Sarkis Terzyan: The Armenian Hero of Ethiopia

Sarkis Terzyan was an Armenian soldier who fought for the independence of Ethiopia from the Italian colonial invasion in 1897. He was one of the few foreigners who joined the Ethiopian army and participated in the famous Battle of Adwa, where the Ethiopians defeated the Italians and secured their sovereignty.

Who was Sarkis Terzyan?

Sarkis Terzyan was born in 1865 in the Ottoman Empire, in a town called Afyonkarahisar, which was home to a large Armenian community. He was the son of a wealthy merchant and a devout Christian. He received a good education and learned several languages, including Turkish, Arabic, French, and English.

In 1895, when he was 30 years old, he witnessed the brutal massacres of the Armenians by the Ottoman Turks, which claimed the lives of hundreds of thousands of his fellow countrymen. He managed to escape the carnage and fled to Egypt, where he joined the Armenian Revolutionary Federation, a political party that advocated for the liberation of the Armenians from the Ottoman oppression.

In Egypt, he met an Ethiopian prince named Ras Makonnen, who was the governor of Harar and the father of the future Emperor Haile Selassie. Ras Makonnen was in Cairo to seek diplomatic and military support from the British and the Egyptians against the Italian threat. He invited Sarkis Terzyan to join him in Ethiopia and fight for the Ethiopian cause. Sarkis Terzyan accepted the offer and traveled to Ethiopia with Ras Makonnen in 1896.

How did Sarkis Terzyan fight for Ethiopia?

Sarkis Terzyan arrived in Ethiopia at a critical time, when the country was facing an imminent invasion by the Italians, who had occupied the coastal regions of Eritrea and Somalia and wanted to expand their colonial empire in Africa. The Italians had superior weapons and equipment, while the Ethiopians had mostly traditional arms and horses.

Sarkis Terzyan joined the Ethiopian army as a volunteer and a translator. He quickly gained the trust and respect of the Ethiopian commanders and soldiers, who called him “Serkis”. He trained the Ethiopian troops in modern warfare techniques and helped them acquire and use modern weapons, such as rifles, machine guns, and artillery. He also acted as a liaison between the Ethiopian army and the foreign advisers and journalists who came to Ethiopia to witness the war.

Sarkis Terzyan fought bravely in several battles against the Italians, such as the Battle of Amba Alagi, the Battle of Coatit, and the Battle of Adigrat. He distinguished himself for his courage, skill, and leadership. He was wounded several times, but he never gave up. He was especially praised for his role in the Battle of Adwa, which took place on March 1, 1897, and was the decisive and final confrontation between the Ethiopians and the Italians.

The Battle of Adwa was one of the most remarkable events in African history, as it marked the first and only time that an African army defeated a European colonial power in a large-scale war. The Ethiopians, led by Emperor Menelik II and Empress Taitu, outnumbered and outsmarted the Italians, who were led by General Oreste Baratieri. The Ethiopians inflicted a crushing defeat on the Italians, killing or capturing over 7,000 of them, while losing only 4,000 of their own. The Battle of Adwa secured the independence and sovereignty of Ethiopia and inspired other African nations to resist colonialism.

Sarkis Terzyan was one of the heroes of the Battle of Adwa, as he commanded a battalion of 1,000 men and fought valiantly in the front lines. He was wounded three times, but he continued to fight until the end. He was personally congratulated by Emperor Menelik II and Empress Taitu, who awarded him the highest Ethiopian military honor, the Order of St. George. He was also honored by the Armenian community in Ethiopia, who erected a monument for him in Addis Ababa.

What happened to Sarkis Terzyan after the war?

After the war, Sarkis Terzyan settled in Ethiopia and became a loyal and trusted adviser to Emperor Menelik II and Ras Makonnen. He married an Ethiopian woman named Deanie Rebecca Patten, who was the daughter of a British missionary. They had no children, but they adopted several orphans, both Ethiopian and Armenian.

Sarkis Terzyan continued to serve Ethiopia in various capacities, such as a diplomat, a trader, a philanthropist, and a journalist. He also maintained his ties with the Armenian Revolutionary Federation and supported the Armenian cause. He wrote several articles and books about the history and culture of Ethiopia and Armenia, and the relations between the two countries. He also collected and donated many manuscripts and books to the Ethiopian and Armenian libraries and museums.

Sarkis Terzyan died in 1958, at the age of 93, in Sechelt, British Columbia, Canada, where he had moved with his wife after the Italian occupation of Ethiopia in 1936. He was buried in Canada, but his heart was sent to Ethiopia and buried in the Holy Trinity Cathedral in Addis Ababa, next to the tombs of Emperor Menelik II and Empress Taitu.

Sarkis Terzyan is remembered as one of the most remarkable figures in Ethiopian and Armenian history, as he embodied the friendship and solidarity between the two ancient and proud nations. He was a warrior, a patriot, a scholar, and a humanitarian, who fought for the freedom and dignity of his people and his adopted country.


Image source: Levan Tonaganyan

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