Open main menu

Persian famine of 1917–1919

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

Persian famine of 1917–1919
CountryPersia (Iran)
Total deathssee below
ObservationsWorld War I, famine, drought
Preceded byPersian famine of 1870–1872

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.


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.[1]


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". 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. Cases of cannibalism were also reported.[1]

Causes and contributing factorsEdit

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".[1] In The Cambridge History of Iran, it is stated that speculation and hoarding made the situation worse.[2]

Michael Axworthy believes that the famine was "partly as a result of the dislocation of trade and agricultural production caused by the war".[3] Tammy M. Proctor comments that the cause for food shortage was a combination of army requisitioning, war profiteering, hoarding and poor harvests.[4]

Mohammad Gholi Majd, holds the British occupation and its custom and finance regulations accountable for worsening the famine,[5] 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.[6]

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.[7]

Death tollEdit

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.[8][9][10]Central Intelligence Agency analysts Steven R. Ward and Kenneth M. Pollack state a similar number.[11][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,[13] 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.[6][14] Timothy C. Winegard and Pordeli et al. acknowledge the figures suggested by Majd.[15][16]

Several scholars have disputed Majd's account.

Ervand Abrahamian comments that the book includes an "exaggerated discussion" of losses during the famine,[17] a view he shares with Mahmood Messkoub[18] and Abbas Milani.[19] 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.[8] While accepting that the total death toll could be several millions, Hormoz Ebrahimnejad says Majd's figure is an overestimation.[20]

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.[21] 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.[22]

Outbreak of diseasesEdit

Morbidity and Mortality during the 1918–1919 Influenza Pandemic in Urban Iran (Compiled by Afkhami)[23]
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

Beyond deaths from starvation, epidemics also killed large numbers of people.[1]

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.[1]

In 1916, cholera that hit Azerbaijan in 1915, was widespread not only in all northern provinces, it also reached the south.[1] In 1917, it appeared in Mazandaran and Khorasan, killing 188 and 308 people in the two regions respectively, according to a 1924 government report.[24]

Typhoid, too, 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".[1]

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%.[25] 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.[26]

See alsoEdit



  1. ^ a b c d e f g Atabaki 2016.
  2. ^ 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."
  3. ^ Axworthy 2008, p. 214.
  4. ^ 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 not shortages of bread and other essential foods, long lines, and rioting by women."
  5. ^ 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".
  6. ^ a b Floor 2005
  7. ^ Walsh 2010.
  8. ^ 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."
  9. ^ 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."
  10. ^ 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."
  11. ^ Pollack 2004, p. 25.
  12. ^ 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."
  13. ^ 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".
  14. ^ Messkoub 2006
  15. ^ 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."
  16. ^ Pordeli et al. 2017.
  17. ^ Abrahamian 2008, p. 196
  18. ^ 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."
  19. ^ Milani 2011, pp. 19–21
  20. ^ 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."
  21. ^ 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."
  22. ^ 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."
  23. ^ Afkhami 2003, Table 1.
  24. ^ Azizi & Azizi 2010.
  25. ^ Azizi, Raees Jalali & Azizi 2010.
  26. ^ Afkhami 2003; Afkhami 2012.


  • Abrahamian, Ervand (2008). A History of Modern Iran. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-0-521-82139-1.
  • Abrahamian, Ervand (2013). The Coup: 1953, the CIA, and the roots of modern U.S.–Iranian relations. New York: New Press, The. ISBN 978-1-59558-826-5.
  • Afkhami, Amir (2003). "Compromised Constitutions: The Iranian Experience with the 1918 Influenza Pandemic". Bulletin of the History of Medicine. 77 (2): 367–392. doi:10.1353/bhm.2003.0049. – Open access material by the Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Health Sciences Research Commons.
  • Afkhami, Amir (29 March 2012) [15 December 2004]. "Influenza". In Yarshater, Ehsan (ed.). Encyclopædia Iranica. Fasc. 2. XIII (Online ed.). New York City: Bibliotheca Persica Press. pp. 140–143.
  • Atabaki, Touraj (2 May 2016). "Persia/Iran". In Ute Daniel; Peter Gatrell; Oliver Janz; Heather Jones; Jennifer Keene; Alan Kramer; Bill Nasson (eds.). 1914-1918-online. International Encyclopedia of the First World War. Berlin: Freie Universität Berlin. doi:10.15463/ie1418.10899. – Open access material licensed under the CC by-NC-ND 3.0 Germany.
  • P. Avery; William Bayne Fisher; G. R. G. Hambly; C. Melville, eds. (1990). The Cambridge History of Iran. 7. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 9780521200950.
  • Axworthy, Michael (2008). Empire of the Mind: A History of Iran. Hachette Books. ISBN 978-0-465-01920-5.
  • Azizi, Mohammad Hossein; Azizi, Farzaneh (January 2010). "History of Cholera Outbreaks in Iran during the 19th and 20th Centuries". Middle East Journal of Digestive Diseases. 2 (1): 51–55. PMC 4154910. PMID 25197514.
  • Azizi, Mohammad Hossein; Raees Jalali, Ghanbar Ali; Azizi, Farzaneh (May 2010). "A History of the 1918 Spanish Inluenza Pandemic and its Impact on Iran". Archives of Iranian Medicine. 13 (3): 262–265. PMID 20433236.
  • Ebrahimnejad, Hormoz (2013). Medicine in Iran: Profession, Practice and Politics, 1800-1925. Springer. ISBN 9781137052889.
  • Floor, Willem (2005). "Review of The Great Famine and Genocide in Persia, 1917–1919". Iranian Studies. 38 (1): 192–196. doi:10.1080/0021086042000336582. JSTOR 4311715.
  • Katouzian, Homa (2013). Iran: A Beginner's Guide. Oneworld Publications. ISBN 9781780742731.
  • Mafinezam, Alidad; Mehrabi, Aria (2008). "The Legacy of Unsustained Achievements". Iran and Its Place Among Nations. Greenwood Publishing Group. ISBN 9780275999261.
  • Majd, Mohammad Gholi (2003). The Great Famine and Genocide in Persia, 1917–1919. University Press of America. ISBN 978-0761826330.
  • Messkoub, Mahmood (2006). "Social Policy in Iran in the Twentieth Century". Iranian Studies. 39 (2): 227–252. doi:10.1080/00210860600628773. JSTOR 4311815.
  • Milani, Abbas (2011). The Shah. Palgrave Macmillan. ISBN 9781403971937.
  • Ó Gráda, Cormac (2009). "Famine Demography". Famine: A Short History. Princeton University Press. ISBN 9780691122373.
  • Pollack, Kenneth (2004). The Persian Puzzle: Deciphering the Twenty-five-Year Conflict Between the United States and Iran. Random House Publishing Group. ISBN 9781588364340.
  • Pordeli, Mohammad Reza; Abavysany, Malihe; Mollashahi, Maryam; Sanchooli, Doost Ali (2017). "A Study of the Causes of Famine in Iran during World War I". Review of European Studies. 9 (2): 296–300. doi:10.5539/res.v9n2p296. – Open access material licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0.
  • Proctor, Tammy M. (2010). Civilians in a World at War, 1914-1918. NYU Press. ISBN 9780814767153.
  • Rubin, Barry (2015). The Middle East: A Guide to Politics, Economics, Society and Culture. Routledge. ISBN 9781317455783.
  • Walsh, Pat (August 2010). "Who Remembers the Persians...?" (PDF). Irish Foreign Affairs. 3 (3): 4–7.
  • Ward, Steven R. (2014). Immortal, Updated Edition: A Military History of Iran and Its Armed Forces. Georgetown University Press. ISBN 9781626160651.
  • Winegard, Timothy C. (2016). The First World Oil War. Reference, Information and Interdisciplinary Subjects Series. University of Toronto Press. ISBN 9781487500733.