Friday, February 25

The Armenians of Ethiopia

We have long been familiar with the Armenian presence in Ethiopia but we did not realize it went back so far until a reader sent us this article from The Armenian General Benevolent Union News.
When Mateos Armenawi embarked on his first diplomatic mission on behalf of an Ethiopian Queen in 1512, little did he know that he was paving the way for generations of Armenians to play an active role in Africa’s first Christian nation.

Armenawi, or Armenian in the Amharic language, was dispatched to Portugal via India to seek help in halting an Ottoman expansion toward Ethiopia.

He returned after an arduous journey which took him ten years to complete only to die of ill health a few weeks later. But Armenawi had earned his place in the Ethiopian history books as a trusted emissary and skilled negotiator.

A decade later, a fellow Armenian by the name of Murad was already following his footsteps by gaining prominent positions in the palaces of Ethiopian Kings and Emperors.

He too traveled the world on behalf of Ethiopian royalty and is noted for his role as a key intermediary with a number of European states, and primarily Holland from where Murad brought back a massive bronze church bell which is considered one of the country’s historical treasures.

Armenawi and Murad were involved in the Ethiopian framework as individuals, and it was not until 1875 that Armenians began arriving in Ethiopia in significant numbers, setting the stage for what later became a small but influential community halfway around the globe from historical Armenia.

Among those in the first wave was Kevork Terzian, a young caterer who entered the northern town of Harare with the Ottoman Army.
The Terzian clan has been well established ever since in all manner of trade and industry. The numbers of Armenians grew as their troubles in Turkey mounted including a group of 40 orphans brought to Addis Ababa by Haile Sellassie in 1923. Before the fall of Haile Sellassie and the ascent of a Communist dictatorship, the Armenian Community was at its "zenith".

An Armenian community school was founded back then and remains popular with Ethiopians and the foreign community. The number of Armenians has fallen to a low of about 150 including people of mixed Ethiopian - Armenian heritage. Once "a community of influential traders, factory owners and goldsmiths" they now feel isolated from the rest of their own diaspora.
For the academic year ending June, 1994, three Armenian children will graduate from the Armenian elementary school and will, like others before them, hopefully make their way to the Melkonian Educational Institute of the Armenian General Benevolent Union in Nicosia, Cyprus.

But the number of graduates will drop in the coming years if the demographic structure of the community does not improve with new births and less deaths.

According to available figures, two Armenian youngsters will graduate from Kevorkoff in 1995, but none in 1996 and 1997, and only one in 1998, two in the year 1999 and up to three again in the year 2000. Not an encouraging picture, as Archdeacon Vartkes Nalbandian sees it.

The community today consists of about half a dozen under 12 years old, five over 12 years old, 10 between the ages of 20-25, some in their mid-40’s and a majority of 60 to 80 year olds.

According to church records for the period 1979-1994, there have been nine Armenian weddings in Addis Ababa, 37 births and 55 deaths.

“This community is not growing in numbers. We are facing a very difficult future,” says the electromechanical engineer turned Archdeacon .

The St. Kevork Armenian Church, built in 1934, lost its last “real” clergyman in 1980, leaving the parish in limbo.

“The Armenian and Ethiopian Orthodox churches are very close, but this community was not ready to get a clergyman from a non-Armenian church to bury its dead or baptize its children,” Nalbandian said.

“For a while after the last priest left we used a tape recording of Holy Badarak as the centerpiece of our Sunday service. Imagine a handful of people sitting in church listening to the Divine Liturgy on tape,” he said.
Their community center remains open and hopefully more will continue to call Ethiopia home.

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