Armenians in Ethiopia – A Vanishing Community

By Marcuz Haile

Garbis Korajian, a personal friend and a reader of Keghart, brought to my attention an essay about Armenians in Ethiopia. Reportedly, the material was used for a PhD thesis by a Swedish author. Unfortunately, a search did not reveal his identity. Having personal knowledge of the community, I find the concluding remarks very relevant. To view the essay in its entirety, please click at Scribd where this and the following posting entitled Ethiopian Armenians In their own words are transcribed from. Sentiments of gratitude are extended to the unknown author. Anybody who is familiar with him please contact Keghart. Patapan’s book and Ashot Abrahamian’s monograph about the history of Armenians in Ethiopia  – not utilized by the author – contain additional and important information – Dikran Abrahamian (August 2009)

By Marcuz Haile

Garbis Korajian, a personal friend and a reader of Keghart, brought to my attention an essay about Armenians in Ethiopia. Reportedly, the material was used for a PhD thesis by a Swedish author. Unfortunately, a search did not reveal his identity. Having personal knowledge of the community, I find the concluding remarks very relevant. To view the essay in its entirety, please click at Scribd where this and the following posting entitled Ethiopian Armenians In their own words are transcribed from. Sentiments of gratitude are extended to the unknown author. Anybody who is familiar with him please contact Keghart. Patapan’s book and Ashot Abrahamian’s monograph about the history of Armenians in Ethiopia  – not utilized by the author – contain additional and important information – Dikran Abrahamian (August 2009)
What I find interesting in anthropology is migration in particular – how it affects culture and erases ethnic boundaries. What I find most interesting are just those groups that find themselves in the middle, the ones one never thinks of: those that live in our midst – the groups that prove to be exceptional. My interest in social anthropology has always been in those areas that concern migration, culture and contemporary ethnicity. How people move, how cultures are changed by people in motion. I myself have roots in Ethiopia, a country that is most often connected with poverty or enigmatic Rastafarian-mystique. To write about Armenians in Ethiopia can seem rather far-fetched to the uninitiated, but I realised directly that this was what I wanted to write about. I have on a number of occasions gone by the Armenian Church in Addis Ababa but never considered why it is situated there, or even thought at all why there should be Armenians in Ethiopia; shouldn’t they be in Armenia? When we began reading about the Armenian diaspora in the A-course the pieces started falling into place. And the more I looked, the more information I also found about the diaspora, except those supposedly living in Ethiopia. One answer I obtained was that they had been dead for a long time. In an Armenian forum on the Internet they laughed at my question and answered that there are no black Armenians.
I decided to find out what the situation was. What came out of my search was a picture of a very little Diaspora on the verge of extinction, one which had once been very alive but will hardly survive much longer. This made me even more interested. What had happened? Why had they suddenly become so few, and where are the remaining Armenians today? The Armenian diaspora has been documented a number of times, with the exception of the group in Ethiopia. One has most often chosen to document the Diasporas that have taken root in what we call the West. Those groups among the dispersed which choose to settle in other places are forgotten. Even for many Armenians in the diaspora, the Ethiopian group is forgotten, despite the fact that the first Armenians came to Ethiopia already in the 16th century. More followed at the end of the 19th century, and in connection with the Armenian genocide the Armenian population was reduced to just over one thousand. But today there are few Armenians in Ethiopia, and many Ethiopians have forgotten the role that the Armenians have played through the years. Ethiopia’s Armenians belong to the past, though no one has investigated what happened: there is very little research on Diasporas in the Third World. The focus on Ethiopia has been on other levels: that it is a country with an extremely rich and old history influenced by many different peoples is unknown. That there exist Swedes with different backgrounds is for most people not particularly strange; but it is more difficult to understand that – not only in the West – there are groups of people who do not live up to the stereotype.
The strength of the Ethio-Armenians lies in their solidarity. Through maintaining their cultural heritage and the assets that have always belonged to them, the community has through the years created an identity that will live on as long as there exist individuals to maintain it. By constantly keeping the group’s infrastructure intact, an arena for identity has continued to exist, and the infrastructure also finances that arena purely economically. It is an identity that is constantly reproduced within the group through socialisation and a common basis of values.
The community’s days are numbered, since the small size of the group speak against it, and this is something that the Ethio-Armenians are well aware of. The majority of those who have remained in the country will surely stay for the simple reason that they have lived in Ethiopia their whole lives. The age of the majority is very high, and many are far too old to move and start again, as many did when the Derg came to power. Among the younger Ethio-Armenians there is no chance of reproducing within the group. Even if they marry outside the group, the Armenian identity must continue to be the dominant one in order for the group to be able to live on. This is not an impossibility, but in the long run the identity will cease existing in connection with the group’s doing so.
The younger people in the group are more unsure of their future in Ethiopia, and certainly more inclined to move elsewhere. Virtually all Ethio-Armenians have more relatives outside Ethiopia than in the country itself, and with time this can be a decisive reason for leaving the country.
The club, the church and the school cannot live on without dedicated individuals – but what would be the point in keeping a church if there no longer exists anyone to visit it? An influx of new individuals from the Armenian diaspora presupposes that they are basically Ethio-Armenians in order for the group’s identity to live on.
[William Saroyan’s statement] ‘For when two of them meet anywhere in the world, see if they will not create a New Armenia’ … presupposes that there exist individuals who are willing to work for the group and its future. It is in this way that they have up to now succeeded in maintaining their identity, and constantly reproducing it through the years no matter what has happened in their surroundings. The Derg revolution strengthened the solidarity among those remaining, but at the same time the revolution decided the Armenians’ future in the country.
My conclusion is that the Armenian diaspora in Ethiopia will within 30 years be but a memory. The solidarity will live on outside of the country, but if there is no immigration the Ethio-Armenian identity in Ethiopia could never live on. The group will probably never be compensated by the Ethiopian state either, and therefore a return migration is unlikely. The Armenians’ legacy in the country – businesses, buildings and perhaps even the church – will surely live on. Most of what was once founded by Armenians still remains, even if it is now owned or run by ethnic Ethiopians. The Armenian legacy will remain even if it is not referred to as Armenian, in the same way as we today in Sweden call pasta bolognese Swedish plain food. The Ethiopian telephone catalogue is full of Armenian names, though they are today borne mainly by ethnic Ethiopians. The Ethio-Armenians still living in Ethiopia are the last generation of Ethio-Armenians. When they no longer remain, the end will have come for a several hundred year Armenian presence in Ethiopia.
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  1. Cheers
    Thank you for the feed-back, I think I wrote above in 2005 and some things have happend since then. Garbis, if you see this feel free to get back to me. Best

  2. Ethio-Armenians

    As an Ethio-Armenian who has since the Derg period moved to Italy, I thoroughly enjoyed what I read and would like to know more. Moreover, if there’s any way I can contribute to the recording of Ethio-Armenian history, especially from the fifties onwards, let me know.

    Mary Avakian

  3. The Author: Marcuz Haile

    Since publishing this piece some ten hours ago, the author Marcuz Haile has contacted Keghart from Sweden. He states that the material was utilized for a BA degree and not a PhD thesis. Furthermore, he wonders how it ended up on Scribd site from where it was transcribed.

    On behalf of the readers of Keghart I would like to thank Mr. Marcuz Haile for his work, irrespective of whether it was intended towards a Bachelor’s Degree or PhD.

    It is amazing how intellectual properties of people end up in the maze of the internet web and authors are not appropriately credited. Hopefully this short note and acknowledgment will absolve Keghart from committing that "crime".

    Dikran Abrahamian

  4. To Marcus Haile from Australia

    Dear Marcus Haile,

    I enjoyed reading this article. It is painful to read and feel such a community slowly disappearing. However, this is part of natural mechanics of life on Earth.

    As continents have disappeared beneath the oceans and new ones created through some geological process, so must all living things come and go. Some beings change form due to circumnstances. Such is the Ethio-Armenian community. Armenians have gone to this magnificent country through their own free will or not having a choice at all. They have co-existed in enviable harmony with one of the most hospitable and humble people on earth. Through their skills, the Armenians have helped the country that has helped them survive for centuries without any hostility.

    However, the overthrowing of Haile Sellasie and the arrival of the new regime, forced most of the Armenian community to flee the country and rebuild their lives elsewhere. Most of the people who fled would be in their 70s today and their children in their late 40s. Repatriation in my opinion would be more of the exception than the rule in this case. The heads of the families that left Ethiopia are in their senior years and I would say they are too tired and too old to return to Ethiopia to live. Their children, in most cases would have been too young when they left Ethiopia, and by now, would have (mostly) married non Ehio-Armenains, thus reducing the possibility of repatriation even further.

    As my uncle said in an Ethiopian TV interview: "…When the Derg came, all those that foresaw calamity, left the country. But the brave ones stayed put and rode the storm" or something along those lines.

    It is the likes of Garbis Keorhagian, Sevan Aslanian and the others still in Ethiopia that continue to hold the Armenian culture alive.  The prediction that in 30 years there may not be any Armenains in Ethiopia, is very hurtful and truth at times hurts. However, as long as when we leave this earth we leave it a little better than we found it, we would have justified our existence, whether that be in Ethiopia, Canada or Timbuktu.

    In conclusion, for those interested, if you go on Google and type "Ethiopian Armenians", there are several very interesting links.

    Kind regards

    Vrej Sakadjian

    1. Thank you

      Thank you for your very kind words Mister Sakadjian. It’s a bit of a flashback for me, since it was a long time ago I wrote the thesis. Hopefully, I will have it transferred from that page to my own someday.  Funny that it was published on the net. 

      "However, as long as when we leave this earth we leave it a little better than we found it, we would have justified our existence, whether that be in Ethiopia, Canada or Timbuktu."

      Well, what can I comment regarding above.  You have absolutly nothing to be ashamed of, that’s one thing for sure! It was a pleasure to do research on "you" people. More of your pride and solidarity and this world would have been a better place. I remember, I thought that back then and I still do.

      Love and respect to all of you worldwide, and thanks again for all the feed-back and comments.

      Marcuz Haile

  5. Impact of Community
    Thank you Dr. Abarahamian for this pair of articles. 

    Remarkably so (but not surprising since I know his fine parents), despite the dwindling numbers and lack of the community that even I remember, Vahe epitomizes the stability of the Armenian identity and the mutual respect between the Ethiopian and Armenian identities that yielded this stable concept of identity. 

    I was shocked as an Armenian from Ethiopia to see such a scramble of identity crises.  We never had that problem there.  Speaking Armenian for an Armenian was a matter of fact.  No complexes, no "insecurities" about being Armenian and adhering to the Armenian cultural identity existed there.   Here in the US one often finds that speaking Armenian (among Armenians!) is to be the "spitak agrav/jermag akrav", the "white crow, the outsider," the "anachronism," which is absolute silliness and, in my book, is a form of induced mental illness.  Slice it anyway you wish.  (Yes, my children speak, with no qualms, Armenian, as well with their friends – whom they literally and gently pressure into speaking Armenian.   Their parents are "impressed" by something that is perfectly natural.) 

    Oh, yeah, although attempts were made to make this happen, the Ethiopian Armenians did not succumb to petty partisan shenanigans either.  For Ethiopian Armenian to witness the internecine conflicts (artificial ones based on the pathetic question of  "who’s your geo-political Daddy?") of the 1950s were the equivalent of the Bhudda observing the turbulence of the world from his Bodhi Tree.  I found it funny, for example, upon going to a boarding school in Beirut that when asked of my "identity" I was being asked my party affiliation and not my ethnicity!   This was unheard of in Ethiopia.   For that reason the Armenians in that country had a major impact on the Ethiopian cultural and political scene.  There was, yes, despite all minor (and naturally – not externally – caused) squabbles, solidarity.  Yes, there is a lesson of Armenian Solidarity, and that definitely was, in my fondest of memories, in Ethiopia a reality for us.

    One significant result of this united identity was the virtual coersion of the 2 Catholicoi to perform Mass in the Sp. Gevork Church together, the first (and as far as I know, the only) such event in Armenian history!   Yes, while everyone was dilly-dallying around the Iron Curtain, we didn’t give a darn.  We only had one Church, and even if we had 5 "heads of Church," they would all fit their egoes and heads inside that one Church, and I cannot tell you how immensely proud of that I am.  The late Mushegh Yerevanian did a great service by highlighting that fact in his brief History of Ethiopian Armenians.  I have not had the chance to read Haig Patapan’s history/histories, but I certainly hope this is highlighted as well.   

  6. Great work
    Great work. Thank you  for your unique initiative and thanks as well for the respectful  author.

    I am  interested in reading more  about other Armenian Diasporan communities,  specially  about  the Armenian  press and the intellectual  women.

  7. Impact of Community by Hagop Nalbandian

    Having read Mr. Hagop Nalbandian’s very interesting observations about the survival of the Armenian culture in Ethiopia with minimal native Ethiopian influence to dilute the Armenian language, customs etc, I wish to add my point of view.

    Diasporan Armenians, no matter where in the world they may have landed, only those who ended up in Western cultures adopted assimilation. In Europe, in North America, South America, Australia and Canada, Armenians felt inferior to the locals. Initially, they were discriminated against because of their ethnicity. This prompted them to adopt the local language as their everyday spoken language; change names and in some cases surnames – all  in order to improve their chances of providing for their families. Also the integration of a predominantly rural or artisan culture into industrially advanced societies forced them to either make a quick change or be left in substandard living conditions. 

    On the other hand, the Armenians that ended up in Africa, Asia and the Middle East, finding their skills more "industrially" advanced than the locals, did not have to feel inferior, thus keeping their language and culture for decades with minimal dilution of their heritage. Here also, mixed marriages were kept to a minimal.

    Today, in the Western world, we see Armenian marrying Armenian and giving their children non Armenian names. Mixed marriages abound despite the Armenian communities being much larger than that in Ethiopia I am no
    exception !). The language spoken in the house is no longer Armenian (I am an exception).

    In the Middle East, Africa and Asia, as Hagop very well put it, Armenians don’t feel culturally threattened , and because of this, they will continue to contribute  with their difference and for the benefit of the country they live in.

    Kind regards
    Vrej Sakadjian

  8. While I agree

    While I agree with most of what Vrej Sakadjian wrote, I think the retention our identity in North America, especially in the big cities, is up to us. And it can be achieved without exerting superhuman effort. Some decades ago North America, for the absence of a better-known word, was wall-to-wall WASP*. Native Americans, Blacks and Hispanics were invisible in the poltical or social tapestry. Things have changed. Not only Blacks and Hispanics have asserted themselves, but the U.S. and Canada (especially the big cities–where Armenians generally reside) are teeming with East Asians, South Asians, Middle Easterners, people from the Caribbean and Africa. There has also been a huge migration–legal and illegal–from Latin America. This diversity allows Armenians room to breathe, to retain our identity and to flourish as Canadian- or American-Armenians. My sons have Armenian names. We speak Armenian at home. We mostly eat Armenian food. I am not nullifying the pressures to assimilate. I am saying that the pressures are much weaker than in earlier times. As well, in earlier times there was no Armenia or it was `Red Menace` Armenia.

    If we lose our identity, it’s mostly our doing: let’s not put the whole blame on outside forces.

    Jirair Tutunjian

    *WASP, the acronym for White Anglo-Saxon Protestant, is redundant: if someone is Anglo-Saxon, he or she is automatically White. Perhaps the `W`should be dropped and the acronym become ASP, the snake which killed Cleopatra. Personally, I have no quarrel with that Egyptian asp–after all, Cleopatra betrayed and beheaded our king Ardavazt.

  9. Thank you very much for this
    Thank you very much for this useful article and the comments. I love this site as it contains good materials.

  10. Cultural boundaries

    It is pretty amazing to see the decrease in cultural boundaries in different parts of the world. I studied for a semester in Florence, Italy where I met many people of different nations and cultures all living in the beautiful city. Though many of the people I met were not originally from Italy, all of them had adopted the Italian way of life. That's not to say that they completely abandoned their cultural heritage upon moving to Italy but they definitely showed more aspects of Italian culture than their original one. It was a great thing to see so many people of differing backgrounds all living together in harmony and happiness.
  11. Trying to Find

    Please help me find Ethiopian Armenian community members and Armenian Rastafarians wherever they may be around the world.

    1. Rastafarians

      Wikipedia defines Rastafarians as adherents of a movement who worship the late Emperor of Ethiopia Haila Selassie as Jesus incarnate. I wonder within what context the term Rastafarian was used in your comment. I would appreciate it if you elaborated on Rastafarians, especially if they relate to Ethiopian Armenians.

      1. Rastafarians (cont.)

        (It looks like the first part of my comment was cut off.)

        In a very cut and dry approach, Wikipedia is right, but there's so much more to Rastafari than Wikipedia can ever explain. Someone who wants to learn about Rastafari can't simply go online or listen to Bob Marley all day to try to 'figure it out.' One must genuinely seek.

        My curiosity relies on whether there's a bridge not only between Ethiopians and Armenians, but Armenians and Rastafari. Emperor Haile Selassie had Armenians all around him, and I wonder if there are any Armenians today who recognize H.I.M. (His Imperial Majesty) in the way that I do. My intention is to find others like myself, who value and love their Armenian heritage and culture, who understand and love Rastafari, and can see how the two come together. My first approach is to ask the Armenians of Ethiopia how they feel about Haile Selassie I.

        1. Haile Selassie

          His Majesty Haile Selassie took refuge in Jerusalem (Palestine), during the Italian occupation of his country. He spent a great deal of his time in Armenian Convent there. When he was ready to return to Ethiopia, he took an Armenian yerchakhoomp (choir) with him (along with their families), and settled them in Addis Ababa, close to him.

          Please look at the similarities of Armenian and Ethiopian alphabets. I am just as eager to learn more of Ethiopian and Armenian histories.

          1. Ethiopian Armenians

            I also have a great interest in the Armenian community of Ethiopia because of the friendships my parents fostered with some of the members of the community who used to frequent Hotel Lux in Beirut, which my father ran.

            I understand that the Emperor Haile Selassie traced his roots to King Solomon and among the many titles he had inherited included a title of Protector of Mount Zion. Some believe that the Ark of the Covenant is in Ethiopia. 

            It is his centuries-old association with Jerusalem, I believe, that catapulted the emperor to give refuge and support to the Armenian orphans he brought to Ethiopia. They, in turn, constituted the roots of the community, a thriving community at one time.


          2. Emperor Haile Selassie

            Yes, Sam, I've noted the similarity between the two alphabets. There's clearly a link, regardless of the details that are often debated.

            My understanding is that Emperor Haile Selassie is a direct descendant of King Solomon and Queen Sheba, and that the Ark of the Covenant was taken from Solomon's temple in Jerusalem to Ethiopia with Sheba and Solomon's son, Menelik I. I've also read about the 40 orphans who formed a choir (yerchakhoomp) and wrote Ethiopia's national anthem. Not to mention that the Boyadjian family were the photographers of the emperor (which makes me smile, being Boyadjian).

            I recently read online about the Agazyan tribe which established the Kingdom of Axum (Aksum) about 2,000 years ago. Does that name sound Armenian or what? I'm speculating, of course. Does anyone know Armenians from Ethiopia first-hand? Would love to hear the stories passed down to them.

  12. Plan to visit Ethiopia

    I am writing from Yerevan, and I plan to visit Ethiopia.  Help me find an Armenian tour agency or guide in Addis Ababa

    1. Armenian Community in Adis Abeba

      I was in Adis Abeba in February 2013. I met the head of the Armenian community there along with his family. A fine gentleman, his name is Vartkes Nahabedian. His email is [email protected]
      He sure knows the history and present-day life of the community in Adis Abeba.
      Have a wonderful trip. Ethiopia is a great country. 

      Diran Avedian 

  13. Armenians of Ethiopia

    I want to learn as much as possible about the Armenians of Ethiopia. I have learned that Armenians and Ethiopians have the same view of Christianity, like the Coptic Egyptians, and were all in one communion of church. I have met Ethiopia-born Armenians in Montreal. Most had left their birthplace because of the Communist regime in Ethiopia.

  14. It’s great to read about Ethio-Armenians

    It's great to read about Ethio-Armenians. I met an Armenian family for business purposes. Without their color differences they are just like Ethiopians….they are nice people and we will never forget what they did for us. And we have Ethio-Armenian singer Vahe Tilbian.

  15. Terrific Article

    I've always been fascinated by the parallel histories of Armenians and Ethopians and the similarities in our alphabets. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this article and the comments posted about it. Thank you Marcuz for writing it and for publishing it.

    Respect for culture and humanity is what the world can never have too much of.

    Kind regards,

Comments are closed.

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