The Early Beginnings of Modern Abadan | Willem Floor — ABADAN RETOLD

by Willem Floor

Originally published in ABADAN RETOLD

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


Before oil.
The island of ‘Abbadan, as it was usually known in its Arabic form, was locally more commonly called Jazirat al-Khizr or Khezr island.[1] The maraqqat ‘Abbadan or ‘Abbadan reef was well known to mariners sailing into the Shatt al-’Arab (Arvandrud).[2] The island was a strip of low lying land between the Bahmanshir, Karun and the Shatt al-’Arab rivers. In 1900, it was some 64 km long with a maximum width of 20 km in the southern end and a minimum of 3 km in the middle. At Bawairdah (Bavardeh or Bawarda of today) where the island was narrowest, there was an old canal 3 to 4 feet deep and 3 feet wide and going from bank to bank, that was filled at each high tide. At that time, the center of the island was mostly desert, but the shoreline adjoining the rivers, as far as creeks extend inland, were covered with date groves. Also, much land was being reclaimed in the Ma’amareh neighborhood near the south end.

Map from ‘Memorandum respecting the frontier between Mohammerah and Turkey’, 1912. Abadan Island is marked as ‘El Hizah’, i.e. Al-Khezr. Source: British Library, India Office. Online here.
A more detailed map compiled by Lieutenant Wilson by plane survey in 1909. The northern end of Abadan Island is in the right bottom corner, including the villages Hajj Faisal, Kut-e Sheikh, Puzeh, Mahairzi and Tuwaijat, the quarantine of Mohammerah (Khorramshahr) and the mosque of Shaikh Jom‘eh. Source: British Library, India Office.

The whole island was flat and so little elevated above the level of high tide (its highest point being only 3 m above sea level) that south of Tingah it was flooded almost annually to a depth of a foot or so, while once or twice in every decade the entire island was under water. Below Tingah the water was somewhat saline, but above this point it was possible to grow cereals. However, due to lack of grain and the absence of any but tidal irrigation, crops were only grown in the date groves.[3]

Around 1900, ‘Abbadan island had a total population of about 24,000 Iranian Arabs, who mostly lived in some 55 permanent villages (see table below). However, on the south side of the coast of the island, where the sea coast appeared to be fairly firm and well marked there were no fixed villages, only temporary huts used by shepherds. The island, which was administratively part of the district of Mohammerah (Khorramshahr of today), was divided into two sub-districts: Manyuhi and Qabat al-Nassar (Arvandkenar of today), in each of these two villages there was an agent of the Sheikh of Mohammerah. The part north of Manyuhi, Abadan of today, was formerly under the chief Sheikh of the Dris Ka’b, but then of the Sheikh of the Ahl al-’Aryadh Muhaisin.[4]

Khaz‘al bin Jabir bin Merdaw al-Ka‘bi (1863-1936), aka. Sheikh Khaz‘al, the Amir of Mohammerah Sheikhdom, 1897-1925. Source: Wikimedia.
Sheikh Khaz‘al’s music band and palace in Mohammerah (Khorramshahr), 1909. Source: Unknown.
Painting of Mohammerah (Khorramshahr), ca. 1885. Source: Unknown.
Picture of Mohammerah (Khorramshahr), ca. 1917. Source: British Library, India Office.

The islanders cultivated date groves, which were all owned by Sheikh Khaz’al and which were the only agricultural resource of the island. Some date groves on the island were owned by Sayyeds, whose leader in 1909 was Sayyed Mohammad, who had great influence locally and who was reputed to have supernatural powers. The Sayyeds held their land at the pleasure of the Sheikh, who would not allow them to sell any of the land. From opposite Mohammerah to Khezr’s tomb date groves were continuous on both banks of the Bahmanshir river, but only 100-150 m deep. The Shatt al-Arab side was less cultivated.

A large tract in the north east known as Maharzi was bounded by Shakhat al-Hayak in north and Huz ‘Umar on the east. The Khizr shrine was in the center, more to the north than the south, at 3 km from the Shatt al-Arab and 1.6 km from Bahmanshir; it was mostly visited by Shiites from neighboring districts.[5]

Villages on north shore of ‘Abbadan island from the bifurcation of the Karun and Bahmanshir
to the confluence of the Karun and Shatt al-Arab.
Source: Lorimer 1908-15, Vol. 2, pp. 1-8.


Villages on the west shore of ‘Abbadan from the confluence of
the Karun river and the Shatt al-‘Arab (Arvandrud) to the sea.
Source: Lorimer 1908-15, Vol. 2, pp. 1-8.

Oil before the British, somewhere in Bakhtiyari lands north in Khuzestan. Source: Brunei Gallery, School of Oriental and African Studies.
Work at an oil well, probably Masjed-e Soleyman north of Abadan. Source: Unknown.
Transport of petroleum products by donkey, Abadan, 1910. Source: BP Archives.

The oil era
After oil had been struck on 26 May 1908 at Meydan Naftun (Masjed-e Soleyman) the Anglo-Persian Oil Company had to choose the best way to export it. It was decided that the island of ‘Abbadan would become the oil terminal, because it was a very convenient site for a refinery. It was close to the port of Mohammerah (Khorramshahr) and communications with the Fields (Masjed-e Soleyman) were easy via the Karun river. The Shatt al-’Arab could accommodate ships of 20,000 tons capacity and allowed easy docking. The island had plenty of empty and uncultivated space “and its soil was firm enough to bear large buildings without elaborate foundation work. Moreover, the site of the future city was safe from flooding, even by the highest tides (such as those which covered much of the island in 1938).”[6]

This meant that APOC had to buy or lease land from Sheikh Khaz’al, the nominal “owner.”[7]On 23 April 1909, Reynolds, the local APOC representative, approached Sheikh Khaz’al to lease land on ‘Abbadan Island, for a refinery and the pipeline from the fields to the refinery. Already in May 1909, Indian surveyors under Lt. A. T. Wilson had completed surveying the northern part of ‘Abbadan island and they started on the southern part, before a lease had even been agreed upon.[8] Wilson himself called it a preliminary survey of a square mile of desert that APOC needed for the refinery. It was based on his map of ‘Abbadan island that in July 1909 APOC and Sheikh Khaz’al made their decision to lease the land.[9] In March 1910, the British consul at Mohammerah delimited the refinery area and transmitted the map to Sheikh Khaz’al.[10]

George Bernard Reynolds (left) of the APOC, somewhere in the Fields north of Abadan, probably 1909. Source: BP Archives.
Map of Abadan, 1926. Source: BP Archives.

But who actually owned the island? In the past the Ottoman Empire had laid claim to the island and even had a fort and garrison on it. In 1547, at the point of Morzique, Cheder, Quedr, Khezr, or ‘Abbadan Island, at the entrance of the estuary, the Ottomans built a small fort, which was garrisoned by a number of Ottoman soldiers armed with arquebuses. Previously, the island had been uninhabited, but since 1549 the new Ottoman administration of Basra had started the construction of a mosque as well as to populate ‘Abbadan Island with peasants to grow rice, wheat and onions, which they harvested twice per year. Because the taxation burden was light the number of peasants had grown significantly. In 1550, D. Francisco de Almeida expelled the Ottoman garrison from the fort on Khezr Island,[11] but it returned soon thereafter. In the 1650s, on the Ottoman side of the river there were some small towns, villages, and forts, mostly on the islands such as Khezr (Gadder) and Qobban (Gabon). The Safavid Persian side of the Shatt was often uncultivated during times of hostilities.[12]

However, the dominant tribe in the area, the Banu Ka’b seceded from Ottoman rule and accepted Persian rule as of about 1730.[13]Therefore, Ottoman Turkey provisionally acknowledged Persian sovereignty of the island by the Treaty of Erzerum of 1848, although until 1893 it still claimed that Mohammerah was Ottoman territory.[14] The islands near ‘Abbadan, Haji Salbuq, Bawairdah, Zahir Hoseyn etc, also were acknowledged to be Persian territory. Sheikh Khaz’al, the leader of the Muhaysin tribe that replaced the Ka’b Sheikhs as the leading force in South Khuzestan, wanted to affirm his claim on ‘Abbadan Island. He wanted to develop the island. Although the greater part of the island was barren, it could be irrigated with pumps, which gave the Sheikh hope to make it a valuable property. Therefore, Sheikh Khaz’al wanted “to let a certain portion of Abbadan island for not more than 60 years to foreigners or others with capital to develop agricultural using pumps. In 1901, after much lobbying by Haji Ra’is, Sheikh Khaz’al’s chief advisor, and supported by the British government, Mozaffar al-Din issued a farmān (edict) confirming the right of the tribes living there in the possession of the land. However, the farmān prohibited the tribes from selling land to foreigners, while the Shah promised not sell any part of the land without compensating the islanders. The name of Sheikh Khaz’al was not mentioned in the farmān. Sheikh Khaz’al only kept a copy of the farmān, the original “being deposition in a safe place out of the country.”[15] The farmānwas registered in the Legation and delivered to Sheikh Khaz’al by the British vice-consul at Mohammareh.

“The advent of cheap oil may make Sheikh Khaz’al’s irrigation scheme possible”, a British report from Abadan stated. “Westwards from Ghofar to Mohammarah the whole island was cultivable; the soil is rather free from salt and of the alluvial type.”[16]Major Percy Cox, the Political Resident in the Persian Gulf opined that APOC should negotiate frankly with the Sheikh, “relying on their representative’s adroitness and our diplomatic assistance when the time comes, to secure rates terms as near fair market rates as possible.” He further remarked that the Sheikh would only be very glad to have his position strengthened by having concrete vested British interests in his territory. But, he concluded, first make sure whether Sheikh “has the right to the sell the land at all on Abadan. It may prove he can do no more than lease it.”[17] In reaction, Capt. Lorimer submitted that it was a mistake to think that the upper part of the island (which APOC wanted to acquire- see map) could be had at a very low price, because it was barren. He wrote that recently land on the banks of ‘Abbadan was sold at 2 liras per jarib, but that the Sheikh would still hold the land and reserve the right to half of the crops. The price of land for non-agricultural uses would therefore be higher. Lorimer suggested that an annual lease might be obtained at better terms by agreeing to pay a lump sum instead of a rent, provided the land would return to the Sheikh at the end of the lease, which he suggested be concurrent with the length (52 years) of the oil concession.[18]

As expected APOC asked for assistance from the British government. As a result, Major Cox discussed this with the Sheikh who agreed to lease the land for £650 per year to be paid in advance, on condition that on expiration of the concession all buildings, machinery etc. would become his property. In case of renewal the lease of lands, buildings etc. should be at terms acceptable to him or his descendants. After much discussion Cox returned to Mohammerah at the end of June and concluded the following deal. The Sheikh leased 650 jaribs on ‘Abbadan between Braim and Bawardeh with a frontage of 2,000 metres on the Shatt al-‘Arab for £650/year, payable ten years in advance. APOC further acquired a strip of land with right of way across the island; the right to lease more land elsewhere free from date palms, if the current suite was not suitable; and another 100 jaribs adjacent to the leased site, at the same rate, if asked within 2 years, or at the fair local rate thereafter. Land for the laying of the pipe was granted as well as 10 jaribs at Ahvaz. The lease was for the duration of the concession. In September 1909, APOC already began working on ‘Abbadan Island. By the end of December 1909 some 6,000 tons of material arrived, of which 4,000 was landed on ‘Abbadan at Braim. An old lighter, the ‘Dwina’, was sunk on the mud on the bank of the Shatt al-’Arab at ebb near Braim to serve as a pier for steamers to discharge the refinery and pipe line material. However, the mud was too soft, and when the ‘Dwina’ was filled with mud so that it could sink, her chain broke and she sank in 8 fathoms of water, 200 feet from the bank. Fortunately, its location was no danger for maritime shipping and the consul was able to reassure Sheikh Khaz’al, who had not been asked for permission, that no damage was done.[19]

Putting down oil pipes, probably 1909. Source: Unknown.

The deal between the Sheikh and APOC was not recognized by Tehran, which, in vain, asked him to abrogate it. In 1910, a large number of European and Indians came to build the refinery and buildings. The refinery was surrounded by 4 miles of 10 feet high metal fence, and 4’6” railway ran around the work. Steel jetties were also erected. With the arrival of Dr. M. Turnball, who was transferred from the Fields to the refinery at the end of the year, ‘Abbadan island got its first modern medical dispensary.[20] On 24 July 1910, the British consul visited the refinery, where 4 Europeans, 60-70 Indians and 400 Iranian? Ottoman? Arabs were employed. Brick kilns had been erected, but there was trouble making good brick, because the great heat dried them out quickly, causing them to crack.[21] The APOC also had trouble with its Persian, Arab and Indian workers and strikes occurred regularly. However, the workers’ “overbearing and peremptory” behavior earned them the enmity of Haji Ra’is, Sheikh Khaz’al’s chief minister. Some Indian riveters led by an Afghan, who had caused trouble for the APOC, in the second week of August 1910 went to Basra to ask the governor not to extradite them. The Afghan ring leader was imprisoned. One of the Indians was later arrested in Bombay.[22]

Nevertheless, work at Braim continued to progress well and fast and in January 1911 some 100 additional Indian workers arrived. In April 1911, fearing a labor shortage in the date groves, Sheikh Khaz’al raised the issue of local Arab laborers hired by APOC, which could only be done with his permission. APOC pointed out that Tehran required the hiring of local labor and that this might at times be at odds with the agreement with the Sheikh.[23]

The pipeline from the Fields to ‘Abbadan was completed on 22 June 1911, as well as the telephone line between Ahvaz, Mohammareh and ‘Abbadan, and oil reached Abadan on 25 October. If cholera had not broken out, followed by Ramazan (which started on 26 August 1911), so that workers were unable to do their jobs, the refinery would have been working at year’s end. At that time, a village of 1,200 people had arisen on a part of the island that was formerly a bare plain. Also, solidly constructed buildings for the European staff occupied the river front. This was the nucleus of what would become the city of Abadan, as the site of the refinery was commonly called by those working there as well as by the British in their reports. It was this Persianized name that became commonly used and accepted and became the new city’s official name in 1935. In December 1911 the APOC employed 45 Europeans, 485 British Indians, 30 Chinese and 1,600 Persians and Turks (probably Arabs, but Ottoman subjects).[24]

Abadan Refinery, date unknown. Source:

In November 1911, there was a fight between APOC’s Lur police and Indian workers. As a result, on 18 November all Indian workers (except for some Sikh fitters) went on strike and came to see the British consul at Mohammerah. After having aired their complaints the consul was able to induce them to return and start work again on November 19.[25] On 7 August 1912 a strike broke out at Abadan about the 10-hour workweek, which APOC had imposed following the practice of Burmah Oil in Burmah. The consul was able to induce them to return to work, while APOC made two small concessions concerning medical treatment and supply of firewood. Whereas the first strike only concerned some of the Indian workers, this was a broader strike.[26]

Although the Persian government had opposed the lease of land on ‘Abbadan Island to APOC, on 29 February 1912, the Persian government commissioner for APOC visited the Abadan works, a reflection of the changed political situation: the Shuster mission to put Iran’s finances on solid grounds had failed at the end of 1911 following the Russian ultimatum and the country was financially and otherwise at the mercy of Great Britain and Russia.[27]

The first bulk shipment of oil was made in May 1912 and continued thereafter. It was expected that the refinery would start operating in 3 weeks’ time. On 31 December 1912, APOC employed 2,247 workers (see below for a breakdown).

Breakdown of national composition of APOC-employed workers.
Source: APOC.

In January 1913, 26 Europeans already worked at the refinery. The head office was being erected and electricity being installed.[28] Due to a lack of tins, which reduced the sale of oil, 24 tin-smiths arrived in November 1912. More men were expected (from India?), because local tin-smiths worked too slow.[29] In December 1912, the Belgians opened a Post office on Abadan Island, but it was within APOC’s concession area. They were asked to remove it, which happened at the end of the year. In 1913, the refinery continued production, reaching an export level of 163,000 tons/year.[30]

Also, more workers had been hired. In February 1914, there were 1,500 Lurs on Abadan Island, who rioted after one of them had been run over by a locomotive. Until blood money had been paid by the Indian driver they refused to bury the body. Not finding the Indian, they began damaging workshops and machinery. The British consul at Mohammerah was alerted, who, at midnight, accompanied by an escort of the 18th Lancers – probably the consular guard, at that time formed by the 27th Light Cavalry – went to the island. However, Khaz‘al’s local government had already intervened with 40 guards. The next morning the British consul, accompanied by the Arab guards, had the three ring leaders arrested and handed them over to Sheikh Khaz’al. His military escort remained at the APOC premises, but quiet had returned and there was no need for their intervention. The Lurs returned to work and it was expected that the ringleaders would be sent home. The Lur tribesman was not the only APOC employee who died that month. So did Mr. C. Ritchie, APOC’s manager, who died of small-pox on 28 February 1914 at Basra.[31]

When WWI broke out, APOC had a working refinery and pipeline with all the necessary infrastructure (staff, buildings, amenities) and was able to serve the war effort and the world market and to play an increasingly important role.

Reza Shah preparing for his campaign against Sheikh Khaz‘al, 1925. Source: Unknown.

National Archief, den Haag. VOC 1188.
National Archives, London. FO 248/960 and 248/961.

Books and articles
Administration Report = Administration Report on the Persian Gulf Political Residency for the year (1873 to 1940) in Government of India. The Persian Gulf Administration Reports 1873-1947, 11 vols., Gerrards Cross, Archives Editions, 1986.

As Gavetas da Torre do TomboGavetas I-XXIII (henceforth Gavetas) 12 vols. , edited by A. Silva Rego (Lisbon: Centro de Estudos Históricos Ultramarinos, 1960-77).

Couto = Barros, João de. Da Ásia. de João de Barros e de Diogo de Couto. Nova ed. 24 vols. (Lisboa, Na Regia Officina Typografica, 1777-1788 [reprint: Livraria S. Carlos, 1973-1975]).

Elwell-Sutton, L. P. “ĀBĀDĀN i. History,” Encyclopaedia Iranica, Online Edition, 1982, available at

Floor, Willem. 2006. “The rise and fall of the Banu Ka’b. A borderer state in southern Khuzestan,” IRAN XLIV, pp. 277-315.

Government of Bombay, 1856. Selections from the records of the Bombay Government No. XXIV– New Series. Bombay. [reprint Cambridge: Oleander Press, 1985].

Lorimer, J. G. 1908-15. Gazetteer of the Persian Gulf, Oman, and Central Arabia, 2 vols., Calcutta.

Political Diaries = Political Diaries of the Persian Gulf 1904-1947, 17 vols. n.p. Archive Editions, 1990.

Teixeira, Pedro 1967. The Travels. Nedeln: Kraus Reprint.

Wilson, Arnold T. 1941. S.W.Persia. Letters and Diary of a Young Political Officer 1907-1914. Oxford: Oxford UP.

Links [Ibn Hawqal] [econ report 1916] [mil. report 39] [Rawlinson-Ka’b] [historical summary]

Mostowfi13, 19, 49, 51


  1. Wilson 1942, p. 94. 
  2. Bombay Records, p. 579. 
  3. FO 248/961, Report of Abbadan Island (1909). 
  4. Lorimer 1915, vol. 2, pp. 1-8. 
  5. FO 248/961, Report of Abbadan Island (1909); Wilson 1942, p. 94. Khezr’s tomb is shown on a map by Colonel Chesney in 1849, and H. C. Rawlinson in 1857 noted that it lay about 20 miles from the sea (“Notes on the Ancient Geography of Mohamrah and the Vicinity,” JRGS 28, 1857, pp. 185-90). 
  6. Elwell-Sutton 1982. 
  7. Administration Report 1908, p. 33. 
  8. Administration Report 1909, p. 40; Political Diaries, vol. 3, p. 584,639. 
  9. Wilson 1941, pp. 91-92, 93. 
  10. Political Diaries, vol. 3, p. 46. 
  11. As Gavetas XV, 3564, p. 138 (11/12/1563); Couto, Década 6ª-IX-iv, xiv, xv, pp. 243-47, 325-26, 333-38. 
  12. VOC 1188, Boudean, Schriftelijck relaes (Surat 29/11/1651), f. 538 vs.; Teixeira, Travels, pp. 26-27. 
  13. Floor 2006. 
  14. Political Diaries vol. 4, p. 63. 
  15. FO 248/961, Report of Abbadan Island (1909). 
  16. FO 248/961, Report of Abbadan Island (1909). A Basra jarib = 4624 sq. yards or 23/24th of one acre. 
  17. FO 248/960 Cox to Lorimer, Ahvaz. 09/03/1909 
  18. FO 248/961, Report of Abbadan Island (1909). 
  19. Administration Report 1909, p. 40; Political Diaries, vol. 3, pp. 732, 760. See Wilson 1941, p. 93 as to how the negotiations took place. 
  20. Administration Report 1910, pp. 39, 45, 52. 
  21. Political Diaries vol. 4, p. 136. 
  22. Political Diaries vol. 4, pp. 116, 161, 198. 
  23. Political Diaries vol. 4, pp. 325, 362. 
  24. Administration Report 1911, p. 70. For the etymology of the name, see Ellwell-Sutton 1982. 
  25. Political Diaries, vol. 4, p. 459. 
  26. Political Diaries, vol. 4, p. 587. 
  27. Political Diaries, vol. 4, p. 519. 
  28. Administration Report 1912, p. 68. According to Political Diaries, vol. 4, p. 563 the first crude oil was exported from Abadan in June 1912. By the end of 1913, there were at Abadan 30 Europeans and 1,000 British Indians. Administration Reprt 1913, p. 93. 
  29. Political Diaries, vol. 4, p. 636. 
  30. Administration Report 1913, p. 84-85, 87-88. 
  31. Political Diaries vol. 5, p. 417. 

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