Iran Scholar, at 91, Puts In 11-Hour Days on Encyclopedia

by Anna Spinner
vol. 36, no. 12

For years, Iranian studies scholar Ehsan Yarshater was frustrated that there was only one comprehensive and reliable reference for his field. It was E.J. Brill’s Encyclopaedia of Islam, which did not cover pre-Islamic Iran.

Professor Ehsan Yarshater discusses the challenges of compiling the Encyclopaedia Iranica in his book-lined office. (Image credit: Eileen Barroso/Columbia University)
Professor Ehsan Yarshater discusses the challenges of compiling the Encyclopaedia Iranica in his book-lined office.
Image credit: Eileen Barroso/Columbia University

Another encyclopedia was needed, so he decided to create it himself. In 1974, Yarshater began a decades-long work-in-progress that is widely considered the most important scholarly contribution to Iranian studies. And it’s only half complete.

“I thought that Persian history and culture needed to be known by the scholars and the students and the whole world properly, impartially and accurately,” says Yarshater, the 91-year-old director of Columbia’s Center for Iranian Studies, the Hagop Kevorkian Professor Emeritus of Iranian Studies and the general editor of both the Encyclopaedia Iranica and the History of Persian Literature.

The Encyclopaedia Iranica aims to document all aspects of the Iranian world from prehistory to the present. Entries range from archaeology and agriculture to political science and botany. Geographic coverage includes all Iranian civilization in the Middle East, the Caucasus, Central Asia and the Indian subcontinent.

But the very scale of the project is one of its greatest challenges. After 37 years of work and contributions from 1,400 of the world’s foremost Iranian scholars, the encyclopedia this year is only halfway through the letter K. With about 800 scattered entries later in the alphabet completed, the encyclopedia has at least another decade to go. All entries are available for free online.

Yarshater works 11-hour days at the Center for Iranian Studies, which he founded in 1968. Sitting in his Riverside Drive office crowded with towering bookcases and Persian art, he explains why the work is so time-consuming. Contributors write in various languages, and between research, translation, editing and fact-checking, an entry can take up to two years for completion.

Originally from the city of Hamadan (formerly Ekbatana) in Iran, Yarshater has two doctorates in Iranian studies, from the Universities of Tehran and London. He has authored or edited such seminal works as Persian Poetry in the Second Half of the 15th Century (1953) and the third volume of the Cambridge History of Iran, in two parts (1983, 1986). But he says the encyclopedia stands out from all the rest.

“In terms of its service to Iranian studies and in terms of its use and its benefits, it’s the best thing that I have done,” says Yarshater, a widower who considers the encyclopedia and other projects his children.

The National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) has supported the project for more than 30 years. NEH reviewers, experts in the field who anonymously evaluate a project for funding, have called Encyclopaedia Iranica the “best impartial, non-governmental, and academically rigorous source” in the study of Iran.

The NEH grants were especially useful after the Iranian government, once a financial supporter of the project, cut off funding after the 1979 revolution. “I approached the chairman of the national endowment … to ask for support, even though it was during the hostage crisis, as I believed that scholarly projects should not be taken hostage for political considerations,” Yarshater says.

The reference tool is useful to scholars at all levels, says Professor Touraj Daryaee of the University of California, Irvine, who teaches the history of pre-Islamic Iran. He uses it himself, and it’s the first place he sends his students.

“There are about 100 or more encyclopedias being written or in progress on Iran right now, but I don’t think anything is really of the importance and scope of Encyclopaedia Iranica,” he says.

Like many of the leaders in the field, Daryaee has contributed a few entries himself.

Even the most esoteric subjects get the full treatment. One example is animal branding, or dagh. Without any scholarship to rely on, Encyclopaedia Iranica had to do its own fieldwork. “I asked a friend in Iran, and he sent someone to southeastern Persia where there are lots of camels to find out about how they are branded,” says Yarshater.

Once the first edition is complete, the work will continue. Entries written in the 1970s will need updating, and new ones will be needed to keep pace with historical developments and recent research.

“That is why I have set up a foundation to support the project after me,” says Yarshater.

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