Ahvāz was apparently a flourishing town in pre-Islamic times, to be identified either with the Aginis of the Greek geographers or, more probably, with the Achaemenid Tareiana, where the royal road from Susa to Persepolis and the heartland of Fārs crossed the river on a bridge of boats; Alexander’s general Nearchus sailed his fleet to this city at the end of his epic voyage from India to the head of the Persian Gulf. The name Ahvāz goes back to the Ḵūzī, the original people of the province, the Ouxioi of the Greek authors, who also gave their name to the province (Ḵūzestān) and whose distinctive language apparently survived till Sasanian times (cf. Ḵᵛārazmī, Mafātīḥ al-ʿolūm, ed. van Vloten, Leiden, 1895, pp. 117; tr. J. M. Unvala, “The Translation of an Extract from Mafâtîḥ al-ʿUlûm of al-Khwârazmî,” Journal of the K. R. Cama Research Institute 11, 1928, pp. 80, 90).
The Arabic geographers are confused about the original name of the town. It seems that the founder of the Sasanian dynasty, Ardašīr I, rebuilt it and renamed it Hormoz-Ardašīr (Ṭabarī, p. 820), a name which appears in the Arabic sources in various forms. According to Maqdesī (or Moqaddasī, p. 416) it was that king’s son Šāpūr I who built the town on two sides of the river, calling one after God and the other after himself; they were then united under one name, Hormoz-Ardašīr, contracted to Dārāvāšīr (ibid., p. 406). Elsewhere, one town is named as the mercantile center, Hūǰestān-vāčār (the market of Ḵūzestān), and the other as the seat of the governor and the nobles, with the contracted form Hormošīr; the latter was destroyed in the course of the Arab invasions of the 1st/7th century, but the name of the former was translated by the Arabs as Sūq al-Ahwāz. P. Schwarz conjectured that the varying explanations of the sources are attempts to rationalize a popular name Hormošīr (Iran, pp. 315-18; Markwart, Provincial Capitals, p. 96). In the Syriac Christian sources, the region is called Bēṯ Hūzāyē, after the Ḵūzī, and the town itself is mentioned as a bishopric (from the time of the Synod of the Patriarch Isaac in 410 onwards) under the names of Hormozd Ardašīr or Hormezdšēr (I. Guidi, “Ostsyrische Bischöfe und Bischofssitze im V., VI. und VII. Jahrhundert,” ZDMG 43, 1889, pp. 393ff.).
When the Arabs invaded Ḵūzestān in the later 630s, after the overrunning of Iraq, the general ʿOtba b. Ḡazwān destroyed the administrative half of the town of Ahvāz, as noted above, but preserved the commercial one. The Persian general Hormozān withdrew from Ahvāz to Šūštar, and after a long siege, surrendered to ʿOmar’s troops in 21/641-42 (Spuler, Iran, pp. 11-12; Camb. Hist. Iran IV, pp. 14-15). Later in this century, the region around Ahvāz was the scene of operations led by the Omayyad general ʿOṯmān b. ʿObaydallāh b. Maʿmar against the Kharijite sectarians (cf. Mobarrad, al-Kāmel, Cairo, 1376/1956, III, pp. 307-08). The geographers note that the town suffered badly during the Zanǰ rebellion of the later 3rd/9th century which enveloped lower Iraq and Ḵūzestān. Maqdesī (p. 406) mentions the ruin caused by the town’s being occupied by “the veiled one” (al-mobarqaʿ) leading the insurgents, and Ṭabarī (III, p. 1889) records under 261/874-75 that the Zanǰ occupied the town, plundering, enslaving, and burning houses.
Of the 4th/10th century geographers, Maqdesī has the fullest description of Ahvāz. It was still the capital of the province in his time (ca. 370/980), but its prosperity had somewhat declined; a continuator of Ebn Ḥawqal in the 6th/12th century says that in his time, Ahvāz had become depopulated and ʿAskar Mokram had supplanted it as the premier town of Ḵūzestān. Maqdesī was unimpressed by the town, describing its streets as narrow and confused, dirty and stinking. The people included few notable scholars, theologians or lawyers, and there were no good Koran readers (in fact, Samʿānī [Hyderabad], I, pp. 395-97, names quite a few scholars and traditionists from Ahvāz). The people all had yellow, jaundiced complexions, and fever and other diseases were endemic because of the stagnant pools and lagoons in the vicinity, a fact already noted by Jāḥeẓ.
Ahvāz was essentially a commercial center, and its provisions, such as rice flour and fruit, had to be imported. It was the entrepot for Fārs and Isfahan in the interior of Persia; their products were sent down to the coast via Ahvāz to Baṣra. The covered markets (qayṣārīyas) were capacious, being situated, together with the Friday mosque, on the Persian, i.e., eastern bank of the Doǰayl. This was linked with the Iraqi or western bank by a bridge constructed of fired brick, the Qanṭara Hendovān on which there stood a mosque overlooking the river. The Buyid amir ʿAżod-al-dawla (r. 338-72/949-83) had pulled down an earlier bridge and replaced it by a new one, together with the mosque, planning to name it after himself; but the population had refused to abandon the old name. There were numerous water-mills and water-wheels (dawlāb, nāʿūra) along the river, whose waters were run off by qanāts to give the town a domestic water supply and to irrigate the fields. A notable feature was a large dam or weir (šāḏorvān) just below the town, constructed from rocks, in which water was stored for irrigation purposes; this had outlets for diverting water into three channels and sluice-gates to run off flood waters in the winter and spring, and it made so much noise that sleep was prevented. Navigation on the river was highly important at this time, as likewise in Iraq; both Ebn Ḥawqal and Maqdesī traveled on the Doǰayl; the former describes how he traveled downstream from ʿAskar Mokram to Ahvāz, a distance of ten farsaḵs, but after six farsaḵs had to leave the boat and walk along the dry bed of the river, since towards the end of the moon’s phase the tides in the Persian Gulf were too low to send up sufficient tidal waters. Of the manufactures of Ahvāz, silk textiles and especially brocades (dībāǰ al-ḵazz) are frequently mentioned, and its sugar was said to be the finest of all that produced from sugarcane in Ḵūzestān. See Eṣṭaḵrī, pp. 88; Ebn Ḥawqal, pp. 251-53, tr. Kramers, pp. 248-50; Abū-Dulaf Misʿar ibn Muhalhil’s Travels in Iran (circa A.D. 950), ed. and tr. V. Minorsky, Cairo, 1955, p. 28, tr. p. 61; Maqdesī, pp. 406, 410-12, 414, 417; Ḥodūd al-ʿālam, p. 138; tr. Minorsky, p. 130. Ṯaʿālebī, Laṭāʾef al-maʿāref, ed. Abyārī and Ṣayrafī, Cairo, 1960, pp. 175-77, tr. Bosworth, The Book of Curious and Entertaining Information, pp. 126-27; Yāqūt (Beirut), I, pp. 284-86; Schwarz, Iran, pp. 315-23; R. B. Serjeant, Islamic Textiles, Material for a History up to the Mongol Conquest, Beirut, 1972, p. 40.
After the decline of the Buyids Ahvāz tends to sink out of mention in the chronicles. The Ḵᵛārazmšāh Jalāl-al-dīn conducted operations in Ḵūzestān in 622/1225 after his return from India, but his main effort was devoted to the besieging of Šūštar (Ebn al-Aṯīr, XII, pp. 425ff.). It may have been during the insecurity of the Mongol invasions that the great dam or weir was destroyed, though traces of it can still be seen today. In the post-Mongol period, Ḵūzestān passed eventually to the local line of the Āl-e Mošaʿšaʿ and then to the Safavids, but by now trade had ceased to pass through Ḵūzestān in any great volume, and Ahvāz sank to the status of a village. In the Anglo-Persian War of 1857, Ahvāz was occupied by a small Anglo-Indian force of General Outram’s sent upstream from Moḥammara (the modern Ḵorramšahr). Under the Qajars, the province was known, as in Safavid times, as ʿArabestān, and during the Qajar period was administratively a governor-generalate.
See also Le Strange, Lands, pp. 233-34.
J. de Morgan, Mission scientifique en Perse. I. Ētudes géographiques, Paris, 1894, pp. 275ff.
Aḥmad Kasravī, Tārīḵ-epānṣad sāla-ye Ḵūzestān, Tehran, 1313 Š./1934.
Razmārā, Farhang VI, pp. 29-31.
S. A. Matheson, Persia: an Archaeological Guide, London, 1972, pp. 139-40.
(C. E. Bosworth)
Ahvāz was in the 19th century no more than a small borough inhabited by Šaʿb Arabs and a few Sabeans (1,500 to 2,000 inhabitants according to Ainsworth in 1835; 700 according to Curzon in 1890). Some modest cultivation was carried on; all traces of sugarcane plantations had disappeared, although some ruins of medieval sugarcane mills could still be observed. From 1830 Europeans several times forced their way through the rapids, notably Lieutenant Selby in the steamer Assyria in 1842; but only in October, 1888 was the lower course of the river opened to international trade. This event immediately brought about the development of a new settlement, called Bandar-e Nāṣerī in honor of the shah. It was about 2.5 km south of the ancient village, on a slight rise on the left bank dominating the point where vessels anchored below the rapids. Here the agency of the Lynch Company (Euphrates and Tigris Steam Navigation Company) and a small Persian administrative post became the nuclei of the new town. In 1889 The Persian Nāṣerī Company created a service on the upper course. Soon (1890) followed the concession to the Lynch Company for the building of a road to Šūštar suitable for vehicles. Šūštar was the point of departure of a mule road to Isfahan, the activity of which tended to supplant that of the Būšehr-Šīrāz road.
The transshipping necessitated by the rapids was thus the primary source of the development of the settlement. A second impetus occurred with the beginning of oil exploitation in 1908 at Masǰed-e Solaymān. Ahvāz served as a base camp for exploration and as a station for the pipeline to Ābādān. A third major event was the construction of the Transiranian railroad, which reached the town in 1929, crossing the river by a mile-long iron bridge (whose foundations rest on those of the great Sasanian barrage). Data on the stages of the resulting expansion of the city is contradictory; the naval intelligence geographical handbook (Persia, Oxford, 1945, pp. 514-16) gives 7,000 inhabitants in 1930 and 30,000 in 1939, estimates which seem too low; Lockhart (Persian Cities, London, 1960, p. 163) has 15,000 inhabitants in 1900, 35,000 in 1910, and 50,000 in 1920, figures which are certainly greatly exaggerated. The government of the province was transferred there from Šūštar in 1926, and by the time of
the Second World War Ahvāz had become the principal built-up area of interior Ḵūzestān. The British in 1942 constructed two branch lines of the Transiranian, one to Ḵorramšahr, the other to Tanūma (opposite Baṣra in Iraq) which rejoined the main line at Ahvāz. Thus the city’s function as crossroads of road, railway, and river transport lines covering all of Ḵūzestān was completed. The population was counted as over 100,000 inhabitants in 1950 (Djazani, Wirtschaft, p. 89), and was given by the 1956 census as 120,000; in the 1950s immigration was very active.
The source of this population was to be sought beyond Ḵūzestān proper, in the entire western Zagros region. In 1956 only a little more than half (54 percent) of the entire population of the town had been born within the limits of its šahrestān; and this number formed less than one-third of the population aged over twenty-five years (adult immigrants) but 77 percent of those younger, indicating a rate or recent urbanization much above the mean rate of Iranian towns of the time. The increase slightly slowed during the 1960s, bringing the population to 202,000 in 1966 and 329,000 in 1976. The mean increase of 4.8 percent a year between the two last censuses shows the city to be the most dynamic of Ḵūzestān, since Ābādān is relatively stagnating. Ethnic and professional segregation remains well marked between various groups still feebly integrated—Arabs and Persians, and sub-groupings of Persians. Several remarkable specializations have been noted. Natives of the Isfahan region hold an important place in retail trade as grocers, drapers, and haberdashers, owners of cafes and hotels, and as craftsmen (smiths, carpenters, and cabinetmakers). On the other hand clockmakers, keepers of baths, masons and pavers, and sellers and repairers of tires are natives of Ḵūzestān. Bakers are from Šahr-e Kord. A small group of Sabeans (some one thousand) specialize in silversmithing, the Jews in pharmacy. Clan organization is very much alive among groups of Arabs and Baḵtīārīs.
The activities on which this rapid growth depended have, however, greatly changed with time. Until about 1940-50 commerce and port activity prevailed. But the Transiranian eliminated the need for transport with transshipment at the rapids and shifted trade to the ports of Ḵorramšahr, Ābādān, and Bandar Šāpūr; at the same time decision making in such matters tended to shift from local trade centers to Tehran. Some industrial activities then came to Ahvāz—a weaving and spinning factory, refinery of beet sugar, and exploitation of the nearby oilfield from 1958. Administrative and other activity (especially agricultural training) also came to the city, and its subsequent function as a regional capital of Ḵūzestān in a broad sense explains the continuation of its expansion.
The city has a modern aspect—a grid plan more or less adapted to the bends of the river. Its initial and still principal heart is on the left bank of the Kārūn; a new quarter has been added on the right bank, where the railway station has been located since the construction of the Transiranian. Besides the railway bridge an imposing road bridge links the two river banks.
W. F. Ainsworth, A Personal Narrative of the Euphrates Expedition, 2 vols., London, 1888, pp. 224-32.
G. N. Curzon, Persia and the Persian Question, 2 vols., London, 1892, II, pp. 346-53.
Arnold T. Wilson, The Persian Gulf, London, 1928, p. 265 (enumeration of the up-river sailings on the Kārūn in the 19th century).
I. Djazani, Wirtschaft und Bevölkerung in Khuzistan und ihr Wandel unter dem Einfluss des Erdöls, (Tübinger Geographische Studien 8), Tübingen, 1963, pp. 89-91 (with plan).
P. Vielle, La Féodalité et l’état en Iran, Paris, 1973, pp. 183-271.
(X. De Planhol)
Little of architectural interest appears to have survived from the medieval period. On the left or east bank of the Kārūn river, in the old part of the present city, is the tomb of ʿAlī b. Mehryār, a contemporary of Abū Nowās and a follower of Imam Reżā. The present building dates from the 18th century, and is a small square brick structure with a white plastered dome, encircled at its base by a single line of nastaʿlīq inscription. The major part of this quarter dates only from the development of Bandar-e Nāṣerī in the late 19th century. (By the early 20th century it was called Old Ahvāz to distinguish it from the “newer” city on the opposite bank of the Kārūn, actually the more ancient site.) The steel railroad bridge crossing the Kārūn just above the fourth rapids rests on the presumed foundations of the Sasanian dam or weir. It is built on an outcropping of sandstone in the riverbed. Some of the superstructure of the dam remained in the early 19th century for it to be described as a few small arches of very small bricks which were coated with vitrified bitumen. The foundations of the dam are constructed of large masonry blocks. Because the natural barrage on which the dam is built provides the easiest crossing at this part of the Kārūn, it is possible that the spot is also the location of the bridge of boats that spanned the river in Achaemenid times, and of the bridge encountered by Alexander’s admiral, Nearchus, when he navigated the Kārūn in 325 B.C.
Although Bandar-e Nāṣerī on the left bank survives as the older quarter of the present city, medieval Ahvāz was concentrated on the right bank in the area of new Ahvāz. Tenth-century descriptions of the city hint at architectural riches (see part i). The poet and traveler Abū Dolaf Yanbūʿī writes of a mosque “spacious and beautiful,” which may have been the Congregational Mosque mentioned by Moqaddasī; across the river was the Masǰed-e ʿAlī b. Mūsā al-Reżā. Spanning the Kārūn at the fifth rapids, upstream from the Sasanian dam and the city itself, was a large bridge of kiln-baked brick which dated from at least ʿAbbasid times, and which had been restored by the Buyid ʿAżod-al-dawla.
In the vicinity of Ahvāz are several emāmzādas. Some have the white conical or sugar-loaf dome that is characteristic of the region, consisting of a number of stepped stages with concave or honey-combed surfaces. A typical example is the tomb of Daniel at Susa; another, the tomb of Robayn b. Yaʿqūb, 43 miles south of Ahvāz near Ḥosaynīya, is illustrated by G. N. Curzon (Persia and the Persian Question, London, 1898, II, facing p. 344). The type does not seem to be earlier than the Safavid period.
F. Bémont, Les villes de l’Iran, Paris, 1973, II, pp. 204-09.
A. Godard, “Les dômes alvéolés,” Āthār-e Īrān 4, 1949, pp. 359-60.
L. Lockhart, Persian Cities, London, 1960, pp. 157-63.
Idem, “Khuzestan Past and Present,” The Asiatic Review, October, 1948, pp. 2-7.
R. Mignan, “Some Accounts of the Ruins of Ahwaz; with Notes by Capt. R. Taylor,” Transactions of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland 2, 1830, pp. 203-12.
V. Minorsky, ed., Abu-Dulaf Misʿar ibn Muhalhil’s Travels in Iran (circa A.D. 950), Cairo, 1955, pp. 61-62.
N. Pigulevskaya, Les villes de l’état iranien, Paris, 1963, p. 123.
P. Sykes, A History of Persia, 3rd ed., London, 1930, I, pp. 43-44.
Idem, Ten Thousand Miles in Persia, London, 1902, p. 248.
(C. E. Bosworth, X. De Planhol, J. Lerner)
Originally Published: December 15, 1984
Last Updated: July 29, 2011
This article is available in print.
Vol. I, Fasc. 7, pp. 688-691
C. E. Bosworth, X. De Planhol, J. Lerner, “Ahvaz,” Encyclopædia Iranica, I/7, pp. 688-691; an updated version is available online at http://www.iranicaonline.org/articles/ahvaz-a-town-of-southwestern-iran (accessed on 28 March 2014).