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History Unknown: Dabiristans

Medieval High Schools of the Middle East and Transoxania

Dabiristans, were a special kind of schools for higher education which have now been lost to history.

They were places of learning for the graded and non-compulsory education of servants in courtly administration.

The dabiristans of Persia and Transoxania incorporated many aspects of the early medieval academies and colleges of the Near and Middle East, which flourished under the Sasanians and subsequently under the Arab caliphs.

Worthy of particular attention is the epithet, Anushirvan, of Khusraw I. In the tale, a young dabir, (student), a member of the nobility, lists for Khusraw the subjects which he has been tutored in at the Dabiristan.

He reports that after learning the Avesta (holy Zoroastrian book) by heart, he has studied history, literature and philosophy. He has also mastered the skills of horse riding, archery, javelin throwing and chawgan(polo). He was also skilled in several other games including injang-i-laghatak (upright wrestling), backgammon and chess. During his time at the school, he learnt the art of cookery, and also became well acquainted with various garden flowers, and making perfumes. Furthermore, he was also taught how to play various musical instruments, and learnt how to play the flute, the drum and the qanun (a stringed instrument).

As may be seen from this incomplete list, the range of knowledge dispensed in the dabiristans was fairly wide.

Under Islam, in the ninth and tenth centuries, the usual subjects from the Sassanian period were kept, and more were added. Upon al-Ghazali's suggestions, the arts of drafting administrative documents and stylistics, geography, mathematics, geometry, astronomy, medicine, carud (metrics, prosody), the classification of medicinal plants and the systems of underground irrigation were added to the curricula.

According to Firdawsi's Shahnameh, the role of the dabir in pre-Islamic courts had been performed by bymobads (high preists) who were well versed in religious as well as secular knowledge.

Upon completion of their studies, dabirs stook up service in the offices of provincial governors, district judges, merchants and traders car-rying on business with neighbouring countries.

Special rules were established for the selection and training of dabirs, whose position at court was defined by Kay Kawus b. Iskander, the author of the Qabus Nama, and by Nizam Arudi Samarqandi.

Nizam Arudi Samarqandi, in the 12th century, declared that unless a dabir has gained "some knowledge of every science, memorized at least one erudite phrase from every master, heard at least one aphorism from every sage, and borrowed at least one uncommon device from every writer", he shall not be considered a graduate.

Scribs and secretaries amongst dabirs enjoyed an elevated position in the social hierarchy, and were also employed in Diwan-al-Insha, The Department of Correspondence, which directed the civil administration and diplomacy. With the advent of the Arabs, the Persian term dabir, was supplemented by the Arabic equivalents of munshi and katib.

The historian Abu al-Fadl Bayhaqi wrote that the Ghaznavid court spent over 70,000 dirhams each month on the salaries of the dabirs at court. Where did these dabirs graduate from?

Is Pakistan, which was a part of both, the Sassanian and Ghaznavid empires home to lost dabiristans? Will we ever find out?

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