Ahvaz is the analogue of “Avaz” and “Avaja” which appear in Achaemenid emperor Darius’s epigraph. This word also appears in the Naqsh-Rostam inscription as “Khaja” or “Khooja”.
First named as Ōhrmazd-Ardašē, Ahvaz was built near the beginning of the Sassanid dynasty on what historians believe to have been the site of the old city of Taryana, a notable city under the Persian Achaemenid dynasty, or the city of Aginis referred to in Greek sources where Nearchus and his fleet entered the Pafitigris. The city was founded by Ardashir I in 230.
The city’s name either combined Ardashir’s name with the Zoroastrian name for God, Ōhrmazd, or Hormizd’s name with that of his grandfather. It became the seat of the province and was also referred to as Hūmšēr. During the Sassanid era, an irrigation system and several dams were constructed, and the city prospered. Examples of Sassanid-era dams are Band-e Bala-rud, Band-e Mizan, Band-e Borj Ayar and Band-e Khak. The city replaced Susa, the ancient capital of Susiana, as the capital of what was then called Khuzestān.
The city had two sections: the nobles of the city lived in one part while the other part was inhabited by merchants. When Arabs invaded the area in 640, the part of the city home to the nobility was demolished but the merchant area remained intact. The city was therefore renamed Sūq al-Ahwāz, “Market of the Khuz”, a semi-literal translation of the Persian name of this quarter – Ahwāz being the Arabic broken plural of Hûz, taken from the ancient Persian term for the native Elamite peoples, Hūja.
During the Umayyad and Abbasid eras, Ahvaz flourished as a centre for the cultivation of sugarcane and as the home of many well-known scholars. It is discussed by such respected medieval historians and geographers as ibn Hawqal, Tabari, Istakhri, al-Muqaddasi, Ya’qubi, Masudi, and Mostowfi Qazvini. Nearby stood the Academy of Gundishapur, where the modern-day teaching hospital is said to have been first established.
Ahvaz was devastated by the Mongol invasions of the 13th and 14th centuries and subsequently declined into a village. The dam and irrigation channels, no longer maintained, eroded and finally collapsed early in the 19th century. During this time Ahvaz was primarily inhabited by the original Khuzhis and a small number of Sabians. Although most Arab migrants fled the city, a few stayed. Some minor cultivation continued, while all evidence of sugarcane plantations is still going on in Haft-Teppe area in the north of Ahvaz, although ruins of sugarcane mills from the medieval era remained in existence. Several ruins of water mills also still remain in Shush and Shushtar.
The seat of the province has, for the most of its history, been in its northern reaches, first at Susa (Shush) and then at Shushtar. During a short spell in the Sasanian era, the capital of the province was moved to its geographical centre, where the river town of Hormuz-Ardashir (modern Ahvaz). However, later in the Sasanian time and throughout the Islamic era, the provincial seat returned and stayed at Shushtar, until the late Qajar period. With the increase in the international sea commerce arriving on the shores of Khuzestan, Ahvaz became a more suitable location for the provincial capital. The River Karun is navigable all the way to Ahvaz. The town was thus refurbished by the order of the Qajar king, Naser al-Din Shah and renamed after him, Nâseri. Shushtar quickly declined, while Ahvaz/Nâseri prospered to the present day.
In the 19th century, Ahvaz was no more than a small borough inhabited mainly by Sabeans. In the 1880s, under Qajar rule, the Karun River was dredged and re-opened to commerce. A newly built railway crossed the Karun at Ahvaz. The city again became a commercial crossroads, linking river and rail traffic. The construction of the Suez Canal further stimulated trade. A port city was built near the old village of Ahvaz and named Bandar-e-Naseri in honour of Nassereddin Shah Qajar.
Oil was found near Ahvaz in the early 20th century, and the city once again grew and prospered as a result of this newfound wealth. From 1897 to 1925, the city of Ahvaz was in the hands of Heshmatoddoleh Qajar, who acted as governor and Sarhang Reza Gholi Khane Arghoon commander of Ghajari’s army based in Khuzestan. Sheikh Khaz’al was recognized by Mozaffar ad-Din Shah Qajar as hereditary ruler of Mohammerah, Sardar Asad Bakhtiari as the most powerful leader of Khuzestan’s Bakhtiaries. He had power and authority over most regions of Khuzestan, such as Dezful, Shushtar, Izeh, even Ahvaz and Amir mojahede bakhtiari in Ramhormoz and Behbahan. At this time, the newly founded Ahvaz was named Nâseri in honour of its founder Nassereddin Shah Qajar. Afterwards, during the Pahlavi period, it resumed its old name, Ahvaz. The government of the Khūzestān Province was transferred there from Shûshtar in 1926.
The Trans-Iranian Railway reached Ahvaz in 1929 and by World War II, Ahvaz had become the principal built-up area of the interior of Khūzestān. Professional segregation remained well marked between various groups in that period still feebly integrated: Persians, sub-groupings of Persians and Arabs. Natives of the Isfahan region held an important place in retail trade, owners of cafes and hotels and as craftsmen.
Iraq attempted to annex Khūzestān and Ahvaz in 1980, resulting in the Iran–Iraq War (1980–1988). Ahvaz was close to the front lines and suffered badly during the war.
Iraq had pressed its claims to Khūzestān. Iraq had hoped to exacerbate ethnic tensions and win over popular support for the invaders. Most accounts say that the Iranian Arab inhabitants resisted the Iraqis rather than welcome them as liberators.