Bandar Abbas, Iran

Bandar Abbas, Iran

Widari Bahrin

The term bandar in Farsi/Persian means ‘port’, and indeed the geographical location of Bandar Abbas right on the southern coast of Iran has been its defining character ever since a settlement was founded at some point around 600BC. Positioned strategically on the narrow Strait of Hormuz, the channel of water just 54km wide which separates the Persian Gulf from the Gulf of Oman, Bandar Abbas became the main port city of the great Safavid Empire in the 17th century. Symbolically, it guards the entrance to the Persian Gulf, gazing directly over the Musandam Peninsula in Oman on the other side. Today it remains Iran’s most important port and is home to its naval headquarters. Bandar Abbas is also the capital and largest city of Iran’s Hormozgan province. However, now that the city’s population has risen significantly – it was recorded at around 367,500 people in the 2006 census, and current estimates also suggest a similar amount – urban expansion is drawing even more people in from rural areas, and slums are becoming rife. The city is expanding inland towards the north, building ever more high-rise blocks to deal with its swelling population. Along its historic shoreline, which forms the southern edge of the city, new coastal developments are also radically changing the urban skyline. With urbanisation and port activities lying behind this rapid change, what might be seen as offering a coherent contemporary cultural identity for Bandar Abbas?

As a city, Bandar Abbas exists primarily as a major shipping node, and as such has a very long history of trade via the Indian Ocean with India and East Africa. For the traveller Ibn Battuta in around 1347, it was a fine city filled with busy markets; to the Europeans who visited Bandar Abbas in the 1400s, then known as Hormuz, it was a ‘vast emporium of the world’; while to the Chinese admiral, Ma Huan, it was the best managed port anywhere around the Indian Ocean.1 Today, it remains the most important port in Iran, and its bazaars are replenished daily with fresh sea produce as well as the imported goods that are channelled through neighbouring islands. On top of this, and because of its strategic location on the Persian Gulf, Bandar Abbas has been a major naval base ever since Iran moved its headquarters here in 1977 from Khorramshahr at the northern end of the Gulf. Economically, the major industries in Bandar Abbas include fish processing, cotton milling, textile manufacturing, steel making and aluminium smelting/refining. It is also the export centre for the outputs from the chromium, red oxide, sulphur and salt mines located just outside the city.2

At an average altitude of only 9 metres above sea level, Bandar Abbas sits primarily on level ground. Expansion to the city has been mostly along its seafront, resulting in a long and narrow city with major boulevards running in an east-west direction. Nearby elevated points are Mount Geno and Mount Pooladi, each just less than 20 km to the north. As noted, recent urban development in Bandar Abbas has tended to be towards the hillier northern areas of the city. Here, a series of modern multi-storey housing blocks are being rapidly erected next to the Shaheed Rajaee freeway, which acts at the moment as a peripheral ring-road. Some 250 km to the north of the city, a natural pass through the Payeh Mountains facilitates transport via roads to Sirjan and the rest of Iran. Climate-wise, Bandar Abbas is hot and humid with a summer period that lasts for nine months of the year. Maximum temperatures in the summer reach up to 39©C, while the winter is much milder, dropping to only 12©C. This cool winter climate makes Bandar Abbas a busy domestic tourist destination during the festival of Nowruz (Iranian New Year) in March each year.

Public spaces play a major part in the life of Bandar Abbas and in shaping the ways in which its inhabitants, coming from their different communities, are able to use and ultimately view the city. Most of its inhabitants seem nostalgic for quieter times and for glimpses of an older identity that inherently belonged to Bandar Abbas in the past, and which still can be seen in various pockets within its urban fabric. This chapter, however, will focus on the external factors affecting daily life in a city that is now experiencing the beginnings of globalisation, with its resultant influx of people from the surrounding countryside.


As mentioned, economic growth in Bandar Abbas is heavily reliant on its busy port activities – especially from the flourishing flow of trade between Iran and the United Arab Emirates – as well as good transport links on land to the rest of Iran. Also key are the increased levels of domestic tourism.

In terms of trade, the nearby islands of Qeshm and Kish play a major role as points of entry for goods arriving on ships across the Strait of Hormuz (as well as acting as important tourist destinations themselves). Back in September 2003 the Iranian Parliament approved special acts which declared Qeshm and Kish Islands as ‘free trade zones’, thus liberalising trade and attracting foreign investment. In Kish, for instance, fully overseas-owned firms can now set up their operations, while visitors don’t require Iranian entry visas. In addition to this broad-brush initiative for Qeshm and Kish, various ‘special economic zones’ have been created in the two islands with the sole purpose of promoting the transit and re-exportation of goods without being subjected to normal customs duties and tax regulations.3 The port of Shaheed Rajaee, lying some 20 km west of Bandar Abbas, has likewise been declared as an ‘special economic zone’, and it now handles much of the exportation of Iranian goods. This trading flow in Hormozgan province adds up to a considerable amount given that Iran as a whole in 2003 imported goods to the value of US $22.3 billion and in return exported US $27.4 billion worth.4 Today these figures are far higher.

Beyond Kish and Qeshm Islands, and just across the Persian Gulf, are of course the Sultanate of Oman and the United Arab Emirates. With Dubai and Abu Dhabi already established as well-connected regional transport hubs, Bandar Abbas is thus in an excellent position to provide cheap land and labour to supplement the growth of those two UAE cities. According to the 2007 International Monetary Fund report on Iran, an estimated 750,000 Iranians enter this labour market each year. With the rates in Iran for skilled and unskilled labourers, and for supervisory foremen, being just half that in the Jebel Ali and Sharjah ‘free trade zones’ in the UAE, industry in Bandar Abbas is unsurprisingly beginning to see major growth. Furthermore, when it comes to the internal transport infrastructure within Iran, which already has good connections to other countries in central Asia, a draft agreement in 2006 to create the Trans-Asian Railway, nicknamed the ‘Iron Silk Road’, and linking northern Europe to southern Asia through Bandar Abbas, should in time provide even better export potential, even if progress so far has been slow.5 This new rail corridor is intended to compete with existing ship traffic passing through the Suez Canal.

Tourism is another major opportunity. Kish Island’s unique coral features and Qeshm’s natural attractions, coupled with its historic architecture, make both of them very popular destinations for Iranian holidaymakers. As a result, the amount of tourist traffic passing through Bandar Abbas has increased, even if the city itself only serves as a base from which domestic tourists can sail to the two islands by boat. However, because of the region’s harsh climate, the tourist season generally happens outside of the long hot nine-month summer. This turns parts of Bandar Abbas which are full to capacity during the busy tourist season into under-used, or often empty, areas for much of the year. The most notable locations are the public seafront spaces that, while packed out for the Nowruz celebrations, are far quieter at other times. Plus there are other detractions from the potential for tourist development. With the natural features of the islands of Qeshm and Kish offering the main attraction for eco-tourism, the alarmingly high degree of water pollution in the Persian Gulf is a real threat. The possible causes and implications of this will be discussed again later.


15.1 Boats taking visitors to nearby islands during the off-peak season


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Oct 25, 2020 | Posted by in General Engineering | Comments Off on Bandar Abbas, Iran
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