The Armenians, a people of western Asia, have long enjoyed a special position in Ethiopia. This was in part because both peoples adopted Christianity
at an early period – within less than a century of each other. The Armenian king Turidates III was converted in 301 AD, and the Aksumite King Ezana, around 330 AD.
Armenians subsequently went on special missions for a number of Ethiopian rulers, most notably the Armenian merchant Matthew for Empress Eleni in the early 16th century, and Murad for three successive rulers of old-time Gondar.
Let us, dear reader, however now revert to Addis Ababa history!
Armenians made their appearance very early in Addis Ababa’s history. The two most prominent Armenians at that time were perhaps Boghos Marcarian, a merchant who was rated among Menilek’s most loyal supporters, and Dikran Ebeyan, a jeweller who made crowns for several Ethiopian rulers.
The impending “Adwa’ war with the Italians did not prevent the subsequent influx of Armenians. On the contrary, several Armenians appeared on the scene to help Menilek purchase arms for self-defence. One such was Krikorios Boghosian; another was Joseph Behesnilian – both highly respected names in Addis Ababa commercial life.
Armenians held a dominant position in the capital’s trade. A British diplomatic report for 1900 stated that two of the capital’s eight largest Class I merchants, and five of the twelve Class III, were Armenian. Some people went so far as to claim that the term Armenian was synonymous with trader.
The steady growth of the Armenian community is apparent from contemporary accounts. Whereas the Belgian H. Henin stated in 1906 that there were only 44 Armenians in the whole country, the French linguist Marcel Cohen, half a century later, put the figure for Greeks and Armenians combined at no fewer than 800.
Armenians, though still mainly engaged in trade, acquired more and more specialisation in the increasingly sophisticated early twentieth century Ethiopian capital. This witnessed the emergence of men like Yevant Hagopian, who imported silks, wall-paper and glassware, in 1901; the photographer Bedros Boyadjian, in 1905; the watchmaker Artin Antrantigian, in 1912, and the tanner and saddle-maker Kevork Kehyayan in 1915.
There were also a number of Armenian craftsmen and women employed at the Palace, where they designed and embroidered ceremonial clothing as well as uniforms for various ranks of officials.
The Armenians were relatively unusual among foreigners in Addis Ababa in that they were stateless, and consequently achieved what they did entirely without any support from their own country. They were notable moreover in having their own distinct quarter of the capital. It was situated north of the market.
Not only Armenian men, but also Armenian women immigrated to Ethiopia. There were therefore relatively few racially mixed communities involving Ethiopians and Armenians, and likewise only a limited number of persons of Armenian-Ethiopian descent.
The Big Name among Addis Ababa Armenians in Menilek’s day was Sarkis Terzian, whose son, the late Avedis Terzian, a highly respected member of the Addis Ababa Armenian community, used to discuss its history with the present writer.
Sarkis Terzian, whose biography has still to be written, arrived via Harar. He appears to have developed a special relationship with Menilek, for whom he imported numerous consignments of firearms, and often travelled to Liège in Belgium to procure them. This greatly irritated the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which attempted, unsuccessfully, to have the trade terminated.
Terzian was later involved in one of the most remarkable foreign purchases of Menilek’s reign: the acquisition of a steam-roller from the London firm of E.W. Carling. He was also responsible for transporting the vehicle to Addis Ababa across the countryside then still almost entirely devoid of roads.
Terzian further operated a very successful, but today largely forgotten transport service between Addis Ababa and whatever point was reached by the Jibuti railway line then under construction.
Another interesting member of the community was Minas Kherbekian, who built some of the capital’s first roads and bridges. Once, it is said, when confronted with the need to acquire for a road a small strip of land, he strode up to the owner’s house, and planted his stake just in front of it, as if to claim the entire property. The irate owner marched out with his gun. An angry altercation ensued. Minas then seemingly made concession after concession which ended when the lord happily surrendered only the small piece of land Minas had originally wanted.
Mention may also be made of such notable figures as Kevork Aznavorkian, who established Addis Ababa’s first printing-press in 1913; Kevork Nalbandian, who subsequently founded a musical group and composed the then Ethiopian national anthem; and benevolent Matiig Kevorkoff, who financed the building of the Armenian School.
Another influx of Armenians – a group of forty young Armenian orphans – were granted asylum by Ras Tafari Mekonnen, the future Emperor Haile Sellasie, when he visited Jerusalem in 1924. They subsequently emerged in Addis Ababa as skilled craftsmen and entrepreneurs, as well as forming an Armenian choir.
This historical article being devoted to the Armenians of Addis Ababa I beg permission to refer to the following mystery: It is widely asserted that during the Italian Fascist occupation, Johannes Semerjibashian, a member of the capital’s Armenian community, produced a patriotic publication entitled Ade Berhan za Etopya, but nobody I know has ever seen a copy.
Can any Capital-reader explain this for me?