Ethiopian-Armenians and their contributions in Ethiopia

By De Birhan
2 Feb 2013

Ethiopian-Armenians have played a tremendous role in Ethiopian history since the times of Emperor Tewodros 1855-68. One of the first Armenians to have come to Ethiopia and put an imprint was Boghos Markarian(pictured below). Boghos Markarian served as an advisor to Emperor Tewodros during his rule. He is known for being an opportunist by shifting his loyalty to Emperor Menelik II during his transition to becoming Emperor of Ethiopia. There is a this saying that when Emperor Tewodros learned that Emperor Menelik II had reemereged and of the betrayal of his confidant, Boghos Markarian, Tewodros was eating cabbage, and thus reportedly said “Ke sew kifu Armen, ke megeb kifu gomen.” Which  means ‘The worst person is an Armenian, the worst food is cabbage.”
SimilarlySarkis Terzian is the other Ethiopian-Armenian credited for his role in bringing new technologies. Sarkis Terzian brought many innovations to Ethiopia including the building of the first geo-thermal powered bath house in Addis Ababa. He is also credited with importing the first automobile (steam-powered) as well as being the sole distributor of guns and munitions during the battle of Adwa, where an Ethiopian army fought off an invading Italian army. He is also the first Armenian to ever walk on foot to Ethiopia from Djibouti.
Ethiopian Geez alphabet and Krapar, an older written form of Armenian share similar letters and pronounciation. For eg. አበገደ. 
Before HIM Hailesellasie brought over 40 Armenian orphans from Israel to live in Ethiopia, there were already a number of Armenians in Ethiopia. The photograph below is of the Armenian community holding Emperor Menelik’s Photograph in Ethiopia roughly around 1908.

Then came the history of the  Arba Lijoch (forty) children who came to Ethiopia after the Armenian Genocide after they had escaped from the atrocities in Turkey, and were afterwards adopted by Haile Selassie I of Ethiopia. When they arrived in Addis Ababa in 1924, and with their bandleader Kevork Nalbandian they became the first official orchestra of Ethiopia. Nalbandian composed and arranged many of Ethiopia’s modern musics and national anthem. 

A Documentray called TEZETA has been produced to recognise their role. The following script is quoted from the producer and or fundrasing organizer,

“TEZETA [The Ethiopian Armenians]is a film about the tremendous impact of a small minority of people on the culture of a nation; the struggle to retain cultural identity and remain a viable community; and the role that music played in serving as a bridge between two cultures.

We started collecting footage six months ago in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. During this time, we became acquainted with many Ethiopian Armenian community members whose families have lived in Ethiopia for several generations, as well as others touched by the Armenians’ profound legacy. Particularly compelling is the mark Armenians have left on the musical landscape of Ethiopia, which is why we’ve chosen to focus on this aspect of the story. 

To date, we’ve conducted forty-five half-hour to hour-long interviews with Ethiopian Armenians, as well as Ethiopian musicians, historians, and clergymen. Our interviews have been in French, Amharic, Armenian, & English. We’ve filmed concerts, recitals, & church ceremonies. We’ve photographed places and people relevant to the story. We’ve come a long way but we have a lot more to go!”

The following text about the plot outline is from the Documentary producers Facebook page “From the times of King Haile Selassie and the Arba Lijoch (40 adopted Armenian orphans who comprised his imperial orchestra) to the legendary Ethio-jazz singer Alèmayèhu Eshèté, Armenians have long been intertwined with the musical and cultural history of Ethiopia. Kevork Nalbandian—composer of the first Ethiopian national anthem, his nephew Nerses—jazz musician and instructor, and his children, Vartkes and Salpi—both musicians and business owners, have all left their mark on the musical landscape of Ethiopia. 

Presently, Vahé Tilbian, a fourth-generation inheritor of the Ethio-Armenian musical legacy, struggles with questions of ethnic identity and the viability of leading a life in an increasingly adverse cultural and economic climate. Their small community has dwindled and continues to shrink. Law enforcement, land developers, and collective amnesia are threatening the existence of Ethio-Armenians’ contributions to Ethiopian culture and, subsequently, the existence of Armenians in Ethiopia.”

To watch more videos and read please click HERE

Photo credits go to Armenians of Ethiopia  Facebook  Page.