19 February 2004

Columbia University Scholars Compile Encyclopaedia Iranica

Covers history, culture of Persian world from Stone Age to present

By Phyllis McIntosh
Washington File Special Correspondent

Washington -- Iran scholars at Columbia University in New York are in the midst of an anticipated 45-year effort to chronicle the history and culture of the Persian world from the Stone Age to the present.

They are producing a massive reference work called the Encyclopaedia Iranica, which they describe as "the most extensive compendium ever conceived on the past and present culture of the Iranian-speaking peoples and their contribution to the broader history of human civilization."

Already 30 years in the making, the encyclopaedia covers everything from anthropology to mysticism to zoology and encompasses lands throughout Central Asia where Iranian languages are or were spoken. Entries describe virtually every aspect of Iranian life: notable men and women in many fields of endeavor; cities and monuments, both ancient and modern, and industrial structures, from oil installations to major banks; religion, ranging from Zoroastrian scriptures to Jewish shrines to Islamic rituals; literature from Persian classics to modern novels; Persian music and folklore; and the flora and fauna found in the region. Also covered are interactions between the Persian world and other major societies, such as China, Europe, and the United States.

Although the entire encyclopaedia will eventually appear in print, most completed sections already are available free on the Internet at www.iranica.com . The entire work is being published in English in order to reach the widest possible readership.

This ambitious undertaking is the brainchild and consuming passion of Ehsan Yarshater, a widely recognized expert on Persian history, culture, and language who at nearly 84 still reigns as chief editor, overseeing all aspects of the project at Columbia's Center for Iranian Studies.

"As a student I was aware there was no research tool to find answers to some questions," says Yarshater, who holds two doctorates in Persian studies. "When the Encyclopedia of Islam appeared, I thought it might be the answer, but it covered only the Islamic period and Persia has many more years of history prior to the coming of Islam than since. So, when I had the opportunity at Columbia University, I thought perhaps the time had come to fill the gap and produce an encyclopedia that would answer all the questions that may occur to students of Iran in the broad sense and is not confined to the present boundaries of Iran."

Yarshater conceived the idea for an encyclopedia in 1973. After six or seven years of planning, he and his team of editors began soliciting articles from leading scholars around the world and finally published their first volume in 1982. So far, they have issued 11 complete volumes and a portion of the 12th, covering the letter A to midway through the letter H.

"Because this had no precedent, I originally thought I was going to finish in eight volumes," Yarshater says. "But when we were in the third volume and still on letter A, it became apparent that my estimate at the beginning had been far too optimistic. Now with 12 volumes and still in letter H, we can imagine that this will be no less than 30 and more probably 35 volumes."

A recent change in approach should streamline the process considerably, Yarshater notes. "After three leading Iranologists died within three months in 2000, I was afraid we might lose many more people before we come to articles that would fall within their specialty," he says. "So, in order to benefit from their scholarship, we decided to start inviting entries irrespective of alphabetical order, and we publish these articles on the Internet as soon as they are edited. As we progress through the alphabet , we will commit them to print."

Already 160 such articles are up on the website, and Yarshater expects to have more than 1,000 by mid-2005. "I'm hoping that in five or six years it will be possible to have at least all the major articles published on the Internet," he says. "This means that people won't have to wait for articles they are eager to have. Also, in the interval between publishing on the Internet and in print the authors will have a chance to update their articles and improve upon them if they want. And, most important, this will expedite completion of the encyclopaedia." Still, Yarshater expects that it will take another 12 to 15 years to finish the project.

To date, more than 1,200 scholars worldwide have contributed to the encyclopaedia. Entries average 1,000 to 2,000 words but range from a few hundred words to major treatises. One article on the satrapies (provinces) of the ancient Achaemenid Empire, for example, topped out at 18,000 words.

Five in-house editors, all Iranian scholars, work with Yarshater to translate the articles into English if necessary, shape them to the encylopaedia's style, check them for accuracy, and ensure that they cover the subject adequately. The editorial team is assisted by 43 consulting editors, each an expert in one aspect of Iranian studies, who evaluate the articles and help decide what topics to cover. An international committee of eminent scholars from seven countries where Iranian studies flourish - the United States, United Kingdom, Russia, Italy, Japan, France, and Germany-also assist in determining editorial policy.

Up to two-thirds of the encylopaedia's annual budget comes from the National Endowment for the Humanities, an independent federal agency which has supported the project for 24 years. The rest of the funding comes from foundations and individual donors with an interest in Persian heritage or culture.

Yarshater is well on his way to creating a $15 million endowment that will provide support for updates and future editions. "By the time we finish the first edition, a second edition will be necessary," he says. "New books are published, new sites are excavated, new discoveries are made. With the Internet, we can go on bringing all the articles up to date and adding to them, and this could go on almost forever."

Though he officially retired from Columbia in 1990, Yarshater still teaches occasionally, still heads the Center for Iranian Studies, which he founded in 1967, directs a staff of 11, and burns the midnight oil for his beloved encyclopaedia.

"I work all the weekends, all the evenings," he says. "I have to, there is a great deal to do."

(Distributed by the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State. Web site: http://usinfo.state.gov)

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