The Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa is home to many neighborhoods, one of which is the Armen Sefer or “Armenian district” in Amharic. Currently, no members of the Armenian community remain there, yet the distinct wooden embellishments of their homes continue to be an enduring feature of the architectural mosaic of the city. Although the Armenian population was no more than 1,200, the legacy of the Armenian community of Ethiopia is a distinct story, with roots that begin over a thousand years ago.
Most Armenians know a few things about Ethiopia, one of them being that the Ethiopian Tewahedo Orthodox Church and the Armenian Apostolic Church are both a part of the Oriental Orthodox Churches. Additionally, many Armenians are also aware of the similarities between the Armenian and Ethiopian alphabets. Rubina Sevadjian, an author who writes and lectures on the Armenians of Ethiopia is one of the leading authorities on Ethiopian-Armenian history, as well as the life and work of her father, Bedros A. Sevadjian, the crown jeweler of Emperor Haile Selassie I of Ethiopia.
In 2019, the Anglo-Ethiopian Society hosted a lecture at the University of London with Sevadjian to discuss the Armenians of Ethiopia. She began by addressing a common misconception of whether the Ethiopian alphabet was written by Mesrop Mashtots. She says that not only was the Ethiopian alphabet not created by Mesrop Mashtots, but the writing system known as Ge’ez used by Ethiopians was created hundreds of years before the Armenian alphabet. Furthermore, Mashtots may have been influenced by the Ge’ez script as religious figures would often intermingle in Jerusalem. As Armenian-Ethiopian ties formed long ago, it is not surprising that their religious art also has many similarities. Illuminated manuscripts with reminiscent patterns and themes are quite prevalent, such as a manuscript by Toros Roslin from Cilician Armenia and one from the Ethiopian Garima Gospels from the 6th century, found in Tigray. Cultural links run far deeper than most Armenians imagine, and they truly are ancient in nature.
Rubina Sevadjian spoke to me further regarding the Armenians of Ethiopia, the origins and legacy of the community. Since the communion of the Ethiopian and Armenian churches in the wake of the council of Chalcedon in 451 AD, Ethiopians have always trusted Armenians, says Sevadjian. So much so that when Sir Robert Napier, a British Army Officer came to Ethiopia to free British merchants and missionaries accused of espionage, it was the Mekhitarist monks, a monastic order of the Armenian Catholic Church, who went with the diplomats as interpreters. The British nationals were imprisoned as Emperor Theodoros suspected they had come to Ethiopia with “ulterior motives”.
In the 1880s, a small number of Armenians began arriving in Ethiopia where they aided in the defense of the country from Italian colonizers. One such Armenian was Sarkis Terzian, who provided state-of-the-art weaponry to the Ethiopian Imperial Army. Additionally, by the late 19th century Armenians had already established themselves in the jewelry industry. Dikran Ebeyan, an Armenian jeweler made the crowns for Johaness IV and Menelik II both of whom were emperors of Ethiopia. Armenians fleeing the Hamidian Massacres of 1896 found their way from the Ottoman Empire to Ethiopia, and Menelik II welcomed them as he was attempting to open his country to the world.
As the Armenians were a stateless people at this point in history, the Ethiopians did not view them as a “colonial threat” unlike the Europeans. They were subsequently trusted as government officials, as well as trade representatives and “messengers” to Europe. Armenian culture also found its way to Ethiopia, for example with Araxi and Levon Yazedjian bringing Armenian gold and silver embroidery traditions from their native Arapkir in the former Ottoman Empire. Ethiopian nobility even picked up this practice, applying it to their velour capes and their court dress.
While Armenians influenced many aspects of Ethiopian culture, they were keen on integrating and becoming valued members of their adopted homeland. Armenians in Ethiopia worked with Armenians in India, acting as middle-men for trade between the British East India Company and the Ethiopian Empire. Emperor Menelik II who ruled from the late 19th century until the early 20th century gave the Armenian community land to build homes and engage in agriculture. Upon the arrival of Armenians, native Ethiopians expressed discontent that their emperor was giving so much land to this group of foreigners. The emperor rationalized his position by saying that Armenians were not there as colonizers. Although small, this community was successfully integrated, where they became trusted members of Ethiopian society at large.
Another chapter of Ethiopian-Armenian history is the Arba Lijoch (which translates to “40 children”), This group of children survivors of the Armenian Genocide, had found refuge in the Armenian quarter of Jerusalem, where they had formed a choir. Upon visiting Jerusalem, the future Emperor Haille Selassie I was fascinated by the musical ability of the children and their band leader Kevork Nalbandian. With the permission of the Armenian Patriarchate, he brought the 40 children and their conductor to Ethiopia in 1924.
Upon arriving in Addis Ababa, they went on to create the first Royal Imperial Brass Band and with this group, the use of brass in modern-day Ethiopian music began. Band leader Kevork Nalbandian even composed the music for the Ethiopian national anthem, which premiered at the coronation of Emperor Haile Selassie I in November 1930. Aramazt Kalayjian discusses this in more detail, while promoting his documentary “Tezeta” which follows the history of Armenians in Ethiopia as well as their connection to modern-day Ethiopian music, especially Ethio-Jazz. Seemingly coming full circle, I even recently encountered a young man at a bar in Yerevan, Armenia who insisted the DJ play Mulatu Astatke, one of the pioneers of Ethio-Jazz.
The descendants of the Arba Lijoch include Bedros Sarkissian, whose father Vahan Sarkissian survived the Armenian Genocide and found his way to Jerusalem. Vahan was born in the Ottoman Empire in the town of Sis in 1908, to the farming family of Sarkis Khetchoian. His immediate family perished during the 1915 genocide with Vahan being one of the only survivors. When he was placed in an orphanage, his family name was changed to be based on his grandfather’s first name, Sarkis.
Vahan Sarkissian is one of the 14 members of the Arba Lijoch who reached adulthood in Ethiopia, as many other members left for other destinations in the diaspora earlier on. He was employed by and was the trusted confidant and chauffeur for Matik Kevorkoff the founder and namesake of the Kevorkoff Armenian school. He went on to work in business, selling garments to the Ethiopian military and later on opening a store where he imported Swiss and Italian watches and jewelry.
The members of the Arba Lijoch that remained in Addis Ababa were given a neighbourhood to build homes and begin their new lives. Their family home in the Arba Lijoch Sefer was very close to the imperial palace, with a large stretch of land surrounding their yard. The members of the group would often visit each other as all their families had remained very close while still in Ethiopia.
Vahan Sarkissian passed away at the age of 68, contributing to the country that gave his family refuge while preserving his family’s and community’s Armenian heritage. Most Armenians in Ethiopia left after the 1974 Revolution, including Bedros, who took his family to settle in Canada, where they remain until today.
Currently no Armenians remain in the Arba Lijoch Sefer and the community as whole numbers around 100 people. Nevertheless, the Armenians of Ethiopia are emblematic as a diaspora community that balanced their national heritage and adopted nationality to create a prosperous and trustworthy community.
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