Remembering the Armenians of Ethiopia
Remembering the Armenians of Ethiopia
By R.P. Sevadjian on May 6, 2015
Special for the Armenian Weekly
At the beginning of March, a Requiem was offered for my parents and for the Sevadjian clan, and it transported me back 40 years to when I had last been to a service in the magnificent church of my childhood: the St. George Armenian Apostolic Church in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.
The church and the cross on its dome stood out against a perfect blue sky. I went in and lit a candle. The altar curtain was pulled across as it was Lent. I looked up at the azure ceiling and the chandeliers. Light was streaming through the stained glass windows into the chorister’s gallery. It was a moving and beautiful experience. The sonorous tones of Vartkes Nalbandian and the clear soprano of Salpi Nalbandian made me very emotional. It was not possible to have a full Badarak as Vartkes is a deacon, and there is no longer an Armenian priest in residence in Ethiopia.
I stood and listened and prayed. I thought of all the Yetovbahayer who had prayed in that church, who had made up the richest and most vibrant foreign community in Ethiopia, their numbers now dwindled to less than 100 souls. Philanthropists, industrialists, businessmen, talented men and women, and most of all, artisans, artisans, and more artisans. What a great number of them there were!
Boghos Markarian, who arrived in 1866 and supplied goods and arms to the courts of Emperor Yohannes and later Emperor Menelik II, was one of the first Armenians to settle in Ethiopia in modern times. By the late 1960’s, the Armenians numbered some 1,200.
There had been Armenians in Ethiopia long, long before then, as early as the 13th century, but a real community with significant numbers was only established in the early 1900’s when many left their ancestral homes in the Ottoman Empire and found a safe haven in Christian Ethiopia. Another wave of Armenians arrived in the 1920’s. Thereafter the numbers increased as people married, invited cousins and other relatives to join them from wherever they had ended up—mostly Syria and Lebanon—after the genocide.
The Armenians who settled in Ethiopia before the 1920’s, and those who arrived after 1945, were mostly well educated; they were doctors, dentists, chemists, architects, engineers, lawyers, and accountants. Many of those who arrived in the 1920’s as a direct consequence of the genocide were artisans; they were tailors, watchmakers, cobblers, and carpet makers. Thus in almost every trade, profession, and industry, there were Armenians in Addis Ababa. They had come from a very wide area of the Ottoman Empire and brought with them the special expertise of their hometowns.
Addis Ababa boasted a large number of remarkably skilled jewelers. One of the first was Dikran Ebeyan, who had arrived from Constantinople. He had the distinction of making the coronation crowns of Emperors Yohannes in 1881 and Menelik II in 1889.
Should you visit any jewelry shop in Addis Ababa today, you will see filigree work in gold and silver. This skill was introduced and taught to Ethiopian artisans by Armenian craftsmen.
A visit to the Armenian cemetery gives an idea of the origins of the three major waves of Armenian immigrants, mirroring the tragedies that befell their homeland: First came those from Constantinople, Aintab, Arapkir, Kharpert; then Adana and Van; then Marash, Sparta, and Smyrna.
It is difficult to overestimate the contribution that Armenians made in their 100 years in Ethiopia. Armenians moved with Emperor Menelik II from Harar to Addis Ababa and helped build a modern capital city. There is not enough space here to describe all their important and lasting contributions, in trade, industry, and government, but a few must be mentioned as they are truly exceptional.
Firstly, there were two great philanthropists whose legacies live on today. One was Mihran Mouradian, a merchant, who built the church that was consecrated in 1935. The other was Matig Kevorkoff, who in 1923 built a modern school to unite the two schools that had previously divided the community. Kevorkoff was a French citizen who grew up in Egypt and moved to Djibouti at the age of 29 to pursue a highly successful career as a merchant of tobacco and other commodities. During the fascist occupation of Ethiopia (1936-41), because of his French nationality, all of his assets were confiscated by the Italians as “enemy property.” Kevorkoff died in penury in Marseille in the early 1950’s.
Among a number of amusing stories of the arbitrary ways Armenians ended up in Ethiopia is that of the Darakdjians. Stepan Darakdjian left Kharpert in 1912 and made his way to Egypt, hoping to immigrate to America. A requirement for a visa to America was an examination for trachoma. While waiting to be seen by the eye doctor, he went to an Armenian cafe, where he fell into conversation with a man named Hovhannes Assadourian, who had just returned from Ethiopia. Assadourian said, “You are a tanner. Why go to America? Go to Ethiopia where they need shoes!” So Stepan Darakdjian made his way to Harar and set up a tannery in partnership with another Armenian called Karikian. Later on, his son, Mardiros, moved to Addis Ababa where he founded a modern tannery in Akaki and a shoe factory called Darmar (Darakdjian Mardiros). Later still, he branched out into many other businesses and became very wealthy. The factory and shops still exist with the old sign of a lion (which looks very much like the Metro Goldwyn Mayer one), but the shops are now called Ambassa (lion).
Two of the earliest settlers, Hovsep Behesnilian and Sarkis Terzian, made their fortunes by supplying arms to Emperor Menelik II during his 1896 war against the invading Italians. The Behesnilian name lives on in perhaps the largest and most successful conglomerate in Ethiopia, HAGBES, founded by Hovsep’s nephew, Hagop Behesnilian, still privately owned, and employing some 1,000 people.
In 100 years or so, Armenians ran big industries and businesses, as well as departments of government. Because of their loyalty to the emperors—Yohannes, Menelik II, and Haile Selassie—they were entrusted with work in such important government departments as the imperial mint, the treasury, the police force (complete with a secret service), town planning, and the municipality. There was an Armenian deputy governor of province, an officer of the Kbur Zebagna (Imperial Bodyguard), and a deputy mayor of Addis Ababa. Some 50 Armenians found employment at the Imperial Court because of their expertise (for example, as chauffeurs, not only because they could drive, but because they knew how to properly maintain cars).
With the opening up of Ethiopia to foreign embassies and foreign trade by Emperor Menelik II, there was a great need for translators. Armenians, who had been the best dragomans in the Ottoman Empire, became the translators of choice at many embassies and consulates. Matig Kevorkoff became the honorary representative of the French government in Ethiopia, as well as the nascent First Armenian Republic’s ambassador plenipotentiary to Ethiopia.
As has been written about in many articles and publications, Ras Tafari, later Emperor Haile Selassie I, was pleased to bring 40 orphans of the Armenian Genocide of 1915 to Ethiopia. In 1923, on his way to Europe, he had seen some of the orphans in Jerusalem and was impressed by the stories of how they came to be there. The Arba Lidjoch—“the Forty Children”—arrived in Addis Ababa in September 1924 on an initial four-year contract to form a marching band, some of them only having learned how to play an instrument en route! In 1930, under the leadership of maestro Kevork Nalbandian, who had composed a new national anthem for Ethiopia, the band played at the coronation of Haile Selassie I. The national anthem of each country that sent a delegation was played upon the entrance of its representative. The band refused to play the national anthem of Turkey—for obvious reasons.
The Ethiopian Revolution of 1974, which deposed Haile Selassie I and installed a Marxist government, devastated the Armenian community. The “Red Terror” meant no one was safe. Life became unbearable. Younger Armenians, who had already left Ethiopia for higher education, did not return. Many of those who were able, took their families and immigrated to other countries. The community was thus scattered to the four corners of the earth, with just a few families staying on, upholding the Yetovbahay traditions.
This year, the Armenians of Ethiopia are being brought to the attention of the world through the unlikely medium of the Eurovision Song Contest. The Republic of Armenia entry will be performed by six Armenian singers: one from the Republic of Armenia plus one from each of the five continents of the Armenian Diaspora. Vahe Tilbian of Ethiopia will be representing the continent of Africa.
Although few families remain, the Armenian legacy lives on in the name of districts in Addis Ababa: Armen Sefer (Armenian District), Sebara Babour (Broken Steamroller, on account of the steamroller brought in by Sarkis Terzian to build the city’s roads, which broke down and remained in situ for many years), and Serategna Sefer (Worker’s District, on account of my father’s factory). Many of the old houses and hotels built by Armenians in the style of their homes in their ancestral lands have been pulled down. However, there are a few marooned among the new high rises being built everywhere in the city.
If you look carefully, there is something Armenian in many corners of Addis Ababa.
Levon Djerrahian and Varoujean Tilbian contributed to this piece.
R.P. Sevadjian is the author of In the Shadow of the Sultan, a historical novel for young adults.