2975) Armenians of Ethiopia by Vahan Altiparmak

Armenian presence in Ethiopia has been long and is a historic one, the first fact being that Armenians came to Ethiopia in the 16th Century. The first Armenian name that appeared in Ethiopian history was Mateos Armenawi (meaning Armenian). Armenawi had earned his place in the Ethiopian history books as a trusted emissary and skilled negotiator. He embarked on his first diplomatic mission on behalf of an Ethiopian Queen and was dispatched to Portugal via India to seek help in halting an Ottoman expansion toward Ethiopia in 1512. This took Armenawi ten years to complete, only for him to die of ill health a few weeks later. A decade later, a fellow Armenian by the name of Murad acted as intermediary with a number of European states, primarily Holland, from where Murad brought back a massive bronze church bell which is considered one of the country’s historical treasures. . .

In 1875 Armenians began arriving in Ethiopia in significant numbers, setting the stage for what later became the most important ethnic minority in Ethiopian history. Among those in the first wave was a young caterer by the name of Kevork Terzian. Kevork Terzian was born in Mashgerd (Arapkir), Malatia. When he was 14 years old he joined the Ottoman Army as a gunner. Four years later he entered the northern town of Harare with the Ottoman Army. In 1882 he brought his nephew to Ethiopia. In 1897 he brought about a dozen of his relatives who had survived the Hamidain massacres in Arapkir. Terzian clan began taking its place in the political and military establishment of Ethiopia.

Kevork Terzian was probably the first Armenian gun merchant in the world. In 1890 the Ethiopian King asked Terzian to arm the Ethiopian military and sent him on a secret mission to France to purchase surplus weapons. The French would only sell the hardware but declined the use of their national merchant fleet to transport the weapons to Ethiopia. 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 and swords, 13 million rounds of ammunition, machine guns and 33 cannons.

Terzian build a factory to manufacture weapons and agricultural machinery. He imported the first steam ship and steam car to Ethiopia in 1902. He was the right hand man of King Menelik , helping to restore the town of Harare to Ethiopian rule in 1887. Terzian was named Governor of the Ethiopian town of Gildessa in 1888 and later Biokobbo. He was also a diplomat and was sent to Paris, London, Berlin, Rome, Brussels, Vienna and Washington.

Jeweller Dikran Ebeian arrived in Ethiopia from Istanbul upon the invitation of the Ethiopian King Yohannes IV and made the royal crown within the two years he was there. Upon the request of the King, he settled in Ethiopia and became the royal jeweller. At the time he made the royal crown, there were 3 Armenian jewellery work shops in Ethiopia. These Armenian jewellers were very successful in making high karat earrings and necklaces based on African styles and supplying these to the African and European markets.

King Menelik took on the crown following King Yohannes IV’ death in March 1889 and was the driver behind modernizing Ethiopia. He built roads, hospitals and schools. The most important project at this time was the linking of Addis Ababa to Djibouti via modern highways and railway system. This construction began in 1902 with the help of Italian and French architects to build bridges and the transport infrastructure. Most of the bridges which were constructed of stone and wood collapsed during the rivers floods of the winter of 1904. New architects were brought to Ethiopia to rebuild these bridges. The head of this project and chief architect was Kirkor Hovian. Hovian commenced this project in 1905. Under his leadership, all the bridges were rebuilt. In addition, he built hospitals, churches, government buildings and many other small to medium buildings in Ethiopia, most of these building are still standing today. Hovian was the top architect of modern Ethiopia and his assistants included Harutyun Avakian, Hapet Ugurluian and Sarkis Terzian. Another architect was Minas Herbekian, who took over the position of Chief Architect of Ethiopia following the death of Hovian.

At the end of the first decade of the 20th Century the Armenian population in Ethiopia reached 146. During this time Giragos Boghossian became King, Menelik the Foreign Minister and his brother Kathig Boghossian became the Agriculture Minister. Africa’s most important oil painter Skunder (Alexander Bogossian) was Giragos Boghossian’s grandson. In 1902 Africa’s first photography studio was opened in Addis Ababa by Armenian photographer Bedros Boyacian. In 1928 his sons Haygaz and Tony (Torkom) became royal photographers of the Ethiopian court upon the death of their father. Later Tony became one of the most important photographers of Africa.

During the second decade of the 20th Century Kevork Terzian’s grandson Avedis Terzian became a chief translator and worked in the USA, Hovannes Semercibashian worked at the English Consulate as a translator, similarly Suren Chekerian at the Italian Consulate, Ardashes Peshtimalcian at the French Consulate and Antranig Papazian at the Egyptian Consulate. Another diplomat and representative of the French Government was Matig Kevorkoff. Kevorkoff was born in Sucidar (Uskudar) Istanbul in 1867. He was highly educated, and became a French citizen speaking French language fluently. He lived in Egypt for a short period of time and in 1896 moved to Djibouti and started exporting tobacco to France. Shortly thereafter he became the sole tobacco exporter from Africa to Europe. Kevorkoff also began to import cotton, silk, alcohol, olive oil, soap, perfume, steel and construction materials into Ethiopia. He expanded his import and export company from Djibouti to operations in Addis Ababa, Dire Dawa and Harare. In 1919 Kevorkoff and his friends presented Armenia with the gift of an airplane. He built an Armenian Church in Ethiopia under his name, this same Church still stands today. Also in 1919 one of the biggest merchants of his time, Minassian was appointed head of the newly opened first bank of Ethiopia.

In 1913 Ethiopian King Hail Selassie I passed away and Queen Zewditu reigned until 1916. In 1916 Hail Selassie II came to the throne as a modern thinking King with a strong affinity to Armenians. In 1923 at the beginning of his extensive European visit, Hail Selassie II stayed for a short period at the Surp Agop Armenian Monastery in Jerusalem. He then visited many European countries, including Paris, Brussels, Luxemburg, Stockholm, Rome, London and Athens where he collected ideas on the establishment of hospitals, schools, factories and government establishments. During this stay at the Surp Agop Armenian Monastery, he came across 40 orphan Armenians boys who had survived the 1915 Armenian genocide. He asked to take these 40 boys to Ethiopia. The Monastery authorities gave permission only on the condition that the children’s safety would be guaranteed, that they would be accompanied by another adult and that their stay in Ethiopia would be for four years only.

On 6 September 1924 all of the orphan boys arrived in Addis Ababa with their music teacher Kevork Nalbandian, traveling there via Djiboutti. Kevork Nalbandian was born in 1887 and having survived the 1915 genocide he ended up in Syria and became an accomplished musician, with the ability to play many musical instruments. In 1930 he composed the Ethiopian national anthem, for which the words written by Yoftahe Negussie. It remained the national anthem until the 1974 military coupe. He was the leader of the military band, became a music professor and was also a jazz musician. In 1933-1934 he directed the first Ethiopian musical borrowing from Armenian and European musicals, and which was performed in many European countries. With the arrival of Italians in Ethiopia in 1935 Nalbandian was exiled to Sudan where he lived for a while before retiring in 1949. He died on 5 May 1963 in Addis Ababa.

Kevork Nalbandian’s brother Agop Nalbandian moved to Ethiopia in 1930 and worked in many musical bands. His son Nerses Nalbandian was born in 1915 in Syria, and became one of the most important musicians in Ethiopia, following in the footsteps of his uncle Kevork. Nerses became the music teacher of the 40 Armenian orphan boys. He established Ethiopia’s first modern orchestra. He was the most important musician of the 1950’s in Addis Ababa’s fast moving musical scene which was flourishing with Armenian, African, Greek and other European music. During these years his name was always the first on the musical night entertainment scene of Addis Ababa. Another emerging young musician around this time was Garabed Haklamazian, one of the 40 orphan boys. Other important Armenian musicians of this period were Hagop Manookian and the music professor Azad (Bagdasarian) Topalian. The first recording studio in Ethiopia was opened by Garbis Haygazian in 1952-1953 which remained the only recording studio until the 1970’s.

In 1930 the Armenian population in Ethiopia reached 1000, as a result of the 1915 Armenian Genocide. One of the families exiled during the 1915 Genocide was the Guevherian family. Hovhannes Avak Guevherian was born on 1 January 1877 in Yozgat. He graduated from the Horenian Armenian School and served as a teacher. On 18 June 1908 he was anointed as a priest by Sandalcian at the Surp Hagop Monastery of Kayseri. In 1915 Guevherian and his family, including his wife Hayganush (Chakmakchian) Guevherian and their children Nouritsa, Arous, Harutyun and Nubar, were exiled to the Syrian desert of Hawran. During this difficult journey, they lost their beloved daughter Nouritsa. Guevherian was a very energetic and brave man and played a critical role in helping and gathering together other Armenian families in the same predicament and the many orphans who had been left alone. He was forthcoming in seeking and gaining help from Badawi’s and other Arab clans in neighbouring villages. He was appointed the leader and top coordinator for the placement of all of the orphaned Armenian children in orphanages. Because of his successful achievement of this task, Archbishop Arslanian recommended to the Istanbul Patriarch that Guevherian be appointed as the religious leader of Armenians in Ethiopia.

From 3 October 1935 to the mid of World War II, Addis Ababa was under seize by the Italians. The publication `Amda-Berhan za Ethiopia’ (meaning light of Ethiopia) was produced undercover during this period and became the first Ethiopian newspaper. This important publication was established by Hovannes Semercibashian who was a diplomat at the English Consulate. He was also a translator at the German Consulate which later became an enemy country during World War II. The newspaper with written in the Amharic language with only 13 issues published. Semercibashian’s Ethiopian wife was the sister of the leader of the Ethiopian Resistance Movement. From this link, the Resistance Movement has a voice through the newspaper and helped to organize the uprising of the Ethiopian people against the occupying forces. On 10 June 1940, with the declaration of war by Mussolini on England and France, the Ethiopian King moved to England and then Sudan. One month later, the King declared his support for the Resistant Movement through a statement in the `Amda-Berhan za Ethiopia’ newspaper. As a result of this communication and the ongoing critical role played by the newspaper, the newspaper and its establishers were awarded with the highest medal by the King. The newspaper was established and run by a committee consisting of Hovannes Semercibashian, Avedis Terzian and another Armenian with the same surname of Terzian and two Ethiopians. Unfortunately, there are no copies of this newspaper that can be found today.

Between the years of 1930 to 1974, the Armenian population of Ethiopia grew to more than 2500 and had one church, one school, one community centre and a cemetery. As a result of the military coupe of 1974, with the King thrown out of power, the Armenians began exiting Ethiopia. At this time 6 Armenian young men lost their lives defending their properties. In Dire Dawa, the Armenians and other minorities lost all their property.

In the 1990’s the Armenian population of Ethiopia dwindled to 150. The last priest of the Kevorkoff Armenian Church departed in 1980. Today the Church only opens on Sundays, and the role of priest has been taken on by Vartkes Nalbandian, who is an electrical and mechanical engineer. The weddings, baptisms and funerals are conducted using recordings of the ceremonies made prior to 1980. As the majority of worshippers attending the Church ceremonies are now non-Armenian, it is likely that in the future the Church will no longer be under Armenian control. At the Armenian school the last two Armenian students graduated in 2008 and the current 200 students are not of Armenian heritage. The current Armenian population in Ethiopia is estimated to be 58, most of them elderly.

Outside of the disappearing school and church, there is an Armenian community centre called Ararat. The Ararat Armenia Community Club has in recent years been widely recognized as the place to be for Addis Ababa’s diplomatic corps and visiting businessmen. It is a restaurant with the finest authentic Armenian traditional cuisine served. It is opened 7 days a week but is by reservation only or through annual membership. An excellent 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 for many years. The Ararat Club is run by 5 Armenians and looks like it will stay open until the last Armenian leaves Ethiopia.


Arshak said...

Its not a comment I want to write, but a question. My name is Dawit Arshak. As my father told me that my grandfather Arshak the first generation of the Armenian who born in Ethiopia. He was working in a finance area and called Bejrond. If this can give a clue I would like to know if there is any way to trace about him. If any one want to give me any idea I am more then happy to be contacted on dawitarshak@yahoo.co.nz. Thanks.

Unknown said...

Dear Vahan, Thank you for the nice article on the History of Ethiopian Armenians. I have some suggestions to make with regards to some corrections. The population of Armenians in Ethiopia around 1930 was not 1000 but around 300. At the pick, somewhere in mid sixties, it had probably reached 1200 at the very most. The population had never reached 2500. One more correction....when the Emperor was overthrown and the Dergue Government came to power, Armenians lost most of their land and factories but each family was allowed to keep their primary residence. Although at a latter time a few individuals were arrested for breach of law, there was not a single Armenian that was killed by the Dergue. The six person who were killed protecting their property, in your article is not accurate. Other than that, I enjoyed reading your article.

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