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Encyclopaedia Iranica is the ultimate source on all things Iranian

By Davood N. Rahni
March 12, 2001
The Iranian

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 ( 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) 851-5723.


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 dermatology.

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