Ehsan Yarshater, Iran scholar with a monumental vision, dies at 93

Ehsan Yarshater in New York, in July 2011.
Ehsan Yarshater in New York, in July 2011.(Marcus Yam/The New York Times)

NEW YORK — Ehsan Yarshater, an eminent Iranian historian who founded and edited the Encyclopedia Iranica, a magnum opus of Iranian history and culture that helped transform the modern understanding of Persian civilization, died Sept. 2 in Fresno, Calif. He was 98.

His death was confirmed by his niece, Mojdeh Yarshater.

Mr. Yarshater’s encyclopedia cast Iran as a global civilization in the aftermath of the revolution in 1979 and the seizure of US Embassy hostages, when the country appeared isolated on the world stage and he was forced to suspend the project by the new Islamic regime.

“I had this ideal in my mind,” he told NPR in 2011, “that there would be an encyclopedia which would respond to all possible legitimate questions about Iran and its history and its civilization.”


The encyclopedia includes entries on everything from ancient Persian philosophy to cabbage. It documents Iran’s relationship with other world cultures, such as those of Greece and India, expanding the notion of Persian civilization beyond Iran’s modern borders.

Mr. Yarshater started his project at 52 and worked for 12 hours a day until his mid-90s, retiring last year at the letter K. His last entry was on Sandor Kegl, the 19th-century Hungarian Orientalist who was devoted to Persian literature.

The encyclopedia continues to be a work in progress under Elton Daniel, who took over as the editor-in-chief of the encyclopedia in January 2017. Today it has some 7,300 entries by 1,600 authors.

Ehsan Ollah Yarshater was born on April 3, 1920, in the northwest city of Hamadan, Iran, to Hashem, a merchant who was born Jewish and converted to the Baha’i faith, and Rowhanieh (Misaghieh) Yarshater, a homemaker who was born to a prominent family of physicians in Kashan, also in the north.

Mr. Yarshater studied at the Alliance Israélite, a French-language school in the western city of Kermanshah, before moving with his family to Tehran, where he attended the elite Tarbiyat School, which was founded by Iranian Baha’is in 1897.


As a student at the University of Tehran, which was founded by the monarchy, Mr. Yarshater was inspired by Iranian thinkers of his generation who promoted a spirit of rational inquiry in the study of Persian history and literature following the Constitutional Revolution of 1905, whose leaders sought secular, political, and educational reforms.

He received a doctorate in 15th-century Persian poetry from the University of Tehran and then studied ancient Iranian languages under the German philologist Walter Bruno Henning at the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London, where Mr. Yarshater completed a second doctorate.

In a groundbreaking linguistics study, published in 1970, he documented disappearing dialects among the villages of Iran’s northeastern provinces.

In 1958, he became a visiting professor of Indo-Iranian languages and religions at Columbia University. Three years later, he was named Columbia’s first chairman of Iranian Studies. With the appointment, he moved to New York City with his wife, Latifeh Alavieh, whom he had met in 1956 when she was cultural adviser to the US Information Agency in Tehran.

At Columbia, in 1968, Mr. Yarshater founded the Center for Iranian Studies, which is to be renamed in his honor in October, the university said.