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FEATURE

ENCYCLOPAEDIA IRANICA

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 about Afghanistan.

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 before Islam.”

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 annual dinners.

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
Iranian scholar 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.”

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