Abadan is located in the south-west corner of Iran. It lies on Abadan Island, bounded in the west by the Arvand waterway and to the east by the Bahmanshir outlet of the Karun river, near the Iran-Iraq border at a distance of 140km. from Ahvaz, the provincial border.
The earliest mention of the island of Abadan, if not the port itself, is found in works of the geographer Marcian, who renders the name “Apphadana”. Earlier, the classical geographer Ptolemy notes “Apphana” as an island off the mouth of the Tigris (which is, where the modern Island of Abadan is located). An etymology for this name is presented by B. Farahvashi to be derived from the Persian word “ab” (water) and the root “pā” (guard, watch) thus “coastguard station”).
In Islamic times, a pseudo-etymology was produced by the historian Ahmad ibn Yahya al-Baladhuri (d. 892) quoting a folk story that the town was presumably founded by one “Abbad bin Hosayn” from the Arabian Tribe of Banu Tamim, who established a garrison there during the governorship of Hajjaj in the Ummayad period.
In the subsequent centuries, the Persian version of the name had begun to come into general use before it was adopted by official decree in 1935.
Abadan is thought to have been further developed into a major port city under the Abbasids’ rule. The city was then a commercial source of salt and woven mats. The siltation of the river delta forced the town further away from water; In the 14th century, however, Ibn Battutah described Abadan just as a small port in a flat salty plain. Politically, Abadan was often the subject of dispute between the nearby states. In 1847, Persia acquired it from the Ottoman Empire in which state Abadan has remained since. From the 17th century onward, the island of Abadan was part of the lands of the Arab Ka’ab (Bani Kaab) tribe. One section of the tribe, Mohaysen, had its headquarters at Mohammara (now Khorramshahr), until the removal of Shaikh Khaz’al Khan in 1924.
It was not until the 20th century that rich oil fields were discovered in the area. On 16 July 1909, after secret negotiation with the British consul, Percy Cox, assisted by Arnold Wilson, and Sheik Khaz’al agreed to a rental agreement for the island, including Abadan. The Sheik continued to administer the island until 1924. The Anglo-Persian Oil Company built its first pipeline terminus oil refinery in Abadan, starting in 1909 and completing it in 1912, with oil flowing by August 1912. Refinery throughput numbers rose from 33,000 tons in 1912–1913 to 4,338,000 tons in 1931. By 1938, it was the largest in the world.
During World War II, Abadan was the site of brief combat between Iranian forces and British and Indian troops during the Anglo-Soviet invasion of Iran. Later, Abadan was a major logistics centre for Lend-Lease aircraft being sent to the Soviet Union by the United States.
In 1951, Iran nationalised all oil properties and refining ground to a stop on the island. Rioting broke out in Abadan after the government had decided to nationalise the oil facilities, and three British workers were killed. It was not until 1954 that a settlement was reached, which allowed a consortium of international oil companies to manage the production and refining on the island. That continued until 1973 when the NIOC took over the facilities. After the total nationalisation, Iran focused on supplying oil domestically and built a pipeline from Abadan to Tehran.
Abadan was not a major cultural or religious centre, but it played an important role in the Islamic Revolution. On 19 August 1978, the anniversary of the US-backed coup d’état that had overthrown the nationalist and popular Iranian prime minister, Mohammed Mossadegh, the Cinema Rex, a movie theatre in Abadan, was set ablaze. The Cinema Rex Fire caused 430 deaths, but more importantly, it was another event that kept the Islamic Revolution moving ahead. At the time, there was much confusion and misinformation about the perpetrators of the incident. The public largely put the blame on the local police chief and also the Shah and SAVAK.
In September 1980, Abadan was almost overrun during a surprise attack on Khuzestan by Iraq, marking the beginning of the Iran–Iraq War. For 12 months, Abadan was besieged, but never captured, by Iraqi forces, and in September 1981, the Iranians broke the siege of Abadan. Much of the city, including the oil refinery, which was the world’s largest refinery with a capacity of 628,000 barrels per day, was badly damaged or destroyed by the siege and by bombing. Prior to the war, the city’s civilian population was about 300,000, but at the war’s end, nearly the entire populace had sought refuge elsewhere in Iran.
After the war, the biggest concern was the rebuilding of Abadan’s oil refinery, as it was operating at 10% of capacity due to damage. In 1993, the refinery began limited operation and the port reopened. By 1997, the refinery reached the same rate of production as before the war.