Persian famine of 1917–1919

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Persian famine of 1917–1919
Bijar in First World War (1914-1918) 10.JPG
People in Bijar rushing for the entrails of a sheep. (Australian War Memorial collection)
CountryPersia (Iran)
Total deathssee below
Preceded by1870–1872 famine
Succeeded by1942–1943 famine

The Persian famine of 1917–1919 was a period of widespread mass starvation and disease in Persia (Iran) under the rule of the Qajar dynasty during World War I. The famine took place in the territory of Iran, which despite declaring neutrality was occupied by the forces of British, Russian and Ottoman empires. So far, few historians have researched the famine, making it an understudied subject of modern history.

According to the estimates acknowledged by the mainstream view, about 2 million people died between 1917 and 1919 because of hunger and from diseases, which included cholera, plague and typhus, as well as influenza infected by 1918 flu pandemic. A variety of factors are commented to have caused and contributed to the famine, including successive seasonal droughts, requisitioning and confiscation of foodstuffs by occupying armies, speculation, hoarding, war profiteering, and poor harvests.


Capacity of modern hospitals operating in Iran as of 1920[1]
Affiliation City Total beds Notes
Tehran 372 +Pharmacy
Enzeli 15 +Pharmacy
Tabriz 30
Hamadan 12 Outpatient only
Mashhad 90
Qazvin 25–30 +Dispensary
Mohammerah 20
Malayer 10
Sabzevar Un­known
Isfahan 180
Kerman 80
Yazd 80
Shiraz 50
Presbyterian Church in USA Logo.svg
Tehran 45 +Apothecary
Mashhad 50 +Apothecary
Rasht 5 +Apothecary
Hamadan 25 +Apothecary
Kermanshah 25 +Apothecary
Tabriz 100 +Apothecary
Urmieh 40 +Apothecary
Filles de la charité Khosrova 8
(until 1915)
Tehran Un­known Legation
Tabriz N/A Apothecary
Rosyjski Czerwony Krzyż.png

(until 1918)
Tehran Un­known
(Small hospitals)
Torbat-e Heydarieh
United Kingdom
Tehran Un­known
(Small hospitals)
Torbat-e Heydarieh
Naserabad +Dispensary
Lengeh +Dispensary
Mohammerah +Dispensary
Oil Company
Abadan >200 +Dispensary
Masjed Soleiman

In November 1915, the price of one kharvar (100 kilos) of wheat increased to twenty tomans,[clarification needed] "if there [was] any to be found", after the total granary of the south-east province of Sistan was sold off to the British troops. Russian troops blockaded all the roads in the north-east province of Khorasan, prohibiting any transfers of grain, except those destined for the Russian army. The requisitioning of pack animals, mules and camels for the oil industry in Khuzestan, and for the British and Russian armed forces, left the country's transport network in serious disarray, and disrupted the distribution of foodstuffs and other goods throughout the country – with disastrous consequences. During the war, it often cost more to transport grain than to grow it, in many parts of Iran. All this made the living conditions of the poor even more dreadful.[2]


People awaiting to be fed with stew. Photo taken by 1st Australian Wireless Signal Squadron in Bijar

A series of severe droughts from 1916 on further depleted agricultural supplies. By early February 1918, the famine spread throughout the country, and panicked crowds in major cities began to loot bakeries and food stores. In the western city of Kermanshah, confrontations between the hungry poor and the police ended in casualties. In Tehran, the situation was "aggravated by hoarding and short-selling to the customers by bakers".[2]

Adulteration of bread, as well as the exorbitant prices charged by some bakers, outraged Tehran's working poor. Thus, for example, the printing-house workers, who had recently formed a union, staged a demonstration in Tehran in 1919, during which crowds attacked the bakeries and granaries, and called on the government to increase food rations, to standardize the price of bread, and to regulate the quality, supply and sales of foodstuffs. Nevertheless, in the turbulent post-war era neither the national government nor foreign powers were in a position to do much to alleviate the human crises. The devastation caused by famine and contagious diseases continued for many years.[2]

Cases of cannibalism were also reported.[2]

Outbreak of diseases[edit]

Beyond deaths from starvation, epidemics also killed large numbers of people.[2]

The colossal food crisis, plus large numbers of soldiers, refugees and destitute people constantly on the move in search of work and survival, facilitated a deadly combination of pandemics and contagious diseases. Cholera, the plague and typhus spread with terrifying speed across the country.[2]


Morbidity and Mortality during the 1918–1919 Influenza Pandemic in Urban Iran (Compiled by Afkhami)[3]
City Population
Morbidity Mortality Mortality/
Morbidity (%)
No. %
Mashhad 100,000 66,667 3,500 3.5 5.2
Birjand Un­known 12,000 100 Un­known 0.8
Nosratabad 7,000 120 1.7
Anzali 10,000 Un­known 2.0
Mashhadsar Un­known 10.0
Tabriz 200,000 100,000 Un­known
Hamedan 30,000 Un­known 1,000 3.3 10.0
Tehran 250,000 1,000 0.8 Un­known
Isfahan 80,000 300 0.4
Yazd 40,000 250 0.6
Bushehr 30,000 15,000 1,500 5.0 10.0
Mohammareh Un­known 6,000 250 Un­known 4.2
Shiraz 50,000 Un­known 2,000 4.0 Un­known
Kerman 40,000 4,000 10.0 10.0
Bam 13,000 6,000 46.2 Un­known

The 1918 flu pandemic spread to the entire country via three main entry routes: Transcaucasia to Tabriz, Baghdad to Kermanshah and India to the south Iran (the latter significantly vected by the British Indian Army soldiers stationed in Bushehr). The rural areas were more affected than urban regions, in which as many as 20% of the people were reported to have died. Azizi et al comment that the figure is exaggerated, adding that the mortality rate in Kermanshah and Tehran was about 1%.[4] Afkhami states that the flu impact was enormous and estimates that between 902,400 and 2,431,000 or 8.0% and 21.7% of the total population died, making Iran one of the most devastated countries worldwide.[5] Floor assessed the figure estimated by Afkhami is much higher than the real casualties.[6]


In 1916, cholera that hit Azerbaijan in 1915, was widespread not only in all northern provinces, it also reached the south.[2] In 1917, it appeared in Mazandaran and Khorasan, killing 188 and 308 people in the two regions respectively, according to a 1924 government report.[7] Ahmad Seyf states that the origin of cholera outbreak was Russia, and It was not severe.[8]

Typhoid and Typhus[edit]

Typhoid spread in many parts of the country, and caused enough deaths that, according to an eyewitness, "the high mortality in Tehran was not due to famine, but rather because of typhoid and typhus".[2]

Causes and contributing factors[edit]

According to Touraj Atabaki, "successive seasonal droughts caused widespread famine during 1917/1918. Requisition and confiscation of foodstuffs by occupying armies to feed their soldiers added to the famine".[2] In The Cambridge History of Iran, it is stated that speculation and hoarding made the situation worse.[9] Michael Axworthy believes that the famine was "partly as a result of the dislocation of trade and agricultural production caused by the war".[10] Tammy M. Proctor comments that the cause for food shortage was a combination of army requisitioning, war profiteering, hoarding and poor harvests.[11]

Nikki Keddie and Yann Richard related the famine to almost all of the factors mentioned above.[12]

Charles P. Melville maintains that the main reason of the famine were the conditions caused by the War.[13]

Mohammad Gholi Majd, holds the British occupation and its custom and finance regulations accountable for worsening the famine,[14] and Willem Floor suggests James L. Barton's account (occupation by armies, exceptionally light snowfall and disease), joint with hoarding by landowners and lack of purchasing power as other crucial causes of famine. According to him, two major grain producing areas, namely KermanshahHamadan and Azarbaijan were the battlefield between the Ottomans and the Russians.[15]

Pat Walsh in a review of Majd's book written in Irish Foreign Affairs, a quarterly publication by Irish Political Review blames the British occupation and comments on claims of hoarding as causes of famine, writing "British attitudes towards the starving Persians were uncannily similar to those expressed against the Irish in a similar position half a century before", i.e. the British blamed Persians while suggesting that building roads for their military was a ‘relief measure’ motivated by benevolence.[16]

Rob Johnson blames bad governance and wartime shortages for the famine, rebuffing what Majd has suggested.[17]

Death toll[edit]

Scholars such as Ervand Abrahamian, Homa Katouzian and Barry Rubin maintain that the total death toll due to starvation and disease was around 2 million.[18][19][20] Central Intelligence Agency analysts Steven R. Ward and Kenneth M. Pollack state a similar number.[21][22] Nikki Keddie and Yann Richard state that about one-quarter of the population of northern Iran were killed.[12]

Mohammad Gholi Majd's book, The Great Famine and Genocide in Persia, 1917–1919, identifies a number of allied sources that detail the proportion and scale of the deaths,[23] and alleges that as many as 8–10 million died, across the whole nation, based on an alternate pre-famine Persian population estimate of 19 million.[15][24] Timothy C. Winegard and Pordeli et al. acknowledge the figures suggested by Majd.[25][26] Several scholars have disputed Majd's account.

Ervand Abrahamian comments that the book includes an "exaggerated discussion" of losses during the famine,[27] a view he shares with Mahmood Messkoub,[28] Abbas Milani[29] and Rudi Matthee.[6] Abrahamian describes calling the famine a genocide as "wild accusation" and attributes the vast majority of the 2 million deaths he estimates to cholera and typhus epidemics, as well as mostly worldwide influenza pandemic.[18] While accepting that the total death toll could be several millions, Hormoz Ebrahimnejad says Majd's figure is an overestimation.[30]

Cormac Ó Gráda, discussing verification of death toll of historic famines, cites it as an example of "literally claims" that cannot be authenticated without good cause, yet rhetoric and signaling a major disaster.[31] A similar view is expressed by Alidad Mafinezam and Aria Mehrabi, who state that Majd's work suffers from methodological defects, including lack of triangulation.[32]


During the famine years, several politicians served as Prime Minister and all adopted interventionist policies.[33] In order to control the situation of food supply, the government in Persia appointed Abdollah Mostowfi as chief of the alimentation service (raʾīs-e arzāq) in October 1916, before his later boss Mokhber al-Saltaneh took office as the minister for alimentation (vazīr-e arzāq) in October 1917.[33] Siham al-Dawlah became chief of the bakery bureau (raʾīs-e nānvāʾī) in 1918 and an alimentation committee (komīté-ye arzāq) was also formed out of seven or eight influential merchants. The committee met daily and assisted the government with advise, including a proposal to introduce government incentive for bread.[33]

In 1918, the United States rejected the request of Persian government for a $2 million loan dedicated to famine relief.[34]

Members of the Jungle movement sheltered refugees who came to Gilan from other parts of the country and founded a charity to help them. They also sent several tons of rice to the capital.[35] In Tabriz, the Democrats who were armed suppressed hoarders and speculators while organizing the relief.[36]

Congregational prayers for rain were observed during the famine, including those of Mashhad in 1917, where babies and animals were also brought.[37]

Contemporary perceptions[edit]

BBC Persian's documentary Iran 1918: A Forgotten War for Oil

In recent years, the famine has been subject to conspiracy theories, polarization and historical revisionism in Iran.[38] Much of the controversy is about the death toll and root causes, and lack of sufficient data on this period has been described as the "principal driver" for it.[38] The official website of Ali Khamenei, Iran's supreme leader, published an article in 2015 asserting the view that the famine was a deliberate act of genocide committed by the British, whose documents have been intentionally wiped out in a cover-up attempt.[39] The British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) produced and aired a documentary on the famine, which was condemned by conservatives in Iran as a ploy to minimise British role and underline the feebleness of Iran.[40]




  1. ^ Floor 2012, pp. 106–107; Table 15: Foreign Hospitals and Private Modern Physicians in Iran in 1920, Table 16: Modern Iranian Hospitals and their Capacity in 1920
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i Atabaki 2016.
  3. ^ Afkhami 2003, Table 1.
  4. ^ Azizi, Raees Jalali & Azizi 2010.
  5. ^ Afkhami 2003; Afkhami 2012.
  6. ^ a b Matthee 2019, p. 183: "Floor concludes that the figure of 900,000 to 2.4 million casualties given by Afkhami is too high. And he appropriately relegates Mohammad Gholi Majd’s overblown, conspiracy-filled book on the epidemic and the number of 8-10 million (or almost the country’s entire population) given by him, to a footnote".
  7. ^ Azizi & Azizi 2010.
  8. ^ Seyf 2002, p. 177: "In later years, for example, in 1917 cholera was brought to Iran from Russia, but only Mazanadran and Khorasan were affected and altogether only 402 deaths occurred."
  9. ^ The Cambridge History of Iran 1990, Vol. 7, p. 209.: "Adding to the disruption and discontent was a terrible famine in 1918–1919, which as usual was worsened by speculators and hoarders."
  10. ^ Axworthy 2008, p. 214.
  11. ^ Proctor 2010, p. 91: "In Persia, as army requisitioning, war profiteering, hoarding and poor harvests combined to decimate the food supply, famine conditions ravaged the area. Reports from foreign officials in Tehran in 1916 and 1917 note shortages of bread and other essential foods, long lines, and rioting by women."
  12. ^ a b Keddie & Richard 2006, p. 75: "Reform movements were specially strong in Tehran, and in northern provinces of Gilan, Mazandaran and Azerbaijan. Adding to discontent was a severe famine in 1918–19, which may have killed as much as one-quarter of the population in the north. The famine was related to wartime Western incursions, a reduced crop area and small harvest, food needs of foreign troops and worsened distribution. Famine was aggravated by hoarding and speculation by landlords, dealers and officials."
  13. ^ Melville 1984, p. 130: "It is no coincidence that despite several periods of low rainfall, drought and poor harvests during the first half of the twentieth century, the only serious country-wide food shortages and experience of famine conditions occurred during the periods of the First World War and later the Second World War. In both periods, insecurity, speculation, lack of confidence, breakdown of government authority and political corruption had more effect on food prices and scarcity than did the quality of the harvests."
  14. ^ Majd 2003, p. 40. In the matter of tough custom regulations, Majd mentions incidents of unsuccessful importation of foodstuff recorded by the American embassy. He also refers to a letter by an American official saying "for the last two years practically all the importations have ceased".
  15. ^ a b Floor 2005
  16. ^ Walsh 2010.
  17. ^ Johnson 2018: "A rather less successful volume is Mohammed Gholi Majd’s attempt to claim that Persia was subjected to a genocide because of the war, confusing poor governance and catastrophic wartime shortages, which led to famine, with the fiction of an intent to wipe out the Persians".
  18. ^ a b Abrahamian 2013, pp. 26–27: "A contemporary Iranian historian recently made the wild accusation that British food exactions to feed its army of occupation during World War I resulted in 10 million dead—half the population. He accuses the British government of "covering up" this "genocide" by systematically destroying annual reports. In fact, no annual reports on Iran were written from 1913 until 1922; the British expeditionary force of some 15,000 would not have required that much grain; and although as many as 2 million may have lost their lives in these years, the vast majority died not because of food exactions but from cholera and typhus epidemics, from a series of bad harvests, and, most important of all, from the worldwide 1919–20 influenza pandemic."
  19. ^ Katouzian 2013, p. 1934: "Russian Revolution of 1917 brought much relief to Iran after a century of imperial interference and intimidation. But it was followed by severe famine and the Spanish flu pandemic which, combined, took a high toll of around two million, mostly of the Iranian poor."
  20. ^ Rubin 2015, p. 508: "Despite Iran's official neutrality, this pattern of interference continued during World War I as Ottoman-, Russian-, British-, and German-supported local forces fought across Iran, wreaking enormous havoc on the country. With farmland, crops, livestock, and infrastructure destroyed, as many as 2 million Iranians died of famine at the war's end. Although the Russian Revolution of 1917 led to the recall of Russian troops, and thus gave hope to Iranians that the foreign yoke might be relenting, the British quickly moved to fill the vacuum in the north, and by 1918, had turned the country into an unofficial protectorate."
  21. ^ Pollack 2004, p. 25.
  22. ^ Ward 2014, p. 123: "As the Great War came to its close in the fall of 1918, Iran's plight was woeful. The war had created an economic catastrophe, invading armies had ruined farmland and irrigation works, crops and livestock were stolen or destroyed, and peasants had been taken from their fields and forced to serve as laborers in the various armies. Famine killed as many as two million Iranians out of a population of little more than ten million while an influenza pandemic killed additional tens of thousands."
  23. ^ Majd 2003, p. 72: "According to the American Charge d'Affaires, Wallace Smith Murray, this famine had claimed one-third of Iran's population. A famine that even according to British sources as General Dunsterville, Major Donohoe, and General Sykes had claimed vast numbers of Iranians".
  24. ^ Messkoub 2006
  25. ^ Winegard 2016, p. 85: "Between 1917 and 1919, it is estimated that nearly half (nine to eleven million people) of the Persian population died of starvation or disease brought on by malnutrition."
  26. ^ Pordeli et al. 2017.
  27. ^ Abrahamian 2008, p. 196
  28. ^ Messkoub 2006, p. 228: "Maid claims that the famine of 1917–1919 killed half the population, an exaggeration surely that does not tally well with the evidence provided in his otherwise useful overview of famine in that period."
  29. ^ Milani 2011, pp. 26, 468: "The advent of World War I only exacerbated conditions in Iran. Russian, Turkish, German, and British forces occupied parts of the country. Tribal disorder made an already-enfeebled central government weaker and more vulnerable. Famine took many lives.... Some sources have gone so far as to claim that no country in the world suffered as much from the war as did Iran. See Mohammad Gholi, Majd... His tendency to pick and choose the sources that confirm what he, a priori, wants to prove, makes many of his assertions doubtful".
  30. ^ Ebrahimnejad 2013, Footnote 182: "Although mortality due to famine and diseases might have attained several millions, the figure of 9 million given by Majd seems overestimated."
  31. ^ Ó Gráda 2009, p. 92: "For most historical famines, however, establishing excess mortality is impossible. In absence of any hard evidence, it is not possible to take literally claims such as that... Persia lost two-fifths of its people to a genocidal famine in 1917–1919. Such claims are usually rhetorical, and sure signs of major disasters, but poor guides to actual mortality."
  32. ^ Mafinezam & Mehrabi 2008, pp. 16–17: "Majd concludes that... It is difficult, however, for rigorous academic research to corroborate these figures. In addition, the word "genocide" implies the willful killing of large numbers of noncombatants. The historical record in this area is murky. Majd's work brings much-needed attention to one of the most tragic calamities suffered by Iranians in their modern history. A more extensive scholarly treatment of this subject would have to utilize "triangulation" and provide evidence from others, including British, Russian, and Ottoman sources, to show the extent of the famine and the ways in which it was affected by the war and its aftermath. In our opinion, it is essential to see the calamities befell Iran as a product of disruptions of war in a broader sense. Despite some of its methodological deficiencies, Majd's work is important as it helps us understand the blows that infected Iranians' national psyche in the war years."
  33. ^ a b c Floor 1983
  34. ^ Ghaneabassiri 2002: "In fact, the United States, in spite of its statement that it was willing to "lend its good offices to assist" Persia, did almost nothing to provide relief for the famine or to help maintain the integrity of the nation. When the Persian government in 1918 asked the U.S. for a loan of $2,000,000 to be used solely for famine relief, Washington refused on the grounds that loans were only to be given to governments engaged in war with Germany. The refusal of the U.S., while not unreasonable, did affirm that official American sympathies were not with Persia. Wilson's declaration that "We are to play a leading part in the world drama....We shall lend, not borrow," did not apply to the Persian nation, and the incident exemplifies the United States' indifference to Persia and its suffering population".
  35. ^ Afary 1995: "The Jangal government sent several tons of rice to Tehran and aided many hungry men, women, and children who came to Gilan from Hamadan, Kurdistan, and Azarbaijan. A charity organization was also set up to help the survivors of the 1917 famine and an orphanage was opened for the children whose families were lost during the disaster".
  36. ^ Katouzian 1998: "They appropriated about one-half of the arms and ammunitions left by the Russians (leaving the rest for the government), and efficiently organized the famine relief by stamping out hoarding and speculation, and assisting the poor and hungry".
  37. ^ Başgöz 2007: "The populace went outside the lower gate of the city to an uncultivated field among the Musalla. They took with them their babies and any animals that had young. The babies were placed on the ground together and their mothers went away from them. The lambs, the kids, and the calves were also separated from their mothers and put together. All could see their mothers and sons set up a general wail, which was interpreted as a prayer to God from the innocent and the helpless".
  38. ^ a b Afkhami 2020, pp. 201–202
  39. ^ Afkhami 2020, p. 201. The article in question is:
    • Abbasi, Sadegh (4 November 2015), 8–10 million Iranians died over Great Famine caused by the British in late 1910s, documents reveal, The Official Website of Ayatollah Khamenei, archived from the original on 16 November 2015, retrieved 1 May 2020
  40. ^ Afkhami 2020, p. 201. The author mentions the following op-ed in the footnotes:


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