Translated into English by Maysam Aliabadi



The Great Famine of 1917- 1919 is undoubtedly the greatest calamity in Persia’s history that unfortunately has received very little attention. During this famine approximately 40percents of Iranian population perished. The main factor for intensified and prolonged famine was financial and commercial policies of Great Britain, because at that time Iran was under occupation of Britain.  

“Generally, we can divide the causes of famine into two groups of natural causes of famine and socio-historical factors. Among natural causes of famine we can mention the level of atmospheric precipitation, cold and flood, human pandemics like cholera and plague, animal pandemics, and locust plague and eurygaster integriceps damage.” [1] “On socio-historical factors we can name war and blockade, incompetency, governor’s corruption and misguided policies, the rule of tyranny and lack of confidence and empathy between people and rulers, hoarding, chaotic paths, rulers’ and landlords’ cruelties, violence and undue rigor in the face of famine, and political mischievousness.” [2] “Due to its geographical conditions that is located in hot and dry area and faces lack of rainfall, Iran has faced many famines during history.” [3] But sometimes the aforementioned socio-historical factors have reinforced these famines. The Great Famine of 1917-1919 is one of them in which the outbreak of World War I and occupation of Iran and, most important of all, Britain’s policies during occupation resulted in an unbelievable and great calamity. With advent of World War I, Britain, Russia, and Ottoman violated Iran’s neutrality and invaded Iran. After the defeat of Ottoman and occurrence of Bolshevik Revolution in Russia and consequently withdrawal of their forces from Iran, Britain could occupy whole Iran and a vast part of Middle East. Accordingly, Tsarist Russia (historical rival of Britain in Iran) left the scene and two treaties dividing Iran (August 1907, and March 1915) became futile. Britain occupied Iran until June 1918, and finally left Iran on February 1921, some days after coup of February 22 in Iran. But during this same period the greatest calamity of Persia’s history, namely the famine of 1917-1919, occurred. “As will be shown later, approximately between 8-10 million Iranians perished during this famine, and British government not only did nothing to alleviate the famine, but intensified it through confiscating local foods and cereals, preventing food import of foodstuffs from India, Mesopotamia, and United States , and adopting financial policies such as refusing paying oil revenues to Iran. Consequently a larger amount of Iranians expired due to British policies.” [4] According to Majd, since this famine was primarily a result of Iran’s occupation by Russia and Britain and later British policies exasperated it, casualties resulted from famine can be considered as World War I’s damages, damages that are apparently far beyond massacre of Armenians in Turkey and Jewish genocide by Nazis during World War II.

Using reports of American diplomats from Tehran and Tabriz such as Lawrence Caldwell, the then American minister in Iran, reports of American missioners from different parts of Iran, the Press, and testimony of eyewitnesses on the expanse of people’s starvation and pain, the writer of “The Great Famine” clearly depicts this great calamity. According to Majd, the crisis of scarcity of foodstuffs had begun since 1916 and the famine continued until summer of 1919. Apparently the scarcity of foodstuffs turned into a destructive famine in autumn 1917, as Caldwell in a report entitled “poverty and pain in Iran” dated October 4, 1917, explains the growing famine and writes: “the scarcity of foodstuffs, especially wheat and different types of bread, has encompasses all over Iran especially Northern and border areas and also Tehran so that prior to winter a widespread poverty and pain has appeared. This winter the rate of death and starvation will undoubtedly increase several times.” [5] Ra’ad newspaper also informed on November 22, 1917: “a report from Tabriz suggests that a great number of people die of hunger in Savojbolagh daily. In Mashhad and Qom people have sit in at telegraph offices due to shortage of foodstuffs.” [6] It also wrote on November 27, 1917, on the situation of Kurdistan: “it is a long time that bread has been scarce and now it is unavailable. Different types of cereals are scarce and people don’t know how to relieve their hunger. Many people die of hunger daily. Some people believe that half of Kurdistan inhabitants will die within two months. Many men and women die of hunger daily. Russians have collected all barely on the market for their horses.” [7] Since January 1918, the famine arrived to its climax. Nikki R. Keddie writes: “during 1917-1918 Iran faced a great famine so that some people resorted to eating tree roots and cannibalism was reported in some cases.” [8] Reports of newspapers and foreign diplomats show that with incidence of cholera and typhus in spring of 1918, the famine doubled in destructiveness. In May 4, 1918, Jordan telegraphed Vickery in New York in this way: “… the famine is, contrary to expectations, growing and has accompanied by outbreak of typhus and typhoid… foodstuffs are nearly unavailable. The prices are enormous. People feed on grass, dog, animal carcasses, and even other human beings….” [9] In his report to American relief committee dated December 24, 1918, Addison E. Southard, the then American consul in Iran, writes: “I myself observed Iranians’ corpses or individuals dying of hunger along Iranian roads. I also observed hungry people who ate animal carcasses or greedily swallowed leaves of grasses that scorching summer sun had not seared them yet.” [10] Mr. Majd has mentioned many documents in his survey that enumerating them is beyond the scope of this paper. This famine that commonalty reminisce it as “mojaeh” [11] or “mojaeh year” or “Dampokhtak year” was so great and fearsome that people, for a long time, recalled events before and after the famine in terms of it. For instance they said that x person was born in mojaeh year or the other person died 5 years after mojaeh [12]. Eventually the situation improved in Tehran from January 1919, while in other provinces the situation was not so good, as in Azerbaijan the famine continued until the turn of the next year.


The consequences of the famine

As previously mentioned, during this famine approximately a half of Iranian population perished. Comparing Iranian population in 1919 and 1914 reveals that nearly 10 million Iranians died of starvation and disease. Contrary to some Russian authors before World War I and also some British authors in 1960s and 1970s that claimed Iran had only a population of around 10 million, it must be said that Iranian real population in 1914 was at least 20 million, but it reduced to 11 million by 1919. Thus, it can be confidently claimed that the famine of 1917-1919 was the greatest calamity of Persia’s history and maybe the most heinous massacre of 20th century. To aver Iranian real population in 1914, we can refer to the report of Russell, the then British minister in Iran. “In a report on Iran-Russia relations he writes: Iran is as large as Austria, Germany, and French and has a population of 20 million.” [13] “He, also, in a report on impressive results of parliamentary election, dated June 14, 1914, refers to the importance of revolutionary struggle of 20 million Iranian votes.” [14] “Urban population of Iran was at least 2.5 million people in 1914. According to a recent survey in that time at most 12 percents of Iranian population lived in urban areas. So, Iranian population in 1914 was at least 21 million people that confirms Russell’s opinion. So, Russell’s estimate on Iran’s population in 1914 seems true.” [15] “Morgan Shuster’s opinion, the then treasurer-general of Iran, that estimated Iranian population in 1900 to be between 13-15 million people confirms Russell’s opinion. Shuster, also, estimated Tehran’s population to be 350000 people. The results of election in Tehran in autumn 1917 show the correctness of statistics proposed by Shuster. During the 4th parliamentary election in Tehran, 75 thousand people voted in Tehran and its suburb. According to Iran newspaper, 12 elected candidates won 55131 votes. Since only men over 21 years could vote and an average family in that time consisted of at least 6 people, the population of Tehran and its suburbs in 1917 could easily hit 500000 people that is consonant to Shuster’s estimate.” [16] So, given to 20 million population of Iran in 1914, its population in 1919 may be, with a natural growth rate, 21 million. Later statistics on Iranian population suggest that many people perished during World War I and the famine resulted from it, because “Caldwell and Sykes estimated Iranian population in 1920 to be 10 million.” [17] The other indication of the famine is Tehran’s population. In 1917, the population of Tehran was at least 400 thousand that is obvious from the 4th parliamentary election votes. “In 1924, Robert W. Imbrie, US vice consul at Tehran, estimated Tehran’s population to be between 150- 200 thousand.” [18] Therefore, ‘neutral Iran’, with 10 million dead, was the greatest victim of World War I and none of belligerent parties suffered such casualties




1.      Refer to: Ketabi, Ahmad. Iran’s Famines. Tehran: the office for cultural researches, 1st edition, 2005, pp: 11-28

2.      Refer to: ibid, pp: 29-40

3.      Ibid, p 11

4.      Majd, Mohammad Gholi. The Great Famine. Translated by Mohammad Karimi. Tehran: institute of political studies and researches, spring 2008,  P: 18

5.      Ibid, p: 37

6.      Ibid, p: 41

7.      Ibid, p:42

8.      Keddie, Nikkie R. Qajar Iran and the rise of Reza Khan. Translated by Mehdi Haghighat Khah. Qoqnos publication, 3rd edition, 2008, p: 121

9.      Majd, Mohammad Gholi. Ibid, p: 48

10.  Ibid, p: 52

11.  Means famine, starvation

12.  Ketabi, Ahmad. Ibid, p: 54

13.  Majd, Mohammad Gholi. Ibid, p: 86

14.  Ibid, p: 87

15.  Ibid, p: 87

16.  Ibid, p: 86

17.  Ibid, p: 92

18.  Ibid, p: 93