Great Famine of Mount Lebanon

The Great Famine of Mount Lebanon (1915–1918) (Classical Syriac: ܟܦܢܐ ,"Kafno", "Starvation"; Arabic: مجاعة لبنان; Turkish: Lübnan Dağı'nın Büyük Kıtlığı) was a period of mass starvation during World War I that resulted in 200,000 deaths of largely Christian and Druze inhabitants.[1]

Great Famine of Mount Lebanon
مجاعة لبنان
Mount Lebanon Great Famine.jpg
Starving man and children in Mount Lebanon
CountryMount Lebanon Mutasarrifate, Ottoman Empire, modern day Lebanon
LocationMount Lebanon
Total deathsEst. 200,000
Impact on demographicspopulation of 400,000 declined by 50%

Allied forces blockaded the Eastern Mediterranean, as they had done with the German Empire and Austro-Hungarian Empire in Europe, in order to strangle the economy and weaken the Ottoman war effort.[2] The situation was exacerbated by Jamal Pasha, commander of the Fourth Army of the Ottoman Empire, who deliberately barred crops from neighbouring Syria from entering Mount Lebanon.[3] Additionally, a swarm of locusts devoured the remaining crops,[4][3] creating a famine that led to the deaths of half of the population of the Mount Lebanon Mutasarrifate, a semi-autonomous subdivision of the Ottoman Empire and the precursor of modern-day Lebanon.

Other areas in modern-day Lebanon, according to multiple sources, were also famine-stricken. However, due to poor documentation, casualties were never recorded. Some of the areas hit with no documentation include Tyre, Zahle, Akkar & Bint Jbeil.


The Mutasarrifate of Mount Lebanon was created in 1861 as a semi-autonomous subdivision of the Ottoman Empire following the 1860 Lebanon conflict that affronted the Maronite and Melkite Greek Catholic Christians and the Druze of the mountain.[5][6] Mount Lebanon's economy relied heavily on sericulture; raw silk was processed in looms and finished goods were shipped to the European market.[4]


The Ottoman alliance with the Central Powers caused the Entente Powers to block international trade routes in order to hinder Ottoman supply. The blockade damaged Mount Lebanon's silk trade, a backbone of the economy. Growing crops was already a challenge in the mountainous region and the inhabitants relied on food imports from the adjacent Bekaa Valley and Syria. To counter the Allied blockade, the Ottomans adopted a severe policy of acquisition by which all food supplies were prioritized for the army.[4] Jamal Pasha, commander of the Fourth Army of the Ottoman Empire in Syria, barred crops from entering Mount Lebanon.[3] Locust infestations laid waste to the remaining crops.[4][3] The crisis further exacerbated a black market run by well-connected usurers.[7]

First grain shortagesEdit

The Ottoman Empire joined the Central Powers in World War I on 28 October 1914.[8] The Ottoman government had appropriated all of the empire's railway services for military use, which disrupted the procurement of crops to parts of the empire.[9] One of the first cities to be hit by the grain shortage was Beirut.

On 13 November 1914, only 2 weeks after the Ottoman Empire joined the war, a group of citizens stormed the Beirut municipality to warn the municipal council of the severe shortage of wheat and flour in the city. The train freight cars that regularly transported grains from Aleppo had not arrived and the bakery shelves were empty. Angry mobs looted the bakeries of whatever little reserves of flour and grain they had left.[10] The municipal council dispatched a message to then Beirut Vali Bekir Sami Kunduh who requested grain provisions from the governor of Aleppo Vilayet and urged the Ottoman authorities to prioritize grain shipping to Beirut. Acquiring train freight cars to transport anything to the Beirut Vilayet was impossible without paying large bribes to military commanders and to the railroad authorities. Grain prices began to soar, which prompted the president of Beirut's municipal body, Ahmad Mukhtar Beyhum, to address the grain supply bottlenecks himself.

On 14 November 1914, Beyhum took off to Aleppo, where he negotiated with authorities, securing grain freight cars from the Ottoman Fourth Army. The wheat was paid for from the municipal treasury. Grain freights arrived to Beirut on 19 November 1914 to the relief of the masses;[9] however, the crisis was to worsen as both reports of the Ottoman officials and correspondence from the Syrian Protestant College indicated that food shortages were to become a daily occurrence past November.[11]


Around 200,000 people starved to death at a time when the population of Mount Lebanon was estimated to be 400,000 people.[4][12] The Mount Lebanon famine caused one of the highest fatality rates by population during World War I, alongside the Armenian Genocide, Assyrian Genocide and Greek Genocide.[3] Bodies were piled in the streets and people were reported to be eating street animals. Some people were said to have resorted to cannibalism.[3][4]

Soup kitchens were set up but had little effect in relieving the starving population.[4] The Lebanese community in Egypt funded the shipping of food supplies to the Lebanese mainland through Arwad. This assistance was delivered to the Maronite patriarchate who distributed it to the populace through its convents.[7]

The Syrian–Mount Lebanon Relief Committee was "formed in June of 1916 under the chairmanship of Najib Maalouf and the Assistant Chairmanship of Ameen Rihani"[13] in the United States.

Literary referencesEdit

On 26 May 1916, Gibran Khalil Gibran wrote a letter to Mary Haskell that reads: "The famine in Mount Lebanon has been planned and instigated by the Turkish government. Already 80,000 have succumbed to starvation and thousands are dying every single day. The same process happened with the Christian Armenians and applied to the Christians in Mount Lebanon."[3] Gibran dedicated a poem named "Dead Are My People" to the fallen of the famine.[14]

Tawfiq Yusuf 'Awwad's landmark full-length novel Al-Raghif (The loaf) is set in the impoverished mountain village of Saqiyat al-Misk during World War I. In the novel, 'Awwad describes scenes from the great famine.[15]

There was a woman, lying on her back, covered with lice. An infant with huge eyes was hanging to her naked breast. One of the men pushed her with his foot and waited... Tom bit his fingers and stepped forward. The woman’s head was tipped back and her hair was sparse. From her bosom jutted out a scratched and battered breast that the infant kneaded with his tiny hands and squeezed with his lips, then gave up and cried.

— Tawfiq Yusuf 'Awwad, Al-Raghif (1939)


The first memorial to memorialize the victims of the famine was erected in Beirut in 2018, marking the 100th year since the end of the famine. The site is called "The Great Famine Memorial", and is located in front of the Saint-Joseph University It was erected based on initiatives by Lebanese historian Christian Taoutel (curator of the memorial) and Lebanese writer Ramzi Toufic Salame.[16]

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ Taoutel, Christian; Wittouck, Pierre. Le peuple libanais dans la tourmente de la grande guerre 1914-1918 d'après les Pères Jésuites au Liban (in French). Presses de l'Université Saint-Joseph. ISBN 9953455449.
  2. ^ Cummings, Lindsey Elizabeth (2015). Economic Warfare and the Evolution of the Allied Blockade of the Eastern Mediterranean: August 1914-April 1917 (Thesis). hdl:10822/760795. S2CID 130072266.
  3. ^ a b c d e f g Ghazal, Rym (14 April 2015). "Lebanon's dark days of hunger: The Great Famine of 1915–18". The National. Retrieved 24 January 2016.
  4. ^ a b c d e f g BBC staff (26 November 2014). "Six unexpected WW1 battlegrounds". BBC News. BBC. BBC News Services. Retrieved 24 January 2016.
  5. ^ Lutsky, Vladimir Borisovich (1969). "Modern History of the Arab Countries". Progress Publishers. Retrieved 2009-11-12.
  6. ^ United States Library of Congress – Federal Research Division (2004). Lebanon A Country Study. Kessinger Publishing. p. 264. ISBN 978-1-4191-2943-8.
  7. ^ a b Tawk, Rania (18 April 2015). "Le centenaire de la Grande famine au Liban : pour ne jamais oublier (The Centenary of Lebanon's great famine: so that we don't forget)". L'Orient Le Jour (in French). Beirut: L'Orient – Le Jour. Retrieved 26 January 2016.
  8. ^ Herbert Albert Laurens Fisher (1936). A history of Europe: The liberal experiment. University of Michigan. p. 1161. Retrieved 15 March 2016.
  9. ^ a b Tanielian 2014, p.738
  10. ^ Tanielian 2014, p.737
  11. ^ Tanielian 2014, p.741
  12. ^ Harris 2012, p.174
  13. ^ Mujais, Salim (2004). Antoun Saadeh: The youth years. p. 107. ISBN 9789953417950.
  14. ^ Gibran, Khalil Gibran (5 September 2013). "Dead Are My People". Poem hunter. Poem Hunter. Retrieved 24 January 2016.
  15. ^ Allen, Roger; Allen, Roger M. A.; Lowry, Joseph Edmund; Stewart, Devin J. (2009). Essays in Arabic Literary Biography: 1850-1950. Otto Harrassowitz Verlag. ISBN 9783447061414.
  16. ^ "Victims of the Great Famine of Mount Lebanon finally have a memorial monument in Beirut". The961. Lebanon: 22 July 2018. Archived from the original on 25 December 2019. Retrieved 22 July 2018.


External linksEdit