Ethiopia's Armenians: Long history, small numbers

August 2, 2014 - 10:04 AM
Ethiopia Dwindling Armenians

In this Sunday June 1, 2014 photo, Armen Madatyan and his 1 year-old daughter Stella light a candle at the church in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. There is a small handful of people keeping the Armenian community in Ethiopia 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. (AP Photo/Elias Asmare)

ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia (AP) — 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.

Ethio-Armenians had their property and businesses confiscated when the communist Derg seized power in 1974. Many families left then, fearing for their lives. The Nalbandians stayed, determined not to give up on a country they had called home for four generations.

Salpi and Vartkes' musical family has made a lasting contribution to Ethiopia's heritage. Great uncle Kervork wrote Ethiopia's first national anthem, and their father Nerses became well known for his pioneering work in Ethio-Jazz, which blends traditional Ethiopian five-tone scales with the diminished scales of Western jazz.

The pair have become the gatekeepers to a part of Ethiopian culture and history that is in danger of being forgotten.

Ethio-Armenians are gradually resembling a diaspora within a diaspora. Children and grandchildren who live in the U.S. and Canada now make pilgrimages to Addis to see the place where their ancestors grew up.

Most of the Armenian buildings in the Armenian "safar" — or neighborhood — in Addis Ababa's city center are now empty or gone, victim to the city's appetite for high-rise buildings that are beginning to dominate the skyline.

St. George's Church holds maybe 200 people but seems larger because it often stands dark and empty. Golden orthodox crosses are the only objects that catch the light from high small windows in the church's pointed dome. The African sunshine struggles to brighten the church's dark green walls.

The remaining Armenian families are scattered around Addis' outskirts, including the Nalbandians, who were forced to vacate their family home.

The only reason the house, which in a traditional Armenian style has a wrap-round balcony — is still standing is because Salpi is fighting against the local government to preserve it as a museum dedicated to her father's life and work.

She has had some help upholding her father's legacy from Aramatz Kalayjian, an Armenian filmmaker. He has being working on "Tezeta," a documentary about Ethio-Armenian music, since 2012.

"The only remnants of a great cross-pollination of cultures are the few Armenian community members left, the music, history books, and memories that tell of the relationship between Armenians and Ethiopians," Kalayjian said.

Vartkes Nalbandian disagrees with Kalayjian's view that the community is fading. He notes that a Syrian-Armenian man recently visited the Addis community with a view to moving there with his family.

"The school is open, the church is open, the club is open," he said. "It doesn't matter if I open the church on a Sunday and preach to many people or just a handful. As long as our spirit is strong, our identity is, too."