Habibia high school in the 1910s

The first Habibai building

Amir Habibull Khan (r. 1901-1919) was the first Afghan king who introduced the western style education in Afghanistan. In 1904 he established the Habibia High School in Kabul that in later years played a great role in educating the political and academic elite in Afghanistan. The Constitutionalist Movement partly emerged from this school, so did the majority of Afghan presidents (including Karzai), ministers, politicians and scholars. The great Afghan historian Faiz Mohammad Kateb was among the teachers in the school; so was Richard N. Frye an acclaimed American scholar of Central Asian culture and history and the current  Aga Khan Professor Emeritus of Iranian Studies at Harvard University who taught at Habibia from 1942 to 1944.

An American engineer named A. C. Jewett who worked in Kabul between 1911-1918 has provided a short but candid description of the school in its early days. The engineer worked for the Afghan Amir in his road-building projects. He has written a fascinating book about his experiences in Afghanistan that I will review it here in future.

Engineer Jewett writes:

There is a Habibullah College in Kabul. The teachers are Hindustani Mussalmans who have been through the English schools in India, but the Amir has to bribe boys to go to school and there is very little discipline. After they graduate they are asked whether they wish to be doctors or engineers, and then begin their professional careers by being paid seventy rupees a month. It is optional with them whether they do any work or not. Of course, they are all above working. They know a few things by heart and can parrot them off; practical knowledge they have none. A grammar-school boy could put them to shame in any branch of learning. Still, it is a start. Some one told me they have an English book, Secrets of the English Court, and are reading it in school. (Not just the sort of literature one would select for young Afghans!) Those who can read prefer English novels. They must have some curious interpretations of some of the rubbish they get (pp. 112-113)

An Afghan student in Habibia on January 3, 2002 (Photo: Mario Tama/LIFE)

Habibia in 2005, after the Indian reconstruction (photo: Mustafa Kia/Flicker)

Initially the school was built in a garden in Shahr-Ara area, but in late 1960s it was relocated to its current location in West Kabul in a large new campus built by the Americans. Since the collapse of the communist regime in 1992 the school has lost its academic credibility as well as its equipments and infrastructure. In civil war it was severely damaged. In 2005 the Indians repaired its walls and installed some new doors and windows for it. Today, from that influential institute of learning we read in history books, only a name has remained for Habibia. Like so many other things in Kabul.

Update (April 1, 2014): In an earlier version of this post I mistakenly mentioned that the school was initially built in Pul-e Bagh-e Umomi, it actually was built in Shahr-Ara.  On a separate note, Professor Richard Frye of Harvard who had taught at Habibia passed away on March 27, 2014.


9 thoughts on “Habibia high school in the 1910s

  1. Ali, the original Habibia school was in Shahr Ara (also the site of a Mughal garden mentioned by babur), where the burj in the photo you post can still be seen. Now part of an NDS compound, it’s difficult to access! Jolyon

    • Hi Jolyon,

      Thanks for the correction. I updated the post.
      I have always admired your work in Kabul but had no chance to meet you in person. Next year, I’ll start my dissertation fieldwork and I would differently see you somewhere either in Afghanistan or outside. Stay safe!

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