WASHINGTON, D.C. — The National Endowment for the Humanities mourns the passing of Ehsan Yarshater, founding editor of the Encyclopædia Iranica and Hagop Kevorkian Professor Emeritus of Iranian Studies at Columbia University. Dr. Yarshater died on September 2, 2018, in Fresno, California, at the age of 98.
Yarshater’s scholarship transformed the fields of Iranian and Persian studies. As editor of Encyclopædia Iranica, he oversaw the creation of a comprehensive and scholarly reference work that captured the scope and influence of Iranian civilization in the Middle East, Central Asia, the Caucasus, and the Indian subcontinent. “I had this ideal in my mind that there would be an encyclopedia which would respond to all possible legitimate questions about Iran and its history and its civilization,” Yarshater told NPR in 2011.
In 1979, while in the early planning stages, the encyclopedia won a grant from NEH for $17,500. Over the next four decades, the Encyclopædia Iranica, based at Columbia University, received $6.25 million in NEH support. The first print volume was published in 1982 and the first online version of the encyclopedia appeared in 1996. Today, the project numbers fifteen volumes with contributions from more than 1,600 scholars who are experts in their fields. More than seven thousand articles have been published, with the project hoping to reach 10,000 by 2023.
“Projects like the Encyclopædia Iranica bring together the best scholars in their field to create new knowledge and help us better understand our world,” said NEH Chairman Jon Parrish Peede. “Without the vision of scholars like Dr. Yarshater, our knowledge of the Middle East would be poorer.”
Yarshater was born in Hamadan, Iran, on April 3, 1920, and spent his childhood primarily in Tehran. After the death of his parents, a scholarship allowed him to study at the University of Tehran, where he earned a degree in 1941. Even as he worked as a teacher, he earned a law degree and a PhD in Persian literature, also from the University of Tehran. Yarshater continued his studies in England, receiving a second doctorate in 1960 from the University of London for a dissertation on Southern Tati Dialects. A two-year visiting position at Columbia University in 1958 turned into a permanent job in 1960, when he became the first scholar to hold the Chair of Iranian Studies. In 1968, Yarshater founded the Center for Iranian Studies at Columbia. He continued to teach there until 2016.
Along with the encyclopedia, Yarshater also wrote and edited numerous other works of Persian history and literature, including overseeing an annotated 40-volume translation of Tabari’s History and editing the third volume of the Cambridge History of Iran. He was also the founding editor of the 22-volume A History of Persian Literature.
“I suffer from an ailment and that is whenever something cultural needs to be done, I think it is my duty to do it,” Yashater told Persian Heritage in 2012.