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)
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, “AHVĀZ i. History,” 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).