In 1958, professor Ehsan Yarshater began teaching at Columbia University in New York. He was part of a generation of Iranian academics who sought training in the West.
He was always concerned about the difficulty of finding comprehensive, accurate and precise sources on Iran's ancient civilization — let alone find them in English.
"I had this ideal in my mind," Yarshater tells NPR, "that there would be an encyclopedia which would respond to all possible legitimate questions about Iran and its history and its civilization."
He aimed for an encyclopedia that would cover Iran's ancient civilization up to its present days. There would be no quick summaries, no hearsay, no instant takes.
"For each topic, we should choose absolutely, the best scholar in the entire world," says Yarshater.
The project began in 1974. The professor has called upon almost 1,500 contributors, who have composed more than 6,000 encyclopedia entries.
"I do not believe that any other country — that I know — has gone for such an extensive and vast project," Yarshater says.
The project is so extensive that in 37 years, he and his team have reached only the letter K.
Setting A High Bar
One of the contributors to this project is professor Ahmad Karimi-Hakkak, director of the Roshan Center for Persian Studies at the University of Maryland. In an interview with NPR's Jacki Lyden, he recalls his first reaction to Yarshater's project: "This man is thinking the impossible."
"As a scholar, he has a universal mind," Karimi-Hakkak says. "He has the kind of brain that can accommodate everything from linguistics to literature to social sciences and to every aspect of Iran."
He says the vastness of the project is a tribute to Yarshater's vision. "He has set the bar so high that we all have to run to catch up to his standards, and the kind of quality he demands of every one of us."
Separating Myth From Fact
Every entry in the Encyclopaedia Iranica requires a long and intense process of research, documentation and editing. Secondary sources are often biased, says Karimi-Hakkak, depending on the past and present political leanings of Iranian governments. He says the Encyclopaedia Iranica aims to set the record straight.
Karimi-Hakkak was tasked with writing the entry about a 20th century poet, Farroki Yazdi, who is famously known among Iranians as the man whose lips were sewn by government authorities.
As Karimi-Hakkak investigated the incident, he found that he couldn't verify this kind of government action — and in fact there was documentation indicating it never happened.
"So the sewing of the lips was really a metaphor that had turned, in the popular imagination, into a real actual literal sewing of the lips," says Karimi-Hakkak.
The encyclopedia published his entry, and he immediately got letters from colleagues in Iran imploring him to double-check his sources. He even received a letter saying, even if this didn't happen, he shouldn't have mentioned it. "Because it illustrates censorship, the violence of it so vividly, that regardless of whether it happened or not people need mythology," says Karimi-Hakkak.
Teaching Future Generations
Karimi-Hakkak teaches Persian literature to students at the University of Maryland. With the Internet at their fingertips, he requires only reputable sources, such as the Encyclopaedia Iranica.
"The level of detail the Encyclopaedia Iranica goes into is simply unprecedented," he says.
As research grows to be more sophisticated, the encyclopedia is one source that future generations will continue to seek out and appreciate, he says.
"This is a project ahead of its time."
Yarshater serves as the editor of Encyclopaedia Iranica and is the director of Columbia University's Center for Iranian Studies.
At 91, he has chosen his replacements, but he still works 12-hour days.
He used to rest for an hour after lunch but he says he can't do that anymore. There is far too much work to do.
JACKI LYDEN, host: This is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden; Michel Martin is away. Coming up, the Berenstain Bears have taught children moral lessons for 50 years. Now, the famous bear family is helping the American Indian Sioux learn their native language, Lakota. That's in just a few more minutes.
First, though, we turn to the story of one man and one ambitious project, the Encyclopaedia Iranica. Professor Ehsan Yarshater came to teach at Columbia University in 1958, part of the outmigration of Iranian academics trained in the West. A decade later, he founded the Center for Iranian Studies at Columbia.
He was always concerned with just how hard it was to find what he calls comprehensive, accurate and precise sources on Iran's ancient civilization. So almost single-handedly- at first - the classics professor decided to change all that. Still working at Columbia, this is professor Yarshater, now 91 years old, talking about his glorious idea.
EHSAN YARSHATER: I had these ideas in my mind that there would be an encyclopedia, which would respond to all possibilities and questions about Iran, and its history and its civilization.
LYDEN: An encyclopedia about Iran that will respond to all possible questions of its several-thousand-year-old civilization, up to the present. No quick summaries, no hearsay, no instant take. This is not Wikipedia. This would be a definitive text, with each entry thoroughly documented.
YARSHATER: For each topic, we should choose absolutely the best scholars in the entire world.
LYDEN: The project began in 1974, and throughout nearly four decades, the professor has called upon almost 1,500 contributors who've composed well over 6,000 encyclopedia entries, all of them in English.
YARSHATER: I do not believe that any other country that I know has gone for such an extensive and involved project.
LYDEN: So extensive that after 37 years, the contributors to Encyclopaedia Iranica have reached the letter K. So we turned to one of the younger colleagues who's worked on the Encyclopaedia Iranica, professor Ahmad Karimi-Hakkak. He heads the Roshan Center for Persian Studies at the University of Maryland.
Welcome to the show.
AHMAD KARIMI-HAKKAK: Thank you.
LYDEN: So you have contributed to this. You've been a close friend of professor Yarshater for many decades. Tell us, what do you think drives him, and what did you think when he first brought this idea to you?
KARIMI-HAKKAK: You know, what I thought was, this man is thinking the impossible. The impossible became more impossible with the Iranian Revolution, and yet this man just pressed on. And, as you say, today it's almost halfway there. And he has exercised such meticulous care that it's really amazing on the one hand, and just admirable on another.
You know, as a scholar, he has a universal mind. He has the kind of brain that can accommodate everything from linguistics to literature to social sciences, and to every aspect of Iran. So the vastness of the encyclopedia is a tribute to his vision. He has set the bar so high that we all have to run to catch up with his standards and the kind of quality he demands of every one of us.
LYDEN: You are working in your section about Persian writers on a myth, and maybe you could tell us that story. You got some surprising results.
KARIMI-HAKKAK: Oh, sure. The story relates to this poet, Farrokhi Yazdi, the early 20th century poet who was known, even to people who have never read a line of his poetry, as the man whose lips had been sewn by government authorities. Dr. Yarshater asked me to write a biography, and I was surprised myself to find out that the more I read about this incident of lip sewing, I found it just couldn't be verified. It can't be sustained.
And later, I found persuasive argument this had never happened. So the sewing of the lips was really a metaphor that had turned - in the popular imagination - into a real, actual, literal sewing of the lips. And so I wrote that this episode never happened, and it's just a myth. It's untrue.
And of course, I got a lot of flak from colleagues in Iran saying, no, this happened; you're wrong; you don't know - you know, go read your sources, etc., etc. But most importantly, someone who wrote from Iran telling me, even if this didn't happen, you shouldn't have mentioned it because we need someone with sewn lips, you know, because it illustrates censorship, the violence of it so vividly that regardless of whether it happened or not, people need mythology. Myth-making goes on.
LYDEN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. We're talking to professor Ahmad Karimi-Hakkak, at the University of Maryland, about Encyclopaedia Iranica, perhaps one of the most extensive and comprehensive projects examining one country and culture. Well, maybe - I don't know if you would want to say ever, but why would you say a project like this one is necessary?
KARIMI-HAKKAK: Well, a project like this one is necessary because Iran was one of the three principle cultures of Asia before the advent of Islam. It was Iranian culture and civilization, Indian and Chinese culture and civilization. And those cultures have preserved, more or less, something of the grandeur. And it's Iran who through the passage of time, has become truncated as a country and has lost much of its significance and, at times, parts of its identity because of the advent of Islam and this perception in the West that everything Islamic is Arabic or comes from Arabic.
So there are these confusions that have set in through the millennia, and the Encyclopaedia Iranica really sets the record straight. It gives Islam an Arabic culture and the Arabic language its due, and yet it recognizes and attempts to establish a distinct and distinguished identity that Iranians, Persians once had, but then it became misperceived.
This encyclopedia really can also act as a corrective resource to say that Islam is a multiple religion. Iranians, Turks, Arabs, Indians have all contributed to the amalgam that is Islam today.
LYDEN: So you're showing the many, many facets of Iran, obviously, through the eons and even into the present. However, I do understand that the current government of Iran, the Islamic Republic, doesn't look very favorably on the Encyclopaedia Iranica. Why is that?
KARIMI-HAKKAK: Unfortunately, yes, that's true. Well, that's because this government is ideological. For example, some of the most contentious entries in the Encyclopaedia Iranica have to do with the historical emergence of Babism and Bahaism, which find their own rightful place in this, and only in this, encyclopedia about Iran. This religion came as a result of the intellectual currents within Islam. And because, to the ultra-religious, Islam is supposed to be the last of the revealed religion, the Islamic Republic of Iran cannot bear to see the emergence of a religion out of Islam.
The distortions that that kind of approach introduces into readings of the past, Iranica's reliability becomes even more important than it would otherwise.
LYDEN: You teach Persian studies - yourself - at the University of Maryland. What do you think this encyclopedia's going to mean for future generations, whether people have misconceptions or just something they wish to learn? I mean, they do have the Internet at their fingertips.
KARIMI-HAKKAK: Well, yes. You know, as you mentioned, this is not your Wikipedia. The information goes through several stages of checking and double-checking and triple-checking. Let me mention the level of detail this goes into. The level of detail the Encyclopaedia Iranica goes into is simply unprecedented. So I think future generations growing in the level of sophistication will come to appreciate the Encyclopaedia Iranica even more. In a sense, this is a project ahead of its time.
LYDEN: Professor Ahmad Karimi-Hakkak is the director of the Roshan Center for Persian Studies at the University of Maryland, and he's a longtime contributor and friend to the Encyclopaedia Iranica. Thanks so much for being with us.
KARIMI-HAKKAK: Thank you, Jacki, for your invitation.
LYDEN: Back to professor Ehsan Yarshater. At 91 years old, he's chosen his replacements, but he still works 12-hour days. He says he used to rest for an hour after lunch, but he can't do that anymore because there's far too much work to do.
Professor Yarshater serves as the editor of Encyclopaedia Iranica, and the director of Columbia University's Center for Iranian Studies. And the encyclopedia isn't just in multivolume print form. All of the completed entries are available at IranicaOnline.org, for anyone to search. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.