$11 million gift establishes Yarshater Center for the Study of Iranian Literary Traditions

Published: November 16, 2023
“Tahmuras Defeats the Divs” from the Šāhnāme (Book of Kings) of Šāh TahmāspMetropolitan Museum of Art
Lucy Berbeo | 

UCLA has received a commitment of $11 million from the Persian Heritage Foundation to establish the UCLA Yarshater Center for the Study of Iranian Literary Traditions, a research hub that aims to advance knowledge of ancient Iranian literature and culture worldwide.

The center was named for the late Ehsan Yarshater, the inaugural Hagop Kevorkian Professor of Iranian Studies at Columbia University, whose lifework has had a profound impact on the study of the Iranian world globally. Among the many original projects Yarshater initiated are the “Bibliotheca Persica,” a collection of pioneering publications foregrounding Iranian literary traditions; “A History of Persian Literature,” a projected 20-volume survey of Persian literature; and the “Encyclopaedia Iranica,” widely regarded as the most comprehensive and accessible reference work on the Iranian civilization.

Hosted in the UCLA College, home to the university’s program in Iranian studies as well as the Pourdavoud Center, the Yarshater Center will enrich the vast array of resources at UCLA devoted to the exploration of the Iranian world by initiating new research, publication series and programming for the benefit of students, scholars and engaged communities.

“We are deeply grateful for this transformative gift, which creates a home at UCLA for the study of one of humanity’s oldest literatures,” said UCLA Chancellor Gene Block. “The Yarshater Center will help our global university continue its important work of fostering cross-cultural understanding. And the center has special importance given our location in Westwood — the heart of Southern California’s vibrant Iranian American community.”

The center will undertake major initiatives including a bilingual repository of ancient Iranian texts, a new encyclopedia of the ancient Iranian world and new volumes of “A History of Persian Literature,” all envisioned as collaborative works authored by scholars throughout the world. It will disseminate research findings through print and digital publications, a podcast series and a video library, providing open access to these resources for both scholarly and public audiences.

The Pourdavoud Center, which will be renamed the Pourdavoud Institute for the Study of the Iranian World, will provide the administrative infrastructure as well as leadership for the Yarshater Center. Together, the two research hubs complement UCLA’s Iranian studies program; founded in 1963 and celebrating its 60th anniversary this year, the program continues to attract several hundred students annually to its graduate and undergraduate courses.

The Yarshater Center will be led by the director of the Pourdavoud Institute, a position currently held by M. Rahim Shayegan, UCLA’s Jahangir and Eleanor Amuzegar Professor of Iranian Studies, and will launch next spring following a Nov. 16 memorial event for Ehsan Yarshater.

“I am exceedingly grateful to the board of directors of the Persian Heritage Foundation for the honor to continue Professor Yarshater’s lifework with the establishment of the Yarshater Center for the Study of Iranian Literary Traditions at UCLA,” said Shayegan, who also leads the Iranian studies program. “It is both serendipitous and humbling that UCLA shall be the custodian of the intellectual legacies of two icons who have most lastingly defined the fortunes of our field in the past century, Ebrahim Pourdavoud and Ehsan Yarshater.

“Mandated to foster original research by initiating an ambitious and robust publication program, the Yarshater Center not only aims to make the many facets of the Iranian civilization and its literary traditions more accessible to the scholarly world, but also to raise greater awareness of its intellectual genius, beyond the confines of academia, to inform the wider public,” he said. “We are grateful for this immense privilege and ever mindful of the obligation it lays upon us.”

Alexandra Minna Stern, dean of humanities, said: “Thanks to this generous gift, the UCLA Division of Humanities will have the distinct honor of hosting two world-class hubs for innovative scholarship in the field of Iranian studies. The establishment of the Yarshater Center allows us to honor an extraordinary scholarly legacy and preserve Persian history and literature, making it accessible to wider audiences.”

Ehsan Yarshater (1920–2018) served for four decades as the Kevorkian Professor of Iranian Studies at Columbia, conducting research and producing numerous publications on Iran’s history, culture and literature. He established the Persian Heritage Foundation in 1983 to support the production of his many research endeavors, including “A History of Persian Literature” and the “Encyclopaedia Iranica.” In 1993, the foundation established the prestigious Biennial Ehsan Yarshater Lecture Series at UCLA, which invites an eminent scholar of Iranian studies, whose work has distinctively impacted the field, to deliver a series of five lectures.

“We are pleased to partner with UCLA to carry forward the unparalleled legacy of Dr. Ehsan Yarshater through the creation of the Yarshater Center,” said Rudolph Matthee, the John and Dorothy Munroe Distinguished Professor of History at the University of Delaware, as well as a UCLA alumnus and president of the Persian Heritage Foundation, a nonprofit organization that supports and promotes research and scholarship on all aspects of Persian history and culture. “The center is well positioned for success on UCLA’s campus, and we look forward to welcoming its contributions to this important field for the benefit of our global society.”