In The Company of Emperors: The Story of Ethiopian Armenians
By Ani Aslanian, The Armenite
October 19, 2014


Addis Ababa is the capital of Ethiopia and the seat of the African Union. Taking a stroll through the capital today, you may be entirely unaware of the extensive Armenian presence in the city during the modernization period of Ethiopia. Although Armenians and Ethiopians share a long history as members of the same branch of Orthodox Christianity, there is a lesser-known story regarding the contributions of Armenians in Addis Ababa and how they transformed a newly born agricultural town into a thriving capital of culture and commerce.

During the early 1900s, under the rule of Emperor Menelik II, there were approximately 50 Armenians in Addis Ababa. But the size of the community would soon grow tremendously and flourish with the turn of the century under Haile Selassie’s rule. Known by his official name, Tafari Makonnen Woldemikael, Haile Selassie was Ethiopia’s head of state from 1916 to 1930 and Emperor from 1930 to 1974. His life and legacy carry a fundamental role in African and Ethiopian history as well as in the Rastafari movement. In the case of the latter, he is considered a messianic and holy figure. In fact, the African-Jamaican spiritual ideology known as Rastafari gets its name from the imperial title of “Ras,” and Tafari — Selassie’s first name.

After becoming the regent and de facto ruler of Ethiopia in 1916, Selassie began to gradually modernize Ethiopia, beginning with the capital, Addis Ababa. He started by having Ethiopia admitted to the League of Nations in 1923 and his diplomatic trips in the following years aimed to solidify stable connections outside of Ethiopia. The first of these diplomatic visits was in 1924, when Selassie went on a trip to Europe and the Middle East in the hopes of establishing allies in Europe. But it was in the heart of the Middle East — in Jerusalem — that Selassie would soon become acquainted with the 40 Armenian orphans who would ultimately become the forerunners in the modernization of mainstream music in Ethiopia.

As Selassie toured Jerusalem, he visited the Armenian Quarter and marveled at the St. James Armenian Apostolic Church (Surb Hakobyants Vank.’) Selassie himself was a devout member of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church and he noted the striking similarities between the two churches, as well as the likeness in written script.

More significantly, however, it was on this day, as he was walking through the Armenian Quarter of Jerusalem, that Selassie observed a marching band composed of 40 young Armenian men; he was deeply moved by the band’s musical talent. After concluding his tour of the Armenian Church and district, Selassie had a conversation with Patriarch Turyan and learned that these 40 talented young musicians were orphans of the Armenian Genocide. He also learned of the terrible financial strain that came with raising these orphans. In response, Selassie offered to adopt and bring the marching band back with him to Addis Ababa.

The 40 Armenian orphans arrived to the capital on September 6, 1924, accompanied by Father Hovhannes Simonian, and officially became known as the Arba Lijoch (“forty children” in Amharic, the official language in Ethiopia.)

arba-lijochThe Arba Lijoch, photographed by Haigaz Boyajian, royal photographer of Ethiopia.

The Arba Lijoch formed the royal imperial brass band of Ethiopia and each of the children were allocated a monthly stipend, provided with housing and trained by their musical director, Kevork Nalbandian. Nalbandian was an Armenian orphan himself, originally from Aintab (modern-day Gaziantep) in the southeastern region of the Ottoman Turkish Empire. It was Nalbandian who led the Arba Lijoch with his musical compositions and Selassie was so impressed with the band’s compilations, he asked Nalbandian to compose the music for Ethiopia’s national anthem. In 1926, Nalbandian composed the Ethiopian Imperial National Anthem titled, “Teferi Marsh, Ethiopia Hoy,” which translates to “Ethiopia, be happy” and it was performed by the 40 orphans for the first time in public during Haile Selassie’s official crowning as Emperor on November 2, 1930 in Addis Ababa.

A recent project by Silva Sevlian, which was conducted during her time at the University of Southern California, documents the experience of the Armenian community in Addis Ababa at that time. Included in these documents is an oral account of an Armenian who witnessed one of the anniversaries of the coronation in the late 1950s.

Araxi Aslanian recalls the memory: “During [the anniversary of the]coronation, the emperor passed through the piazza and stopped in front of the Armenian Church. And the Armenian community was there to greet him. The heads of the community would salute him, and it so happened that I was eight years old. I gave flowers to the Emperor when I approached him, and he gave me his hand. Later, we were invited to the palace the following day, and when we went to the palace, I finally had the chance to see where the emperor that I had seen all my life lived!”

Aslanian wasn’t the only Armenian that Selassie had made an impact on. In fact, Selassie’s initial coronation on November 2, 1930 set a defining tone for the Arba Lijoch and the Armenian community in Ethiopia. The Arba Lijoch began performing for nearly every imperial event of the state, and later trained Ethiopia’s army and imperial bodyguard bands. These 40 orphans who were once deprived of their most earnest childhood memories due to genocide and dispossession had now found their beacon of hope through music. While not much is recorded about the personal lives of the 40 orphans, Mesfin Kebede, a native Ethiopian resident of Addis Ababa, possesses some documents that provide a look into the lives of the orphans, including their names, ages and hometowns.

Arba Lijoch names

Kebede recounts that the majority of the orphans were originally from various Armenian towns and that most of the orphans came from Vaspurakan (Van), Karin, Zeytun, and Sis. Kebede described the Arba Lijoch as “diligent, abstemious, and honest,” virtues that, according to him, “are qualities of the race to which they belong.”

While Selassie gave these orphans the opportunity for a new life, the Arba Lijoch gave Ethiopia the opportunity to modernize its music. Through their brass instruments and widespread musical instruction, the 40 orphans forever changed the framework of mainstream music in Ethiopia. Though it’s undeniable that select brass instruments were eminent in intimate circles of musicians in Addis Ababa since the early 1900s, it’s widely agreed by Ethiopian and non-Ethiopian musicians and scholars that the Arba Lijoch was both directly and indirectly responsible for modernizing popular music in Ethiopia.

Prior to the Arba Lijoch and Kevork Nalbandian, the prominent musical instruments in Ethiopia were mostly made of wood and string. For example, traditional Ethiopian folkloric music utilized ethnic instruments such as the ney and washint; similar to what the tsiranapogh (commonly known as duduk) instrument is to Armenian folk music. The replacement of wood and string instruments with brass instruments among popular music earned Arba Lijoch the prevalent recognition of being the pioneers of musical modernization in Ethiopia.

This musical development in Ethiopia took place in two phases. First, the imperial brass band trained and lent support to the development of other modern music ensembles such as the army, police, and imperial bodyguard bands. Secondly, as the Arba Lijoch began performing among crowds during national events throughout the years, musicians began to prefer new brass instruments as opposed to the more traditional wood and string.

Musician Vahe Tilbian, a fourth generation Armenian-Ethiopian who currently lives in Addis Ababa expands on the influence of the Nalbandians: “A good friend of mine and virtuoso of Ethio-jazz is Samuel Yirga who has taken the world by storm with his compositions and his piano skills. We often discuss music and it is never a doubt that musicians are grateful for Nerses Nalbandian’s work, which is highly commended and respected. Orchestras like the Either/Orchestra based in Boston have come all the way to Ethiopia to perform Nerses Nalbandian’s compositions.”

Currently, one of the most respected musical institutions in Ethiopia is the Yared School of Music at the Addis Ababa University, which Kevork Nalbandian, along with his Greek and Ethiopian colleagues, founded in 1954. The Yared School of Music’s periodical of 1973 reads: “Two Armenians Kevork (1924-1949) and Nersès Nalbandian (1930s-1977) were major forces in developing and nurturing modern Ethiopian band and orchestral music. Over the next 50 years, countless Ethiopian bands followed their same line-up and forged a stately brand of jazz-funk.”

The particular jazz-funk that the Yared periodical and Tilbian referenced was the emergence of a unique musical genre known as Ethiopian jazz (or, Ethio-jazz) that developed sometime in the mid-1950s and reached its peak in the late 1960s. During the initial years of Ethio-jazz, the first recording studio in Ethiopia was opened in 1952, by an Armenian musician named Garbis Haygazian. Haygazian, in collaboration with Kevork Nalbandian’s nephew, Nerses Nalbandian, would continue the tradition of Armenians in contemporary Ethiopian music by becoming founding fathers of this genre. Nerses carried Kevork’s musical legacy by becoming the musical director of the Haile Selassie National Theater in the 1950s, later composing the anthem for the African Union and, most importantly, influencing and training popular Ethiopian artists such as Mulatu Astatke. Among Ethiopian society today, Astatke is widely regarded as being the father of Ethio-jazz and evolving the orchestral brass band sounds of the Nalbandians to encompass jazz and funk tunes. His musical style incorporates a unique mix of Ethiopian melodic tunes through the medium of brass instruments.

A story passed down to Tilbian by one of the last remaining members of the Arba Lijoch, tells us that it was customary for the Arba Lijoch to play the national anthem for visiting diplomats. One year, Selassie’s interior had summoned the orphans to learn the anthem of Turkey in preparation of the visit of Turkish delegates. All 40 orphans, in protest, refused to learn the anthem, saying “We will not learn the anthem of a country that killed our parents.” After much pleading from the Ethiopian interior, the Arba Lijoch eventually learned the anthem. But when the time came to perform it to the visiting delegates, the orphans performed an ethnic Armenian song instead.

The plight of the Armenian orphans and residents of Addis Ababa was also well known to Selassie himself, for he lent special treatment to the Armenian community and believed in their good intentions towards Ethiopian society. Not only were the Armenians granted asylum, but they also had a special role within Ethiopia, which explains why the Armenians were the only ethnicity besides Ethiopians who were allowed to arrive to and depart from Ethiopia freely. In contrast, both Emperors Menelik II and Selassie often had doubts regarding their relations to other ethnicities and were generally weary of the possibility that the other ethnicities may attempt to colonize Ethiopia. Thus, the other ethnic minorities were forbidden to travel.

In a varying viewpoint to the popular theories of Ethiopian modernization, Ethiopian scholar Milkias Paulos suggests that prior to the 1900s, association with business was looked down upon by Ethiopian society at large. Paulos thus postulates that this is the reason why most of Ethiopia’s early businessmen, musicians and other professionals were mostly composed of professionals who were ethnically Greek and Armenian. In his book Haile Selassie, Western Education and Political Revolution in Ethiopia, Paulos provides a demographic of the ethnic minorities in Ethiopia that highlights the Armenian community at its peak in 1935 with a population of 2,800, slightly under the Greeks and Arabs. Though the numbers of the Ethiopian Armenians were marginal in comparison to other ethnic minorities, it’s undeniable that the influence of the Armenian community at times surpassed that of other communities. Even when the Armenian community numbered less than two hundred in 1909, an Italian map printed during the same year made a specific note to highlight the Armenian quarter just north of the Ras Makonnen Bridge.

The Armenian influence in Addis Ababa wasn’t just limited to the Arba Lijoch, but also encompassed various professional roles within a given society. While the Armenian orphans led the wave of musical modernization in Ethiopia, the Armenian community in Addis Ababa also governed the pharmaceutical and medical institutions at the turn of the 20th century.

Dr. Richard Pankhurst, a highly-renowned scholar of Ethiopian history, highlights figures such as the Devletian and Latifian families. He notes that Hovhanes Devletian was a native of the Van region and became Selassie’s personal physician, while the Latifians owned and managed the imperial pharmacy in Addis Ababa. This tradition of Armenian physicians and dentists is also present today: according to Kebede, one of the sons of the Arba Lijoch, Mesrop Sarkisian, is one of the most renowned dentists of Addis Ababa.

In modern times, when scholars and historians research and engage in the historiography of modern Ethiopia, they often utilize the primary visual sources that are largely indebted to the work of Bedros Boyadjian. Boyadjian, born in Tigranakert (modern-day Diyarbakir), in the Ottoman Empire, became the first royal photographer of Ethiopia. Initially, he was the photographer of Menelik II, and later became the photographer for Selassie’s imperial court. Boyadjian was widely acclaimed for developing a talent for photography that was different from the norm at the time. Almost defiantly, he incorporated female and male subjects in one sitting frame and habitually cropped and montaged photographs to depict his royal subjects in the most optimal way possible — a practice that was almost non-existent in Ethiopian royal photography prior to Boyadjian.

SelassieQueen Menen and Emperor Haile Selassie, photographed by Haigaz Boyadjian.

Engineering and city planning were also industries that Armenians in Ethiopia thrived in, with the most notable contributors being Krikor Howyan and Minas Kherbekian. Howyan was born in Constantinople, graduated from the prestigious Ecole Nationale University in Paris with a degree in mathematics, and later published many scientific studies. Most notably, however, he was the chief engineer of Addis Ababa and built many bridges throughout the capital, as well as one of Addis Ababa’s most well-known historic hotels: the Itegue.

Even before Haile Selassie assumed the position of emperor, Howyan had already established the first modern astronomical observatory in Addis Ababa in the imperial palace of Menelik. He also assumed an official position in the Astronomical Society of France (Société Astronomique de France) through the assistance of established networks throughout Europe. Howyan studied the constellations, meteors, and planets as seen from Addis Ababa and communicated his discoveries with the Astronomical Society of France on behalf of Ethiopia. When he wasn’t serving the Ethiopian royalty, he focused his attention on the small but thriving Armenian community in Addis Ababa. For example, Howyan constructed the first Armenian school in the country’s capital, in which Amharic, Armenian, English, and French languages were taught. The state-of-the-art school also included a gymnasium and a sports club named “Arax” after the Araxes River of the historic Armenian Highlands. And in 1943, a second sporting branch was opened, called the “Ararat Sporting Association.” A couple years prior to his death, Howyan split his will three ways: partly to his immediate family, partly to the Armenian community in Addis Ababa and partly to the newly established Armenian Republic.

Working under the patronage of Howyan was Minas Kherbekian, or better known by his nickname in Amharic, Betafras Minas, which translates to “Minas the house-crusher.” Kherbekian became to Addis Ababa what Haussmann was to Paris. According to accounts of the time, Kherbekian would walk around the city with a pointing stick and single out the structures in Addis Ababa that he deemed necessary for renovation or demolition. In their place, Kherbekian built new houses and institutions that incorporated traditional aesthetic motifs of Armenian, Arab, Italian and Ethiopian architecture to create unique structures.

Despite being frequently met with opposition and skepticism, Kherbekian remained devoted to his plans of modernization and a vision of an urban capital that was suitable for the 20th century. Most of Kherbekian’s constructions can still be seen in the capital today and are currently being renovated as part of an effort to preserve old Addis Ababa. Additionally, one of the buildings that Kherbekian had designed and built is one of Addis Ababa’s most well-known tourist attractions called the Mohammedaly house. During Kherbekian’s time, the Mohammedaly institution was the largest importing and exporting trade firm, and he was commissioned to construct the central headquarters. Today, the Armenian influence of Kherbekian’s distinguished design of the Mohammedaly house is most prominently evident in the pillared staircases with triangular designs. On the other hand, the residential structures of Kherbekian include intricately detailed balconies, which encircle the upper floors of his buildings. These two styles of infrastructure carry exemplary designs of architecture that can be traced to cities with long-standing Armenian cultural and historical backgrounds, such as Gyumri or Shushi.

While Howyan translated the visual poetry of the heavens into scientific studies and Kherbekian focused on infrastructure, their countryman Haig Patapan occupied himself with the intellectual realm. The extensive historiography of Armenian-Ethiopian relations is widely documented, thanks to Patapan’s 400-page text that was published in 1930 on the Armenian island of San Lazzaro in Venice, Italy. When he wasn’t translating the philosophical works of Friedrich Nietzsche into Armenian and Amharic, Patapan focused his attention on compiling encyclopedia-like texts about Ethiopian history.

One account of Ethio-Armenian relations tells us a story of Kherbekian. Patapan documented that shortly prior to Selassie’s crowning, Kherbekian concluded the construction of one of the most advanced bridges in Addis Ababa. Society at large, including Emperor Menelik II, doubted the modern design of the bridge and determined that it would not be secure enough for heavy traffic. The Emperor asked the crowd, “What fool would cross this bridge?” Confidently, Kherbekian replied, “I will be that fool.” He quickly called upon his friend and industrialist Sarkis Terzian to bring his latest invention, the steamroller, which was the heaviest machinery in Addis Ababa at the time, to test the bridge. Kherbekian successfully maneuvered the steamroller across the bridge while the diverse communities of Addis Ababa watched at the other end with their breath held in anticipation. When Kherbekian reached the other side of the bridge, Emperor Menelik II made his way to Kherbekian with a grin and bowed to him out of respect.

A notable Ethiopian historian, Bahru Zewde, addressed the influence of Terzian’s innovations in his book titled, A history of Modern Ethiopia: “The Armenians, also Orthodox Christians, like the Greeks, were welcomed to Ethiopia at a time when they were suffering persecution in their homeland. They were to attain the highest level of integration into Ethiopian society and they thrived mainly as craftsmen catering to the upper class. But one of their pioneers, Sarkis Terzian, made his fortune as an arms trader and his fame by introducing the steamroller (aptly named Sarkis ‘babur,’ the steam engine of Sarkis) into the country.”

By the year 1935, the Armenian population in Addis Ababa was roughly estimated at a little over 2,000. The extensive labor and love that the Armenians of Addis Ababa put out in the years prior had already solidified their reputation in Ethiopian society and in the eyes of Haile Selassie. Additionally, it seemed that Selassie had Armenian acquaintances outside of Ethiopia as well. For example, while Ethio-jazz was booming in the country’s capital in the 1950s, Selassie took a tour of the United States and had several meetings in San Francisco, California. Armenian entrepreneur and philanthropist George Mardikian frequented Selassie during his stay in the Bay Area with boxes of Armenian halva (a sunflower-seed-based candy).

When Selassie returned home to Addis Ababa, he continued his rule for many years to come until his death in 1975, under mysterious circumstances. According to Tilbian, this political strife took a toll on Ethiopia as a whole, but also on the Armenian community specifically. Reflecting on the dwindling numbers of the Armenians left in Addis Ababa today, Tilbian states “Most Armenians left when the Derg communist regime nationalized homes and businesses and currently more will leave for post secondary education.”

Indeed, today, there are about 100 Armenians remaining in Addis Ababa who stay interconnected largely in thanks to the Kevorkoff Armenian school and the St. George Apostolic Church, which continues to operate, thanks to Simon Hagopian, the son of one of the 40 orphans, and Archdeacon Vartkes Nalbandian. Equally imperative, Vahe Tilbian is producing music in English, Amharic and Armenian, while performing to various audiences in Ethiopia. When asked about music, and the Armenian community’s future prospects, the Armenian native of Addis Ababa had this to say:

“The older generation is more aware of the Armenian presence in Ethiopia while the younger generations who have gone to music school or are involved with music know of the Armenian contributions. I also meet strangers who, once they hear I am of Armenian descent, tell me stories of how their father was a friend with an Armenian family or they had Armenian neighbors back in the day. I would say, on the most part, Ethiopians view Armenians very positively. Armenians who came to Ethiopia during the Armenian Genocide and in the aftermath were given citizenship, allowed to live and work here, and were given land to build homes. It really is a great story of acceptance and finding a safe haven.”

Today’s global citizens are finding innovative ways to bring this vibrant community’s story to life through the medium of film. Filmmaker Aramazt Kalayjian is working on a documentary about the Armenian Ethiopians entitled, “TEZETA: The Ethiopian Armenians.” When asked about what he hopes to achieve through the film, Kalayjian says:

“It’s a story which documents the rare cultural co-creation that has existed between Armenians and Ethiopians that has developed so much in Ethiopia… I want to share this inspiring story in the most fun, musical, and entertaining way so that our story as Armenians starts to diverge from the melancholic narrative we often find ourselves attached to, with regards to Genocide and past traumas that no longer need to serve as our driving force. There are aims and goals that we can set our minds and efforts to work towards that are higher than waiting for recognition or retribution. As prospering citizens of the world we have a chance to take hold of our future, this film aims to inspire that feeling.”

For the Arba Lijoch, Ethiopia not only became an asylum from genocide, but a place to thrive artistically and professionally, in the mold of Howyan and Kherbekian before them. As thanks for the opportunity, these “diligent, abstemious, and honest” Armenians left their enduring mark on the history of Ethiopia and its rich culture.


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