Abadan in the Ancient and Early Mediaeval Periods | Khodadad Rezakhani — ABADAN RETOLD

by Khodadad Rezakhani, Freie Universität, Berlin

Originally published in ABADAN RETOLD

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.



The geography of Abadan and its location between and in close proximity to many different rivers makes it a hard sight to pinpoint. Some of the available textual references can only be speculated to denote the city or the area, while references to the name, in form of ‘Abbadan, only start from the early Islamic centuries and continue sporadically until the pre-modern period.

Abadan in the pre-Islamic period
The particular position of Abadan on an island makes it distinguishable enough for ancient sources to remark. In the Islamic sources, where the name ‘Abbadan is used, we do find clear references to its location on an island close to Basra. The same region, it should be remarked, was the site of several ancient cities, which can be associated with the site of Abadan or at least the large urban sites in its vicinity. However, in general, the region below the Susiana plain, including the area of Ahvaz, was less populated and settled in the period immediately preceding the Islamic epoch, mainly due to the extent of the marshlands (Moghaddam and Miri 2007). Its partial reclamation appears to be a late Sasanian venture, part of the dynasty’s efforts to increase the agricultural land in the lower reaches of the Karun river (Wenke, 1975).

Perhaps the most well-known ancient site in the region of Abadan is the famous city of Spasinou Charax, the capital of the Hellenistic kingdom of Characene or Mesene.[1] Named after Hyspaosines (ca. 166/165 BC), a governor of the Seleukid Antiochos IV, the region became the centre of a relatively powerful kingdom controlling the access to the Persian Gulf from Mesopotamia. The description provided for the site of Spasinou Charax (Pliny, 6.31.139) fits well with the site of Basra and the surrounding area on the lower Tigris, although changes in the course of the Shatt-ul-Arab and the Karun makes it hard to pinpoint the exact location of the place.

Another location, called Forat — Furat al-Meishan in the Arabic sources and Porath in the Syriac ones (Pliny, 6.32.145; Chabot, pp. 272, 478) — became the capital of Mesene following the Arsacid suzerainty over the Kingdom of Characene. Porath was defined as the region where Pisitigris (Karun) pours into the Tigris, just to the north of Abadan and in today’s Khorramshahr/Muhammarah. This is also where in 1857 Henry Rawlinson wrote about the presence of ruins still locally called Forat (Rawlinson 188). However, considering the changes in the course of Karun in the past millennium, it is quite possible that Karun joined the Shatt al-‘Arab further south, in the area of Abadan. The city of Porath became the seat of bishopric of Mesene/Meyšan in the early Christian centuries, and an important site for Arsacid trade in lower Mesopotamia. Its location, ca. 18 km south of Spasinou Charax (Hansman 1991) makes it quite close to the site of the island of Abadan.

Following the Sasanian takeover of the Arsacid Empire, the region of Mesene/Meshan fell to the new dynasty, where Ardashir I apparently founded a city called Wahman-Aradashir, a name which is preserved in the name of the river Bahmashir in today’s Abadan. This allows for speculation that Abadan was actually part of the early Sasanian site of Wahman-Ardashir. The region of Wahman-Ardashir was considered part of the khura(district) of Shādh-Bahman (also known as Khura of Dijla) during the Sasanian period, although evidence of this only comes from the Islamic sources (Ibn Khurradadbih I.2-3). The district also included the city of Ubulla, the major Sasanian port in the region.

The city of Ubulla is indeed the most famous port in the region in the late antique period. Its name is an Arabic rendition, possibly based on a Middle Persian version, of ultimately Apolloniatis, a region considered “part of Babylonia” and a neighbor of Susiana formerly known as Sitacenê (Strabo XV.3. 12). It might also be identified with the port of Apologos mentioned in the Periplus of the Erythraean Sea, a second century AD geographical treatise. The site of Ubulla is mentioned in the Islamic sources as lying four farsakhs/parasang (ca. 20 km) east of Basra and at the opposite side of Tigris (shatt-ul-Arab) an area approximately in the region of Khurramshahr.

Old map of southern Khuzestan by the Arab geographer Muhammad Abo’l-Qasem Ibn Hawqal Source: P. 250 of Ibn Hauqal’s Surat ul-Ard, Leiden edition. Photo by author.


Abadan in the Islamic Sources
During the Islamic period, the site of Abadan, known as ‘Abbadan (with shidda on the b and apparently etymologized as a derivative of the ‘-b-d root, Elwell-Sutton 2016) is first mentioned in al-Masalik wa-l-Mamalik of Ibn Khurradadbih. Here it is presented as being the first stop on the main route from Basra to Oman (al-Masalik, I.44). It is in fact mentioned as a suburb of Basra, the new port that was to over-shadow Ubulla. We know that in the early Islamic period and under the governorship (AD 664-673) of Ziyad b. Abihi, the natural brother of caliph Mu’awiyya I, the governor granted part of the estate of ‘Abbadan to Humran b. Aban. Later, Caliph Abdul-Malik I (AD 685-705) granted the rest of the estate to Humran and his descendants (Baladhuri, 372).

The name of ‘Abbadan itself is probably an Arabic take on the name Apphana given to an island at the delta of the Tigris (i.e. the Shatt al-‘Arab or Arvand Rud) (Ptolemy, Geographia VI.7) and presented as Appadan by Marcian, a fourth century Roman historian (Rawlinson 188), who might have gotten some of his information from records of Trajan’s invasion of the region.[2] The form Appadanmight also be a justification for Arabic shiddaon /b/ and the form ‘Abbadan.

Through development efforts by the Muslims, ‘Abbadan became a small town, providing supplies both to Basra and the passing ships, which also used its position between the two rivers as an ideal docking point. Its local products were salt and woven straw mats. It was also the site of a garrison used to keep pirates away from Basra. It must have, however, had a rather successful trade business, as the taxation of 441,000 dinars in the Ilkhanid period, mentioned by Hamdullah al-Mostowfi in the fourteenth century AD, seems quite high.

Maqdisi says that the Dijla (here meaning the Shatt al-‘Arab/Arvand Rud) goes past Ubulla toward ‘Abbadan and empties into the Persian Gulf (al-Khalij al-Farsi) (Maqdisi, XIII.593). Al-Mas‘udi mentions that a famous whirlpool called Jarrara causes the saltiness of waterways around Basra, and that near Ubulla and ‘Abbadan, there is a place where people sit on three wooden structures and light up fires to warn ships of the whirlpool.

In Yaqut’s 13th century dictionary of geographical names, Mu’jam ul-Buldan, under ‘Abbadan, he mentions that ‘Abbadan is a triangular island south of Basra, surrounded on both sides by Dijla (here it can mean the two canals of Shatt al-‘Arab). Each of the canals is used by ships, with the right one (the western canal) used for ships heading to the Arabian coast, while the left one (the eastern canal or the Bahmanshir) used by the ships heading toward the coast of Fars and Siraf. On the island, the village of Muharzi is mentioned as the most important one, located on the north of the island, now part of the southern districts of Khorramshahr/Muhammarah.

The geographical position of Abadan, at the top of the island and surrounded on three sides by rivers appears to have been quite central in its relative rise to importance. Ibn Hauqal’s Surat al-Ardh?, written in the tenth century, marks ‘Abbadan as a peninsula on the side of Nahr Mu’qal (presumably a branch of the Shatt-ul-Arab) and the sea (the Persian Gulf), down river from Basra. Instead, the city of Ubulla is marked as being located on two different islands, opposite each other, surrounded by Shatt al-‘Arab and the Nahr Mu’qal.

The fact is that due to changes in the course of the rivers, and a lack of archaeological surveys, we do not know when the current course of Karun to the north of Abadan and Bahmanshir to its east were established. Bahmanshir might have at one point acted as a canal of Karun, which independently emptied into the Persian Gulf. In this case, if we assume that Shatt al-‘Arab passed to the west of Abadan and Karun-Bahmanshir to its east, we could consider Abadan to have been a peninsula, as marked by Ibn Hauqal.

On the other hand, if we assume that Bahmanshir was in fact a continuation of Shatt al-‘Arab and surrounded the island with its canal, the Nahr Mu’qal, while Karun emptied directly to the sea further east, as Ibn Hauqal draws, then we will have to consider the possibility that Ibn Hauqal’s Ubulla was in fact located on the present day Abadan Island, although further to the south.[3] In this case, the site of ‘Abbadan as mentioned on Ibn Hauqal’s map would be on the opposite bank of the Nahr Mu’qal, near the present site of Faw.

This is perhaps strengthened by Ibn Hauqal’s further notice that “there is no sea in Khuzistan except the little bit near the border of Mahruban and near Suleimanan, opposite ‘Abbadan, where only a little reaches the Sea of Fars (the Persian Gulf)” (Surat al-Ard, 25). Consequently, ‘Abbadan is also not seen as part of Khuzistan, rather part of al-Sawad, the black marshlands of southern Mesopotamia. Abu ‘Ubaidah mentions that the “length of Iraq is from Mosul to ‘Abbadan” and Ibn Khurradadbih relates that the length of al-Sawad is from “‘Allath and Harbā to ‘Abbadan” and it is 125 Farsakhs (Ibn Khurradadbih, I.13). The fact that Abadan was the last part of the territory of Khuzistan and Iran is remarked again in Nizhat ul-Qulub of Hamdullah Mostowfi, as well as in a poem by the 11th century poet, Manuchehri, who says “There is no determination beyond his determination/(the same way that) there is no village beyond ‘Abbadan”. Al-Muqadassi also says that ‘Abbadan is on an island and there is no cities or villages beyond it.

The last involvement of ‘Abbadan in great events of the mediaeval period was its position in the famous Zanj Revolt where the whole region, as part of the marshlands around Basra, acted as a center for the rebels (Popovic, 1999). This revolt by Zutt (east African) plantation workers and funded by East African merchants with interests in the trade routes of the Persian Gulf and the Arabian Sea shook the foundations of the Abbasid power and was only suppressed by using extreme force. Its suppression, however, meant that the central Islamic power of the Abbasid Caliphate had to greatly change its socio-economic basis, including changes to the fabric of social life in southern Iraq, together with the marshlands of Basra and ‘Abbadan. In this scheme, due to its access to the sea, Abadan was considered an important region to control. However, despite continuing local importance, the area had largely lost its importance by the 13th century and most of its major sites, including Forat, were in ruin (Morony 1988), with ‘Abbadan itself having been reduced to a village.


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Elwell-Sutton, L. P. “ĀBĀDĀN i. History,” Encyclopaedia Iranica, Online Edition, 2016, available at http://www.iranicaonline.org/articles/abadan-01-history (accessed on 02 June 2016).

Ibn Haukal, Abul-qasim. Saurat Al-Ard (Opus Geographicum). Edited by J. H. Kramers. Bibliotheca Geographorum Arabicourm. Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1938.

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  1. The name of Mesene (Greek for “Middle”) is itself used to refer to an island at the “mouth of the Tigris” by the fifth century AD church historian, Philostorgius (Elwell-Sutton 2016). Whether this is the origin of the name of the kingdom of Mesene/Characene, or the larger Mesopotamia is not quite clear. 
  2. Rawlinson speculated that Abadan is also related to the city of Hubadanmentioned in the cuneiform accounts of the maritime expedition of Sennacherib, the Assyrian ruler of the eighth-seventh century BC (Rawlinson 1857: 188). 
  3. Rawlinson, in 1857, draws attention to this mistake, which has caused “grave political errors.” Here he similarly suggests that the mouth of Karun lies further to the east “whereas the Bamishir is in reality the mere Eastern arm of the Delta of the Euphrates” (Rawlinson 189). Thus we can imagine that a change in the course of Karun, and its current joining of Shatt al-‘Arab (Rawlinson’s “Delta of the Euphrates”) has occurred since 1857 and is a relatively new development. 

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