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Updated Mar 5, 2020

Award-winning journalist Ismail Einahse has contributed to the BBC’s “Letter from Africa” series to shed light on an Armenian community in Ethiopia that played a vital role in helping to modernize the East African country under the rule of Emperor Haile Selassie in the 20th century. Connections between Ethiopia and Armenia have existed for centuries through the Orthodox Church, but this extended beyond religious figures to include diplomats, advisors, and traders.

During the 1800s, Armenians could be found in the court of Emperor Menelik II, and a century later a small community would settle in the capital of Addis Ababa. In 1924, Prince Regent Ras Tafari—who would become Emperor Haile Selassie six years later—visited the Armenian monastery in Jerusalem. There, he met forty Armenian children orphaned due to the massacre of Armenians during World War I. Saddened by their plight, he petitioned the Armenian Patriarchate of Jerusalem to raise the orphans in Ethiopia. The request was granted, and those orphans would go on to form the Royal Imperial Brass Band of Ethiopia, led by Kevork Nalbandian, who also composed the imperial anthem.

By the 1960s the community numbered 1,200, still a small minority but composed of tailors, doctors, businessmen, and courtiers who left a lasting impression on Ethiopia’s culture. Armenian musicians helped to define Ethiopia’s unique brand of jazz, which continues to influence the musical world. 

With the overthrow of Haile Selassie by the Marxist–Leninist military junta known as the Derg in 1974, most of the Armenians living in Ethiopia fled to Europe and North America. A very small community remains in Addis Ababa, mostly elderly, but traditional Armenian food and culture can still be experienced at the Armenian social club and at the St. George Armenian Apostolic Holy Orthodox Church.

Why It Matters

Acknowledging the contributions of minority communities in Africa is vital for broad insight into the history of the continent, and the international links that go beyond the colonizations of the 19th and 20th centuries. The connections between Ethiopia and Armenia have been largely forgotten and are underexplored. By highlighting the lasting cultural and economic impact Armenians have had on Ethiopia, Ismail Einahse enriches our understanding of the shared history of these two countries and provides a historical backdrop to current challenges and opportunities.

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