entries from scholars around the world.
Although some entries were not originally written in English, all
are translated into English for publication. The first volume, with
285 contributors, came out in 1981. Twenty-two years later, the
set extends to the letter H. The project has five full-time editors,
43 consulting editors from different disciplines and countries,
nearly 1,000 contributors so far, and an annual budget — with
economizing — of more than one-half million dollars.
The NEH, which usually supports projects for one to six years,
has supported the Encyclopaedia Iranica for 24 consecutive
years, making it one of the longest-supported projects. It also
is one of the most generously supported, with grants of about $750,000
for two years. The American Council of Learned Societies and the
International Union of Academies have also supported the project.
The rest of the budget is made up by private fund raising, including
One of the most generous supporters has been Yarshater himself,
who works as the editor on a voluntary basis. Realizing that a successor
would not be able to work without compensation, and wanting to ensure
the project’s completion, in 1990 Yarshater established the
Encyclopaedia Iranica Foundation to help support it. In addition,
he has contributed to the Persian Heritage Foundation, a separate
private foundation that has regularly helped the Encyclopaedia
and the Center for Iranian Studies. Yarshater donated to the Persian
Heritage Foundation his personal collection of rare books, which
includes a first edition of James Joyce’s Ulysses,
one of only 750 copies on hand-made paper, as well as first editions
of the works of Dickens, Eliot, Faulkner, Hemingway, Pound, Twain
and Steinbeck, among many others, and works illustrated by Chagall,
Matisse and Picasso. The collection was auctioned in 2000 at Christie’s
and raised $422,000. Yarshater also has made a bequest of his personal
library of more than 7,000 volumes and half as many off-prints,
which he continually updates, to the Encyclopaedia. With
his personal example, Yarshater has convinced the consulting editors
to serve without payment.
“From what I have seen and heard in the field, the dedicated
scholars working with Dr. Yarshater on this project are involved
in this project as a labor of love and dedication to a monumental
project whose impact will last for generations,” states a
reviewer for the NEH. (Comments from NEH evaluations are made available
on an anonymous basis.)
Ehsan Yarshater is director of Columbia's Center for Iranian
Studies and has headed the Encyclopaedia Iranica
project (blue volumes in background) since its inception
in 1974. (Photo: Peter Kang '05)
Recently, changes were made in the way the encyclopedia is compiled.
Before, entries were solicited in the order of the alphabet and
volumes were published when completed, then the editors moved on
to the next letter. But a couple years ago, three major Iranists
died within a span of six months. “What a pity,” Yarshater
thought to himself. “I should have asked them to write what
they knew best and we would publish it later.” Instead, their
scholarship was lost to the encyclopedia. Yarshater realized that
the problem would only compound, especially given the length of
the project, which is anticipated to run about 50 years in total.
“By the time we reach letter M, half of the people teaching
today will be dead,” Yarshater laments.
So in January of last year, he sent out a mass request to potential
contributors. “We asked all of the top scholars to write about
what they know best and what coincides with their current interest,”
Yarshater says. No matter where the subject matter falls in the
alphabet, the entry is edited and published online (www.iranica.com).
Supplemental entries on topics that fall in earlier volumes also
are being published online.
While those entries are coming in and being posted, work on the
traditional volumes continues, and will move along more quickly,
as now gaps are being filled rather than having to build all of
the entries from scratch. Still, for some entries, the globe needs
to be scoured for an authority. “How many experts are there
on branding animals in Persia?” Yarshater asks by example.
“We sometimes spend months finding an expert.” And many
topics require several. “Nobody is an expert on ceramics for
all periods,” Yarshater says. “So we have 15 articles
from different contributors.”
Contributors include experts on the experts. There are entries
on major historians who have worked in Iranian studies, with their
backgrounds and a full bibliography of their works. Indeed, all
articles have extensive bibliographies, including the most recently
published research and sometimes even research in progress.
The physical process of compiling the entries and digitizing existing
volumes is improving, with challenges. Scanning technology has been
helpful, but every word still needs to be checked. The editors use
a custom-made keyboard with 256 characters to handle the various
languages. They hope to produce a fully-searchable online encyclopedia
and also a CD-ROM version. Online and digital versions undoubtedly
extend the encyclopedia’s reach and value.
“Americans readily acknowledge the centrality of the region
to their national interests and national security. Yet, few Americans
know much, if anything, about it,” wrote an NEH peer evaluator.
“The availability of such a comprehensive resource is a giant
stride toward sweeping away curtains of ignorance as well as advancing
our understanding of a crucible of human history.”