There is a small community of Armenians in Ethiopia, primarily in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa.
The Armenian presence in Ethiopia is historic. On a religious basis, the Ethiopian Church and the Armenian Apostolic Church are both members of the Oriental Orthodox communion of churches alongside Coptic Orthodox, Syriac Orthodox, Eritrean Orthodox and Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church (India) churches. The Armenian inhabitants in Ethiopia are Armenian Apostolics (Orthodox Armenians) belonging to the Armenian Apostolic Church. The Armenian Apostolic (Orthodox) have their own church, Sourp Kevork (St. George) Armenian Apostolic Church in Adis Ababa. The first-ever pastor of the Armenian community was Rev. Hovhannes Guevherian.
Besides the obvious religious affiliation, there is also the story of the Arba Lijoch children coming to Ethiopia after the Armenian Genocide. "Arba Lijoch" were a group of 40 Armenian orphans who had escaped from the atrocities in Turkey, and were afterwards adopted by Haile Selassie I of Ethiopia, then Crown Prince Ras Tafari. He had met them while visiting the Armenian monastery in Jerusalem. They impressed him so much that he obtained permission from the Armenian Patriarchate of Jerusalem to adopt and bring them to Ethiopia, where he then arranged for them to receive musical instruction.
The Arba Lijoch arrived in Addis Ababa in 1924, and along with their bandleader Kevork Nalbandian became the first official orchestra of the nation. Nalbandian also composed the music for Marsh Teferi (words by Yoftehé Negusé), which was the Imperial National Anthem from 1930 to 1974.
Armenians have a much older presence in Ethiopia. Indeed one of the first recorded diplomatic missions to Europe from Ethiopia was led by "Matthew the Armenian" who traveled to Portugal and Rome at the request of the Dowager Empress Eleni of Ethiopia to appeal for aid against Islamic incursions into Ethiopia in the 16th Century.
A JOURNEY BACK IN TIME: A LOOK AT THE HISTORY OF ARMENIANS IN ETHIOPIA
Addis Ababa — When Mateos Armenawi embarked on his first diplomatic mission on behalf of an Ethiopian Queen in 1512, little did he know that he was paving the way for generations of Armenians to play an active role in Africa’s first Christian nation.
Armenawi, or Armenian in the Amharic language, was dispatched to Portugal via India to seek help in halting an Ottoman expansion toward Ethiopia. He returned after an arduous journey which took him ten years to complete only to die of ill health a few weeks later. But Armenawi had earned his place in the Ethiopian history books as a trusted emissary and skilled negotiator. A decade later, a fellow Armenian by the name of Murad was already following his footsteps by gaining prominent positions in the palaces of Ethiopian Kings and Emperors. He too traveled the world on behalf of Ethiopian royalty and is noted for his role as a key intermediary with a number of European states, and primarily Holland from where Murad brought back a massive bronze church bell which is considered one of the country’s historical treasures.
Armenawi and Murad were involved in the Ethiopian framework as individuals, and it was not until 1875 that Armenians began arriving in Ethiopia in significant numbers, setting the stage for what later became a small but influential community halfway around the globe from historical Armenia. Among those in the first wave was Kevork Terzian, a young caterer who entered the northern town of Harare with the Ottoman Army. Within a few years, young Kevork was established enough to send for his nephew from Arapkir in 1882 and soon, a growing Terzian clan was taking its place in the political and military establishment of Ethiopia.
“All this is recent history for me, most of which involves my father and uncles,” said Avedis Terzian, the elder statesman and doyen of the Armenian community of Ethiopia. Born in Harare in 1904, Avedis Terzian, is a walking encyclopedia on the evolution of Armenian community life in Ethiopia. Fluent in several languages including English and French, Avedis Terzian is still very much in public life. As honorary chairman of the Armenian Community Council of Ethiopia, he is seen as a moderating influence, constantly providing the moral impetus for the dwindling community. In his younger days, Avedis Terzian served as Oriental Secretary at the U.S. Embassy from 1928 to 1937 — a job which in effect made him the most senior liaison officer between the American Embassy and the Ethiopian government.
“I was not the only Armenian holding such a position. During those years we also had Ohannes Semerdjibashian who was the interpreter and Oriental Secretary at the British Embassy, Souren Tchekerian was at the Italian Embassy, Ardashes Peshtimaldji was at the French Embassy and Antranig Papazian was at the Egyptian Embassy,” he said. “Armenians have always had a special place in Ethiopian life despite their small numbers. It’s quality rather than quantity,” he said with a smile. Terzian’s father, who helped restore the town of Harare to Ethiopian rule in 1887, was named Governor of the Ethiopian town of Gildessa in 1888 and is credited with securing a vital road linking the city to the Djibouti coast.
“My father was also probably the first Armenian gun merchant in the world,” Terzian says. As a confidante of Ethiopian kings, Terzian’s father was asked to arm the Ethiopian military and sent on a secret mission to France in 1890 to purchase surplus weapons. Given the political sensitivities of the time, the French would only sell the hardware but declined the use of their national merchant fleet to transport the weapons to Ethiopia. Undeterred, Terzian secretly loaded the steel crates on a Dutch cargo vessel and transported them to the French colony of Djibouti for the land journey on camel back to Addis Ababa. “It was the biggest arms shipment of the time, and it included 80,000 rifles, 13 million rounds of ammunition, machine guns and 33 cannons. This earned my father a special status, just like Dikran Ebeyan who was the royal goldsmith,” he said.
The Terzians, Ebeyans and others like them were first generation Armenians who had come as young bachelors in search of fame and money. They set the stage for the first major wave of families to follow in the wake of the 1895 massacre of Armenians in Arapkir at the hands of the Ottoman Turks. “My father brought about a dozen of his relatives who had survived the first massacres. They were mainly women and children, thus forming the nucleus of the Terzian clan, first in Harare and then Addis Ababa itself. More immigrants came in 1908 and again after the great massacre of 1915 and later young men and women from Aintab, Marash, Izmir and Adana. What you see in Addis Ababa today are the children and grandchildren of these people, and I am the oldest among them,” Avedis Terzian said. One such group which is still remembered today are the 40 Armenian orphans brought to Addis Ababa by then Emperor Haile Selassie from Jerusalem.
“This was in 1923,” Terzian says. “Selassie, during a visit to the Armenian Patriarchate in Jerusalem, was very impressed by the performance of a brass band. When he found out that all 40 players were orphans of the 1915 massacres, he offered to adopt them.” “The group came to Addis Ababa with their bandmaster, Kevork Nalbandian, who later composed the now abandoned Ethiopian national anthem. He also founded the Ethiopian military band which exists until today,” Terzian said. With the influx of Armenians came the concept of organizing community life and that meant a school which opened its doors to a handful of children in 1915, just as new immigrants were coming. Initially a small private kindergarten, the facility developed into the Araradian National School only to be fragmented into three smaller schools run by rival political parties in the 1920’s and early 1930’s.
“The introduction of Armenian politics was a divisive factor for this community, starting with the arrival of Matig Kevorkoff, a Djibouti-based Armenian merchant from Constantinople who was Armenia’s first ambassador to Addis Ababa in 1920. The inter-factional squabbles led to Kevorkoff’s abrupt resignation and return to Djibouti with his wife,” Terzian said. Unshaken by what amounted to a diplomatic debacle, Kevorkoff talked the community into merging the three Armenian schools under one roof — thus forming the National Armenian Kevorkoff School which is still serving Addis Ababa Armenians today. “We were a powerful economic force in this country, and more so after the British entered Ethiopia in 1941. For 33 years, or until 1974, the Armenian community of Ethiopia was at its zenith. It’s a different story today,” Terzian said.
THE ARMENIANS OF ETHIOPIA: A COMMUNITY OF SURVIVORS
by David Zenian
Addis Ababa — A Boeing 757 passenger jet has more seats than the number of Armenians living in Ethiopia, but there is more to what a community means than simple arithmetic. From a high 1,200 to a low of less than 150, the Armenian community today functions despite the drastic loss of manpower. It’s school is open, and so is the Armenian church and club. A handful of activists are keeping the community infrastructures alive in Ethiopia. Prominent businessman Vahag Karibian is busy revitalizing the AGBU which has already financed the purchase of new furniture for the Armenian community school. Others like Arakel Sakadjian are involved with the academic well-being of the school and various aspects of community life.
“It’s all a matter of faith in why you need to preserve your culture and heritage. There is nothing old fashioned about this,” Archdeacon Vartkes Nalbandian said in a recent interview. Once a community of influential traders, factory owners and goldsmiths, the Armenians of Ethiopia are gradually resembling a lost tribe, effectively isolated from fellow Armenians not only in such nearby African countries as Egypt and Sudan, but also the rest of the Diaspora and even Armenia.
“We have no newspapers and no organized communication with other Armenian communities. Most of us do not know what is happening in Armenia, and the very little we hear is from the Armenian broadcasts of Voice of America. “We are like a lost tribe which has survived hundreds of years simply by faith and a lot of hard work ... but the question is for how much longer?” community elder Avedis Terzian said. “You might find this strange coming from a 90-year-old Armenian born in Ethiopia, but with the wave of emigration the New Armenians are the Armenians of the United States, France, Canada, Australia and other western nations where people have a chance to develop into a new breed of Diaspora Armenians,” Terzian said.
Hundreds of Ethiopian-born Armenians have already settled in California and Canada, but for those who have chosen to stay “in the land of our grandfathers”, the battle of survival continues. And given the size of the community, the battle sometimes resembles a full-fledged war. Take the Armenian Kevorkoff Community School. Opened in 1935, the K-to-elementary school today has about 100 students of which only 11 are Armenians — including six children of mixed parents.
“Our annual budget is 12,000 dollars, and if we were to keep non-Armenians out of the school, we should have closed and gone home a long time ago,” says school principal Emma Gueverian. “Our kids need an Armenian education, and we can sustain that by accepting people from outside the community,” she says. The school’s weekly schedule includes ample hours of instruction in the Armenian language, history, geography and religion. Today, the school has a multi-national student body — including the children of several Egyptian embassy diplomats who prefer the Armenian community school over other private institutions because of “the clean family atmosphere at Kevorkoff.”
For the academic year ending June, 1994, three Armenian children will graduate from the Armenian elementary school and will, like others before them, hopefully make their way to the Melkonian Educational Institute of the Armenian General Benevolent Union in Nicosia, Cyprus. But the number of graduates will drop in the coming years if the demographic structure of the community does not improve with new births and less deaths.
According to available figures, two Armenian youngsters will graduate from Kevorkoff in 1995, but none in 1996 and 1997, and only one in 1998, two in the year 1999 and up to three again in the year 2000. Not an encouraging picture, as Archdeacon Vartkes Nalbandian sees it.
The community today consists of about half a dozen under 12 years old, five over 12 years old, 10 between the ages of 20-25, some in their mid-40’s and a majority of 60 to 80 year olds. According to church records for the period 1979-1994, there have been nine Armenian weddings in Addis Ababa, 37 births and 55 deaths. “This community is not growing in numbers. We are facing a very difficult future,” says the electromechanical engineer turned Archdeacon .
The St. Kevork Armenian Church, built in 1934, lost its last “real” clergyman in 1980, leaving the parish in limbo. “The Armenian and Ethiopian Orthodox churches are very close, but this community was not ready to get a clergyman from a non-Armenian church to bury its dead or baptize its children,” Nalbandian said. “For a while after the last priest left we used a tape recording of Holy Badarak as the centerpiece of our Sunday service. Imagine a handful of people sitting in church listening to the Divine Liturgy on tape,” he said. “This was not adequate, and as an ordained Archdeacon, I somehow took over. Now, for the past 14 years, I am a chemical engineer during the week and a man of the frock on Sundays.
“I do the occasional baptisms and a lot of funerals — and weddings if I am sure of the background of the couples involved. I also do the Holy Badarak every Sunday of the year — without any exceptions,” the forty-something Nalbandian said after a recent Sunday service at which his wife led the choir and his teenage son played the electric organ. “The last wedding was in 1990, and it involved a couple from Canada who wanted to get married in their place of birth for sentimental reasons,” he said. While the Armenian school and Church keep the community together, the Armenian Club helps cover the costs of maintaining the much-needed infrastructure. And it does that with style.
The “Ararat” Armenian Community Club has in recent years been widely recognized as the “place to be” for Addis Ababa’s diplomatic corps and visiting businessmen. The Club’s restaurant, also called Ararat, is “by reservation only” and foreign diplomats and others gladly pay annual membership fees to join. “This is one of the few places you can eat in Addis Ababa. It serves authentic Armenian food, and it is home cooking at its best,” a Swiss diplomat commented recently. A good income generating enterprise, the Ararat Club and restaurant pay for the facility to stay open, and produce enough cash to help the Armenian school and church balance their budget.
“With such a small community, we have learned to improvise. The old rich Armenians left many years ago, and now we have to take care of ourselves without a single cent of financial aid from outside. It is not easy, but we do it,” Nalbandian said.
Edited by Ashot, 21 January 2011 - 03:52 AM.