Encyclopaedia Iranica is the ultimate source on all things
By Davood N. Rahni
March 12, 2001
Have you ever encountered a scenario when you were asked to provide
a detailed explanation of a historical incident, certain artifacts, a musical
piece, or a scientific breakthrough pertaining to Iran, yet didn't have
the comprehensive verified reference compendium to develop your specific
convincing response? Well, you would be thrilled to realize that there
is no more confusion as Encyclopaedia
Irancia is resolving this dilemma.
Housed at Columbia University's Center for Iranian Studies, the Encyclopædia
Iranica has been progressing under the supervision of its founder, Professor
Ehsan Yarshater since 1974. The encyclopædia is a monumental undertaking
with historical ramifications that covers the past 3,000 years of life
in its broadest sense on the Iranian plateau. It has been regarded by great
many scholars as the most extensive compendium ever conceived on the past
and present cultures of the people who speak a Persian/Iranian language
and their contributions to human civilizations.
In fact, it is a prime, precise and reliable reference on the lands,
lives, cultures, science and history of all Iranian peoples and their interaction
with other societies. At first glance, it may seem a rhetorical and redundant
question; nonetheless, the simple perpetual paradigm that promotes, and
protects peoples of common cultural heritage is the sustained recognition
of their contributions throughout history by others to the advancement
the world civilization, leading to the preservation of their cultural identity.
Even though pockets of peoples of Iranian/Persian heritage have moved
out of the Iranian plateau to Eastern Europe, India, Arabia and Southeast
Africa since antiquity, it is, nevertheless, in the latter part of the
twentieth century when a substantial number of Iranians immigrated to the
West, mostly to North American and Europe. This move was mainly due to
the abrupt socio-political changes in their native land. It is estimated
that the number of such Iranians in diaspora stands at a few millions,
with most residing in the U.S. and Canada. Their life yearning quest is
the same as any other visionary immigrant population -- to secure a far
better life for their children than what they themselves have endured in
their mother country.
Recognizing that language and culture are integrated throughout history,
the use of one of the dialects from the family of Iranian Languages is
the main commonality that ties historical and contemporary peoples residing
form Northern India, Aral and Caspian regions, to the Persian Gulf, Asia
Minor and Mesopotamian territories. In order, however, for such diverse
people to learn, register, and appreciate their commonalties and contributions,
and to also ensure that the rest of the world would also recognize such
endeavors, there is an overdue need and merit for making available a set
of documented tools.
Having been an active participant in the advancement of cultural and
community-based agendas of our people in the U.S. in particular, I could
not envisage any other showcase of historical significance and pride but
the Iranica to achieve the aforementioned objectives.
When Professor Yarshater was asked to share his initial motivation for
the encyclopædia, he reminisced about his days as a student. "There
were times, then, when we students wanted to find detailed but concise
and verified information about a certain specific aspect of Iranian culture,
beyond the ordinary stories of certain Persian dynasties covered in history
textbooks. Well, I soon realized we had no single comprehensive source
of information on Iran, similar to Encyclopaedia Britannica or Americana.
The dream became a reality in the mid-70's when in cooperation with an
ever-growing number of Iranologists, we began Encyclopaedia Iranica."
The Iranica project aims to complete a peer-reviewed set of twenty-
eight reference books, ten of which have already been published. It is
intended to benefit scholars, students, and general readers alike with
keen special interests in Iran, by providing a medium that each person
of Persian/Iranian heritage would be proud to possess.
Regarded as a treasurer-trove of knowledge, it encompasses from biographies
of notable men and women in every field to descriptions of all Iranian
cities and monuments (ancient and modern), from oil installations to major
banks, from Zoroastrian scriptures to Islamic rituals, to Jewish shrines,
from Persian classics to modern novels, from Iranian flora and fauna to
Persian music and folklore, from philosophy, mysticism and Persian calligraphy
to Persian and Afghan architecture, from history of science and medicine
to economy and ecology.
According to Dr. Mohsen Kashef, senior assistant editor of the Iranica,
who has been associated with the project for twenty-five years, it usually
takes a long peer-reviewed process of up to three years to ensure accuracy
and adequacy of an article before it is published in a specific volume.
Over 900 scholars have thus far cooperated with Iranica.
Iranian linguists, historians and archaeologists from a great many universities,
museums, and institutions have actively participated in the development
of the encyclopædia. Professor Peter Avery of Cambridge for instance,
called it very unique for the Middle Eastern, African and Latin American
nations, and compared it to Encyclopaedia Britannica.
Dr. Prudence Harper, the director of Near Eastern Arts at the New York
Metropolitan Museum of Arts, refers to the scope of the project as reaching
far beyond the current borders of Iran, comprising cultural interactions
with neighboring nations as well as European countries and the U.S.
Peter Chelkowsky, professor of Iranian languages and cultures at New
York University, regards the Iranica as a comprehensive source of information
about every possible subject pertaining to the past and present of Iran,
in which no aspect of life in Iranian and related cultures is overlooked.
Dr. Ahmad Ashraf, Iranica's managing editor, has said that sustained
efforts are underway to make the Iranica website fully interactive. Seven
volumes of the encyclopaedia are already accessible online; the three latest
volumes will also be available soon.
The U.S. National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), the foremost sponsor
of educational, academic and research projects, has supported the Iranica
for twenty-two years. However, to ensure the completion of this monumental
work, the Encyclopaedia Iranica Foundation was established in 1989. Tax-exempt
donations can either be made directly to this foundation, or through Columbia
University's Development Office.
Fundraising efforts are steered by Dr. Akbar Ghahary, treasurer of the
foundation. Dr. Ghahary, CEO of New Jersey based SAFAS Corporation who
is recognized in the Iranian community as a generous philanthropist of
many noble causes, cited a multitude of ways by which a person might contribute
toward the full realization of Encyclopaedia Iranica:
-- To send an email (email@example.com)
or to complete the online or print application to serve as the cultural
steward for the Iranica.
-- Annual, monthly or a one-time tax-exempt monetary donation.
-- Sponsorship of a volume with a specified name or names as the benefactor(s).
-- Recommendation to academic, research, corporate and municipal libraries
for acquisition of the volumes.
-- A lump sum contribution earmarked to the foundation's endowment fund.
-- One-for-one, or one-for-two corporate matching of employee contributions
by one's employers.
-- Estate designation and bond donation before capital gain taxes.
-- Recommendation to online media and organizations to include a URL
link to Iranica web site.
-- Fundraising for the encyclopædia at Persian related cultural
or scholarly forums.
Visit the Iranica website periodically, and complete the Cultural Stewardship
Application or simply send an email to this author or the contact person
below to offer your willingness to provide a few monthly hours of your
time to promote the Iranica. For more information on Encyclopædia
Iranica (acquisition, donation, gala, or becoming a cultural steward),
please contact Sayeh Saidi at (212)
Davood N. Rahni, Ph.D. is a professor of chemistry at Pace University
in New York. He also serves as an adj. professor in environmental law and