A Journey Back in Time: A Look at the History of Armenians in Ethiopia

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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.