Ethiopia’s Armenians: Long History, Small Numbers

The Boyadjian family, one of the earliest members of the Armenian community in Ethiopia. (Facebook)

Associated Press


Aug 2, 2014

ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia — The numbers at the St. George Armenian Apostolic Church in Addis Ababa are not adding up. Church records show an average of two funerals a year, but a wedding only every three years and a baptism every five.

“Some people don’t come to church vertically. Only horizontally,” Vartkes Nalbandian said with a laugh.

Vartkes is among a small handful of people keeping Ethiopia’s Armenian community alive. Despite a fall in numbers from a peak of 1,200 in the 1960s to less than 100 people today, the Armenian school, church and social club still open their doors.

“There is more to a community than just statistics. We are proud of the Armenian contribution to Ethiopia. It’s worth fighting for,” said 64-year old Vartkes, the church’s fulltime acting archdeacon since the last priest left in 2002.

But given the shrinking numbers, the fight can feel daunting.

Armenian goldsmiths, traders and architects were invited to settle in Ethiopia more than 150 years ago by Emperor Johannes IV. Buoyed by the ties between Ethiopian and Armenian Orthodoxy, the community thrived.

After the Armenian Genocide in 1915, Haile Selassie, Ethiopia’s regent who later became Emperor, opened his arms to the Armenian people even wider, adopting 40 orphans as wards of court. In return, the Ethio-Armenians proved fiercely loyal.

One trader used his European connections to buy arms for Ethiopia’s resistance movement against the Italian occupation during World War II. Others ran an underground newspaper. Several gave their lives in service of their adopted homeland.

“Those were the best days,” said 61-year old Salpi Nalbandian, who runs a leather business with her brother Vartkes and other family members. “We were valued members of the court. We made the crowns the emperors wore on their heads. We were not like the Italians, we weren’t invaders. We contributed.”

But the community’s fortunes have changed through the years.

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