The History of the Armenians Who Found Salvation in Christian Ethiopia

The History of the Armenians Who Found Salvation

Recently, the Ethiopian state newspaper The Ethiopian Herald reported that in the capital Addis Ababa, it is planned to begin the restoration of the historic staircase “Seba Derez” built by Armenian architects.

And although the names of the foreign architects are not mentioned, the publication emphasized that it was planned to do everything to preserve the originality of the idea as much as possible:

“This structure is located in the center of the city and was completely created – from the draft to the final masonry – by Armenian craftsmen during the time of Emperor Menelik II who reigned in the late 19th-early 20th centuries.”

Menelik II is a rather significant figure not only in the chronicles of the royal family but also in the history of the country which for a long time has been called Abyssinia. It was he who founded the new capital Addis Ababa, which translates as “new flower”.

The city was originally named Finfinne, meaning “natural spring” in the local dialect. The original name probably referred to the mineral springs in the city, in which the members of the royal house loved to take a bath.

Addis Ababa is often called the “capital of Africa” or “Paris of Africa” because of its historical, political, and diplomatic significance for the entire continent.

Here, various religious communities coexist peacefully: Christians, Muslims, Jews, as well as adherents of traditional African beliefs. Likewise, people of different nationalities get along with each other well.

As for the Armenians, during the reign of Menelik II, the number of the members of the Armenian community reached two thousand people, which was largely due to massacres of the late 19th-early 20th centuries in the Ottoman Empire.

As locals say, a visit to the Armenian cemetery gives a complete picture of the tragedy of the people who arrived in the Black Continent first from Constantinople, Ayntap, Arabkir, Harpert, then from Adana and Van, and finally from Marash, Sparta, and Smyrna. Many Armenians fleeing from the Turkish yatagan found salvation in Christian Ethiopia, which received them quite friendlily.

This is understandable. Armenians have lived here since the 7th century and have always been respected as scholars, enlighteners, Christian missionaries, governors, municipal employees, representatives of the police and secret services, workers of the imperial mint and treasury, diplomats, politicians, military leaders, major industrialists, famous jewelers, experienced tanners, visitor merchants, and famous photographers.

Very often, these were entire dynasties passing on the secrets of their skills from father to son. For example, the official title of court photographers was granted to the Boyadzhian family which for several generations had the right to photograph royal persons for the historical chronicles of the imperial house.

Tigran Ebeian and the Baghdasarian family were the best jewelers who supplied refined gold, silver, and precious stones to the court of his imperial majesty. Many of them today are considered a great rarity and are highly valued at prestigious international auctions.

By the way, the works of Skunder (Alexander) Boghossian who at a young age became the most famous artist in Africa are considered no less valuable.

“The man who united Africa and the West. A native of Ethiopia who played an important role in representing European modernist styles in Africa. Being a resident of the United States, he became one of the most famous African contemporary artists in the West,” say art critics about Boghossian, “He was the first Ethiopian artist to adorn the halls of the Paris Museum of Modern Art and the Museum of Modern Art in New York.”

Even after the death of the master, the most prestigious museums of modern art in the world continued to line up for his works.

In continuation of the creative theme, the older generation of Ethiopians also often talks about the former Ethiopian anthem “Ethiopia, Be Happy” written by maestro Kevork Nalbandian.

For the first time, this anthem was performed in 1930 by the music ensemble “Arba Lijoch”, which means “40 children”. The orchestra in fact consisted of forty Armenian orphans who had miraculously survived the Turkish massacre and found shelter in the palace of the Ethiopian emperor.

But in 1974, when the Ethiopian Emperor was overthrown by the Derg regime, this anthem was relinquished.

Today, it is difficult to list all the famous Armenians and their good deeds in the Abyssinian land. Among them, the most prominent was the merchant Sarkis Terzian who played a significant role in the struggle against Italian enslavement at the end of the 19th century.

In 1890, together with Hovsep Bekhesnilian, Terzian bought a large batch of weapons from the French. They transported this arsenal to Ethiopia via foreign ships and camel caravans, while ensuring, as they would say today, complete conspiracy. On December 7, 1895, Ethiopian troops defeated the enemy. In this, an important role was played by the rifles, ammunition, machine guns, and special equipment brought by Terzian and Bekhesnilian.

The soldiers composed songs in their honor. However, the heroes modestly went into the shadows and each took up their own business. Sarkis founded a flour milling industry which brought a good profit. And then, despite the difficult urban terrain, he decided to take up the development of the rail service in the Ethiopian capital.

Terzian even brought here the first steam locomotive which the locals named “Sarkis Babur” (“Sarkis steam locomotive”). To be fair, it was just a steamroller intended for the construction of urban roads. Over time, it broke down, but it would for a long time stay as a pile of scrap metal in the working area of Serategna Sefer as a reminder of the achievements of civilization and good intentions.

And although the first experience of building railroads was of a very modest scale, the industry received further development. Today, the country is completing the construction of the European railway which will serve the international network in the direction of the border states.

It is noteworthy that in the capital city of Addis Ababa and the highest mountain capital of the world, the old idea of Sarkis Terzian is implemented in a high-speed tram, one of the cars of which is named after him.

As for Hovsep Bekhesnilian, his nephew Hagop Bekhesnilian would found a family business shortly after Ethiopia won in the struggle against Italians. This business has turned into the country’s largest conglomerate HAGBES, which is a wide-production profile enterprise. Even after the revolutionary events of the 70s of the last century, the overthrow of the emperor, and the nationalization of private property, the company continues to operate, albeit with significant restrictions in commercial activities.

Unfortunately, the economic potential of the interaction between Armenia and Ethiopia today is small. However, in the spring of 2018, an agreement was reached on the entry of Armenian IT specialists into the Ethiopian market with their technological solutions.

According to the representative of the Armenian community Tamar Gevorgyan, the experience of Armenian engineering laboratories where thousands of schoolchildren receive education every year is of interest to Ethiopia.

“Armenian IT specialists will work with colleagues from Ethiopia and train teachers, after which the program will be launched into action. This is just one of the successful projects of cooperation in the field of modern technologies,” she said.

It is not by chance that when presenting credentials to the President of Armenia recently, the Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of Ethiopia to Armenia Grum Abay Teshome stressed that the establishment of diplomatic relations in 1993 once again underlined the mutual desire for beneficial cooperation.

“Back in the 7th century, the Armenian community played a significant role in almost all spheres of our country’s activity. Over the centuries, Armenians have made a significant contribution to the public life of our country. And we are sure that the age-old friendship will also contribute to the development of modern relations between Armenia and Ethiopia,” the ambassador stressed.

Grum Abay Teshome also noted the fact that Addis Ababa owes the modern urban look to Hovian, an Armenian architect. It is also noteworthy that the Armenian Apostolic Church of St. George built by patron and merchant Mihran Muradian has been operating in Addis Ababa for almost a hundred years.

At the church’s consecration, the members of the imperial family were present, which once again emphasized the close interweaving of destinies and Christian traditions in the history of the two peoples. But, according to Deacon Vardkes Nalbandian, it is no longer possible to conduct full service in the church today.

Indeed, besides him, there are no more Armenian priests in Ethiopia. “And there are no more than a hundred Armenians here,” he said bitterly, “There are no weddings or christenings. The city still has Armenian names such as the Mekonian Bridge or the Armen Sefer district, but almost without Armenians.”

After the revolution of 1974 when the Ethiopian Emperor was overthrown, the Armenian community stepped into hard times. Businesses, restaurants, and agencies were nationalized. Young Armenians who had left Ethiopia for the sake of a good education did not return. Many left for other countries with their families.

Only a few families remained from the once large and friendly Armenian diaspora. The rest scattered around the world in search of a better life. Nevertheless, the children and grandchildren of Armenians living today in the United States, Canada, or Europe occasionally come to Addis Ababa to see the country that had adopted their ancestors after the Armenian Genocide of the early 20th century.

Sergey Tigranyan

Members of the Armenian community of Ethiopia. The beginning of the twentieth century.
30 years of the twentieth century. First city parking Armenian drivers Addis Ababa. In the background a building in typical Armenian style.

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