OBOLLA, a port of Lower Iraq during the classical and medieval Islamic periods. It lay in the delta region of the Tigris, at the head of the Šaṭṭ al-ʿArab, on the west bank of the Tigris and on the north side of the canal, the Nahr al-Obolla which, together with the Nahr Maʿqel, connected Obolla with Baṣra during the early Islamic period.
The town certainly existed and flourished in pre-Islamic times, possibly under the Seleucids and more firmly under the Persian rulers of Mesopotamia. It must be the “port of Apologos” mentioned in the Periplus of the Erythraean Sea (possibly 2nd century C.E.) as lying near the coastland. Although the administrative centers of its four component ṭassujs all lay on the eastern side of the Tigris, Obolla must in Sāsānian times have formed part of the province of Mesene or Mayšān/Mayšān; certain sources make it a foundation of Ardašir I (see in general, Le Strange, Lands, pp. 46-8; Schwarz, Iran, pp. 57-8, 61).
When the Arabs first burst out of northeastern Arabia, they found Obolla garrisoned by 500 Persian cavalrymen, but the town was taken in 14/635 by ʿOtba ebn Ḡazvān al-Māzeni, who seized from it 600 dirhams. ʿOtba appointed Nāfeʿ ebn al-Ḥāreṯ al-Ṯaqafi as governor there, and set up a minbar from which the ḵoṭba was pronounced; he then wrote to the caliph ʿOmar that he had seized “the port of Baḥrayn, ʿOmān, Hind and SÂin” (Balāḏori, Fotūḥ, p. 341; Ṭabari, I. pp. 2378 ff.). Obolla soon became overshadowed by the new military encampment of Baṣra constructed four farsaḵs to its west, which became the administrative and military center for Lower Iraq. However, Obolla still remained a flourishing port for trade with the Indian and Far Eastern worlds, now somewhat further from the sea with the gradual receding of the Persian Gulf, though tidal water still came up to it and into the two canals running to Baṣra. Much work was done to help navigation, including the elimination of a dangerous whirlpool in the Tigris opposite Obolla, achieved by sinking there large quantities of stone, at the expense of an ʿAbbāsid princess, and the erection of a beacon to guide shipping. Obolla at first also supplied Baṣra with drinking water, until Solaymān ebn ʿAli constructed a canal to bring fresh water thither; but by the 4th/10th century, the growth of population in Baṣra again necessitated the bringing of water in boats from Obolla (Moqaddasi, p. 129). It was a center of manufacturing, with its turbans and kerchiefs and especially famed (Ḥodud al-ʿālam, tr. Minorsky, p. 138, and Serjeant, p. 37), as also its linen clothing; whilst the agricultural fertility of the region was proverbial (cf. Ebn al-Faqih, p. 104, tr. H. Massé, Damascus 1973, p. 128, and Yāqut, Moʿjam al-boldān, Beirut I, pp. 76-8, in which the philologist al-Aṣmaʿi is quoted that the Nahr al-Obolla was one of the three terrestrial gardens of paradise). Nāṣer-e Ḵosraw passed through it in the mid-5th/11th century, and praises its fine palaces, markets, mosques and rebāṭs (Safar-nāma, p. 118, tr. p. 95). But in the post-Mongol period it seems to have declined to the status of a village, and this is how Ebn Baṭṭuṭa found it, with only traces of its palaces and public buildings (II, pp. 17-18, tr. Gibb, II, pp. 280-1). Writing at just about this same time, Ḥamdollāh Mostawfi mentions only the Nahr Obolla, and not the town (Nozhat al-qolub, ed. Le Strange, 38, tr. 45). At present, the ʿAšār quarter, the residential and administrative one, of the modern Iraqi city of Baṣra, occupies the site of Obolla.
The question of why, in mediaeval times, and especially after the decline of Baṣra, Obolla, with its superior natural advantages, did not supplant the military camp of Baṣra is an intriguing one. It is true that Obolla had not been a great urban center like al-Ḥira was vis-à-vis Kufa in central Iraq, and also, Baṣra always enjoyed greater administrative and military prestige, and was adjacent to the Arabian Desert; see the discussions in Charles Pellat (p. 2, and other references in the index).
C.E. Bosworth. âl-Ubulla,” in EI ² X, pp. 765-66.
Nāṣer-e Ḵosraw, Safar-nāma, ed. Moḥammad Dabir-Siyāqi, Tehran 1335 Š. /1956.
Eng. tr. W.M. Thackston, Jr., Nāṣer-e Khosraw’s Book of Travels (Safarnāma), New York 1986.
Charles Pellat, Le milieu baṣrien et la formation de Ğāḥiẓ, Paris 1953.
R.B. Serjeant, Islamic textiles, material for a history up to the Mongol conquest, Beirut 1972.
(C. Edmund Bosworth)
Originally Published: July 20, 2002
Last Updated: July 20, 2002