DUBAI, United Arab Emirates - The Christian concepts of heaven and hell originated in Iran. The Jewish holy Talmud is littered with Iranian words and ideas. And some Iranians cherish the Israeli city of Haifa as a sacred place.

These are among the fascinating nuggets in the Encyclopedia Iranica, a sprawling project that since 1973 has sought to distill 5,000 years of Iranian history, geography and life and has produced 45 blue-bound volumes proclaiming Iran's greatness.

"Today more than at any other time we need to keep our Iranian culture alive," Iranica's director Ehsan Yarshater told an audience of 350 Iranians at a fundraiser in Dubai last month. The glitzy dinner, concert and auction raised US$100,000 for a project that will take an estimated $20 million - and another decade or so - to finish.

The Iranian government bitterly opposes the encyclopedia, and the U.S. government backs it. More than half of the encyclopedia's budget comes from the U.S. National Endowment for the Humanities, which has funded it as a project of major cultural significance since 1979 - the same year Iranian students occupied the U.S. embassy in Tehran.

"Once completed it will be a magnificent gift to our children and the generations to come," said Yarshater, an Iran scholar at Columbia University in New York.

The encyclopedia is Yarshater's life work. Now a frail 86-year-old with Parkinson's disease, he started the encyclopedia 32 years ago, just after leaving Iran. The project threatens to outlast him. Another Columbia Iranologist, Ahmad Ashraf, will take over leadership of the project if Yarshater dies before completing it.

Only 13 volumes of the English-language encyclopedia have yet been published, up to the letter G. It's been so slow that managers have abandoned the one-letter-at-a-time approach and are soliciting all remaining articles at once.

Each volume costs $1 million to produce, said Mark Houshmand, who heads the Encyclopedia's Dubai support group. Dubai, with around 300,000 resident Iranians, has a large expatriate community supporting the project, as do Los Angeles, New York, Geneva, London, Toronto and Miami.

Individual volumes can be ordered from Iranica's website for $250-$350 each, or the first 12 for $3,450. When complete, it'll take more shelf space even than the 29-volume Encyclopedia Britannica.

Some 2,500 years ago, Persia's empire stretched from Libya to China and included Turkey and northern India. The Persian dominion revived again after the 11th century, spreading from Turkey to Bangladesh and dominating central Asia until the penetration of Western civilization into Asia in the mid-1800s.

Thus, encyclopedia entries cover Persian aspects of places far outside today's borders, including Central Asia, India, North Africa, Greece and Albania.

Most of the work is being done outside Iran too, because the Iranian government opposes the project. Scholars inside the country have faced harassment, the managers say. The project is headquartered at Columbia.

Most of the Iranian opposition stems from Yarshater's belonging to the Baha'i faith, Houshmand said.

"He's not welcome in Iran. They don't appreciate the work he's doing. They don't want him to get any credit," Houshmand said. "All this is because of his religion. It should be irrelevant. But unfortunately, with today's Iranian government, these things are very relevant."

Baha'is have been vigorously persecuted by current and past Iranian regimes. In 1868, several Baha'is were exiled to Palestine, - now Israel - where they built shrines in Haifa, which they now consider a holy city, the encyclopedia says.

Entries like that, documenting the Islamic Republic's connections to Israel and its pre-Islamic past, are deemed contrary to Iran's 1979 Islamic revolution by its current government.

Concepts such as the survival of a person's soul after death, the Day of Judgment, heaven and hell, and holy angels all derive from Iran's surviving Zoroastrian faith, a 3,000-year-old religion that predates Islam and Christianity, the encyclopedia says. Iran's hard-liners also frown on the Zoroastrian beliefs.

In the fundraiser audience were U.S. and Swiss diplomats and some of Iran's biggest pre-revolutionary pop stars, including singers Mahasti and Aref, both of whom flew from homes in Los Angeles. Iran's most famous pianist, Los Angeles-based Rohani, played his melancholy songs until the wee hours.

"I couldn't care less about what my regime's stance is toward the United States," said Sara Masinaei, 24, a Dubai resident who emigrated from Tehran with her family at the age of eight. "What's important to me is Iran's history, language and traditions. I want my kids and their kids to benefit from what we're supporting today."

Abbas Bolurfrushan said exiles worry about losing touch with Iran and its Farsi language. The books ought to tug them back into the fold until Iran's regime mellows enough to allow them to visit more often, he said.

But Bolurfrushan, who heads the Dubai-based Iranian Business Council, said he was chiefly concerned with practical issues such as UN sanctions, which hamper his own trade with Iran.

"I'm fed up with the glorious past," Bolurfrushan said. "What have we got today? The Iranians have to bring themselves out of the past and devote themselves to building up the present."