The Great Famine of 1915


In a previous post I shared maps of the the number of dead in Batroun, Lebanon due the great famine of 1915. The maps have since been updated after normalizing the data so they display the “percentage” of dead. Below is the full story of the Great Famine.

The years 1915 to 1918 are considered one of the worst years in the history of Lebanon if not the Middle East. At the time the country was not known as Lebanon but was rather part of the Ottoman Empire. While many were dying on the front lines of the First World War in Europe the Lebanese were starving to death.

When the Ottoman Empire joined Germany in the war the allied powers enforced a maritime blockade on the Mediterranean to prevent any resources from reaching the empire. In return Jamal Pasha, appointed as minister of navy over Lebanon at the time, also enforced a similar blockade along the eastern Mediterranean to block supplies to the British in the Seuz Canal which also prevented any supplies from reaching the people of Lebanon. This was a major cause to the death of thousands. He came to be referred to as “Aljazzar” or “Alsaffah” which mean “the butcher” and “the blood shedder” due to his killings of Lebanese and Syrian people.

As if the two blockades weren’t enough, particularly to those in Mount Lebanon, what came was even worse. A drought hit the area and was followed by a locust attack. On the one hand the blockade by the allied powers lead to the Ottomans seizing grains and resources from the people to feed the army. On the other hand, locust fed on everything it landed upon eliminating any possible means of living. This lead to starvation and the spread of diseases like Typhus, malaria, and smallpox, in villages.

The locust attack of 1915 was not limited to Mount Lebanon but rather nested in the whole region including Palestine (Image album at the Library of Congress).

Here’s what Rym Ghazal of The National had to say about her experience of a swarm of locusts in Mecca, Saudi Arabia a few years ago:

“The Great Famine is a complicated story, but one of its main culprits was the locust. Unless you have seen it with your own eyes, as I did on a road trip to Mecca many years ago, it is hard to imagine locusts wreaking a disaster of “biblical proportions”. I first thought they were dark rain clouds but then heard a deafening buzz, almost like drones. Soon, an army of locusts fell like a thick curtain over the horizon. Many millions of these insatiable creatures, which we had read about in poems and even in the Holy Quran, had come for the farms and crops, as they had for centuries. They used to come to the UAE as well and the last time was 2008, when they invaded Fujairah.”[4]

She adds,

“But the full story is a far more complicated, according to history professor Aaron Tylor Brand, at the American University of Beirut, whose dissertation on the famine is entitled: Lives Darkened by Calamity: Enduring the Famine of WWI in Lebanon and Western Syria. … “Previous interpretations of the famine as a deliberate product of Ottoman or Allied actions are too simplistic. Analysing monthly price lists and climatic statistics of the famine period and contextualising these within the history of famine in the region suggests that the high prices that drove the region towards famine in late 1915 were the product of environmental factors (poor rainfall, a climatic oscillation, and locust attack) and wartime mismanagement that conscripted too heavily in the countryside at a time when agricultural goods were needed for both the war and the population,” he says.” [5]

Those who were lucky enough to have a cattle or two left fed themselves and their children from its milk and cheese. Other survivors had simply survived by fleeing the region mainly to the United States and Latin America. As for those who fled from the villages and Mount Lebanon to cities on the Mediterranean like Beirut, Jounieh, and Tripoli they were not lucky enough as the same situation ruled there where many were seen dead or sleeping on the streets.

Data on the distribution of the famine is rare. The only data I could find (accidentally) was in a book* recently published (and retrieved from the market for claims of historical fallacies). The data tabulated the number of people dead due to famine along with number of residents of the villages in the district of Batroun in Northern Lebanon. Below is a an interactive map that shows the percentage (of village residents) of dead in this area (Batroun).

Wikipedia mentions 100,000 died in this period while records (as mentioned in the Arabic video below) show that at least 200,000 died.

In the video “The famine of Mount Lebanon during WW1” by the BBC documenting the famine, a journal mentions a man eating his children (cannibalism).

In another video (in Arabic) by the Lebanese TV channel MTV involves an interview with an elderly who was born in 1914, 100+ years old. He said that even salt (and grass) was missing. In his area (Aabrine) some people went to Tripoli to get oranges to feed their children. They even fed them the peelings.

This great famine is rarely remembered by the Lebanese because those who lived it and survived kept it hidden, probably because of the shame it brings onto people. It is hard for someone to say that his grand ancestors starved to death or ate other humans. This is what Youssef Mouad mentions in the video.


* Histoire de la Grande famine au Mont-Liban (1915-1918) – Un genocide passe sous silence, Antoine Boustany, 9789953031194 (source of data)

  2. Early data on deaths rewrites history in dust of Ottoman archives
  3. Ottoman hunger games and the 1915 Great Famine
  4. Lebanon’s dark days of hunger: The Great Famine of 1915-18
  5. Locust Plague 1915 album, Library of Congress

Further Reading

  1. The 1915 Locust Attack in Syria and Palestine and its Role in the Famine During the First World War
  2. Hand of Man or Hand of Fate? Reassessing the Question of Blame in the Syrian Famine of WWI, Aaron Tylor Brand
  3. 4 Beautiful yet Horrifying Graphs of Death from Ottoman Lebanon, 1915-6
  4. Ottoman Empire/Middle East, International Encyclopedia of the First Wolrd War

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