WORK CAMPS AND COMPANY TOWNS: Khuzestan, Iran | Ian Seccombe & Richard Lawless

by Ian Seccombe & Richard Lawless


In the second half of the nineteenth century, Khuzestan was one of the least developed provinces in Persia and the great majority of the population lived in absolute poverty.  The pattern of resource utilization ranged from sedentary agriculture to pastoral nomadism, and in many cases a combination of the two. Local industry was very rudimentary and primitive
Exploitative systems of land tenure and taxation together with the prevailing insecurity did not favour the development of agriculture or the growth of trade. The unfavourable socio-economic conditions resulted in considerable emigration from the province to neighbouring Ottoman· territories and even to India. Manpower shortages further inhibited development.

Local boats at Karun river in Ahvaz

The opening of the Karun river to navigation in 1888, followed by the first discoveries of oil in 1908, brought profound socio-economic changes to Khuzestan.[1] The population of the province grew rapidly as a result of strong immigration: the total population increased from an estimated 180,000 in the 1880s, to 410,000 in the early 1920s, 543,000 in 1934 and 1,422,000 at the first national census in 1956.2 In the early years in-migration was from two major sources: adjacent provinces such as Fars where depression of trade and insecurity of property encouraged people to emigrate, and neighboring Turkish territory from which many migrated to avoid conscription. The first national census in 1956 revealed that a quarter of the population of the province had been born outside the census district in which they were enumerated (Table 3.1). Of the migrant group (344,034) some two thirds had been born in other provinces, notably Yazd (33 per cent) and Bandar and Fars (13 per cent).

The two principal trends in the demographic development of the province during the first half of the twentieth century were (i) the increase in the number of sedentarized as opposed to tribal and nomadic peoples, and (ii)


rapid urbanization and the emergence of towns with large populations in the southern parts of the province. Until the opening of the Karun river, the province was weakly urbanized and the only settlements that could be defined as towns were Dezful and Shushtar, the provincial capital. The opening of the Karun to navigation, however, circumvented the traditional urban centres and population was attracted to the new centres of economic activity which were in the south. In particular, the two river ports of Mohammarah and Ahvaz experienced rapid population growth: Mohammarah increased from 3,000 inhabitants in 1882 to 12,000 in 1916, Ahvaz which was merely a village of 300 inhabitants in 1882, developed into a town of 4,000 people by 1916 (Table 3.2). Dezful and Shushtar, on the other hand, declined in importance and in population and many of their tradesmen and merchants emigrated to the south, especially to Ahvaz. The population of Dezful for example, estimated at 20,000 in 1882 had declined to 15,000 by 1916; a similar trend is discernible at Shushtar.

Dezful, one of the most important towns in Khuzestan before the oil discovery

The discovery of oil In 1908, and the subsequent development of the oil fields, accelerated the urbanization process, reinforced the new settlement pattern and added new clements to the emerging urban system of Khuzestan. The growing volume of traffic along the Karun river associated with oil exploration and development further stimulated the expansion of the
ports of Mohammarah (renamed Khorramshahr) and Ahvaz. Until 1923, supplies for the oilfields at Masjed Soleyman in the southern foothills of the Zagros were brought by ship to Khorramshahr at the mouth of the Karun and Shatt al Arab estuary, and from there were carried in barges 184 km up the Karun to the river port of Ahvaz, where they had to be unloaded for a portage of about one and a half kilometres to circumvent the rapids. At first this portage was carried out by wagon but these were soon replaced by a narrow-gauge railway. Smaller barges continued the journey to Darkhazineh, 145 km up-river and the last 40 km to Masjed Soleyman was undertaken by mule-drawn wagons. A narrow-gauge railway was constructed from Darkhazineh to Masjed Soleyman in 1923. In order to improve the unloading of cargoes at Khorramshahr, the Iranian government in 1914 exchanged Chiah Surkh and other border


territory further north for about eight square kilometres of Turkish territorial waters in the Shatt al Arab on the Karun. The new port of Khorramshahr developed here, catcring almost entirely for the requirements of the oil industry.

The old town of Mohammarah (Khorramshahr) – traditional houses along one of the canals leading from the Karun river. 1910s

In order to export the oil, a pipeline to the Shatt al Arab was completed in 1911. The pipeline and tanker terminal and a refinery were built on a virtually uninhabited island to the south of Khorramshahr. The refinery area, the town that developed adjacent to it and the island itself became known as Abadan.

Bungalows built for British expatriate staff at Masjed Soleyman, Khuzestan, the major settlement in the oilfields and producing area.
Bakhtiari laborers working at workshop in Masjed Soleyman

At Masjed Soleyman, the centre of the oil fields and producing area, a new town emerged containing company stores and workshops, new housing areas, a company-built bazaar and a hospital. Electric power supply was secured by a new power station at Tembi. By the 1920s Ahvaz, which was pipeline headquarters before 1930, served as the main station for stores, workshops, river and road transport, with a company hospital and a large European community.

The first bridge of Ahvaz is under construction

In 1926 the town replaced Shushtar as provincial capital of Khuzestan. By the mid 1930s these four towns, Abadan, Ahvaz, Khorramshahr and Masjed Soleyman, had come to dominate the urban system of Khuzestan (Table 3.2). The most spectacular urban growth occurred at Abadan where, in the course of little more than 25 years, a settlement of over 60,000 inhabitants had emerged alongside the world’s largest refinery.

Bakhtiyari labourers working in Khuzestan oilfields

The extensive schemes for development of the oil fields and refinery, planned after the ncw conccssion agreement was concluded in 1933, were brought to a halt by the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939.

At Agha Jari, in the oilfields of Khuzestan, many company workers and their families were accommodated in tents at the end of 1946.

Until 1930 all oil production had come from thc Masjed Soleyman field. In that year the Haft Gel field, 56 km south-south-east of Masjed Soleymiin, joined it in production, but although new oilfields had been discovered at Uili, Naft-e Safid, Agha Jari and Gach Saran during the 1930s, the company was forced to suspend work on their development and concentrate on security measures. The additional housing projects that were in hand for the old fields and Abadan were also suspended at this time. Transport, supplies and foreign recruitment were interrupted because of the hostilities, major markets for oil products were lost and production declined.[3]


The British military occupation of southern Persia in 1941 and the wartime demand for petroleum products to supply Allied forces in the Middle East and Far East inaugurated a new period of expansion in oil production which could only be achieved by the development of the new oilfields discovered before the war.[4] Nevertheless Masjed Soleyman remained the administrative headquarters of the oil fields. With its great workshops and stores, laboratories and research institutions, offices, clubs, hospital and residential quarters, where a large part of its 6,000 employees were housed, it was the most complete and mature of the company’s settlements outside Abadan. The new settlements of Naft-e Safid and Haft Gel were very small and only Agha Jari experienced significant development. In 1951 it contained its own hospital and industrial area with important stores and workshops and employed the largest concentration of labour some 3,500 – outside Abadan and Masjed Soleyman. Because of the distance of Agha Jari and Gach Saran from Abadan, a new tanker terminal was constructed at Bandar-e Mashour on the Khur Musa sea inlet, sixteen kilometres above the railway port of Bandar-e Shahpur, the terminus of the Trans-Iranian Railway opened in 1938. Equipped to handle tankers of 40,000 tons, the new terminal was opened in 1948 and provided with housing for 1,000 employees and their families. During the war the Trans-Iranian Railway had been extended to Khorramshahr so that the river Karun was abandoned by the company for water transport in 1950 in favor of exclusive use of road and rail communications.

The company town of Abadan dominated by the great oil refinery; in the foreground the Persian quarter known as “Abadan town” and beyond the refinery the district of Braim built for the company’s British expatriate staff.

The first national census in 1956 provides us with a clear picture of the urban system of Khuzestan. Before that date, population statistics were mainly a matter of conjecture and although population estimates for individual towns were made by municipal officials, they were rarely published. By 1956 Khuzestan was one of the most urbanized provinces in Iran, with over two-fifths of the population living in settlements of more than 5,000 inhabitants. Abadan, which had more than doubled in size during the preceding decade, dominated the urban system. With a population of 226,083 in 1956 (Table 3.2) Abadan contained 37 per cent of the urban population of Khuzestan. Ahvaz, the second city, had experienced even more dramatic growth, quadrupling in size from an estimated 30,000 in 1939 to 120,000 in 1956. Abadan and Ahvaz together contained 56 per cent of the province’s urban population. Khorramshahr and Masjed Soleyman, on the other hand, had experienced more modest growth. Khorramshahr in particular grew slowly from an estimated 30,000 in 1934 to only 43,850 in 1956.

General view of Abadan; in the foreground the district of Braim and beyond it the refinery and extensive tank farms.

Of the new centres created during the postwar expansion of the oil industry Nafte Safid and Haft Gel remained very small settlements and only Agha Jari (24,195 inhab. In 1956) experienced substantial growth. The traditional centres of the pre-oil era had been completely eclipsed by 1956. .Shushtar once the provincial capital, had declined from 20,000 in 1934 to 18,527 in 1956; Dezful had stagnated, recording a population of 52,121 in 1956 compared with an estimated 50-60,000 in 1934.

Migration played a key role in the growth of the oil towns which were essentially immigrant communities. This was confirmed by the 1956 census questionnaire on lifetime migration. It revealed that migrants accounted for 52 per cent of the population of Abadan, and a large proportion of Ahvaz (46 per cent), Khorramshahr (43 per cent), and Masjed Soleyman (33 per cent).


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