There is a small community of Armenians in Ethiopia, primarily in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa. Armenians had traded with Ethiopia from as early as the first century AD. The Armenian population peaked in shortly before the Italian invasion in 1935 at around 2,800. By the fall of the Ethiopian monarchy in 1974, it was around 2,000, after which the numbers fell precipitously.
One of the first recorded diplomatic missions to Europe from Ethiopia was led by Mateus (Portuguese for Matthew), also known as Matthew the Armenian (died May, 1520). Matthew was an Ethiopian ambassador sent by the Empress Eleni of Ethiopia to king Manuel I of Portugal and to the Pope in Rome, to appeal for aid against Islamic incursions into Ethiopia in the 16th Century.
He was in search of a coalition to help on the increasing threat that Ethiopia faced from the growing Muslim influence in the region, with the counsel of the Portuguese diplomat and explorer Pêro da Covilhã (c. 1460 – after 1526).
Eleni or Helena (died April, 1522) also known as Queen of Zeila was an Empress of Ethiopia by marriage to Zara Yaqob (r. 1434–1468), and served as regent between 1507 and 1516 during the minority of emperor Dawit II.
Zera Yacob (English: “Descendant of Jacob”; 1399 – 26 August 1468) was the Emperor of Ethiopia, and a member of the Solomonic dynasty, also known as the House of Solomon, the former ruling Imperial House of the Ethiopian Empire.
The dynasty’s members claim lineal descent from the biblical King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. Tradition asserts that the Queen gave birth to Menelik I after her biblically described visit to Solomon in Jerusalem. Menelik I was the first emperor of Ethiopia and of Hebrew descent. Ruling in the 10th century BC, he established the inaugural Solomonic dynasty.
In 1270, the Zagwe dynasty of Ethiopia, the ruling dynasty of a Medieval kingdom in present-day northern Ethiopia (900 to 1270) was overthrown by Yekuno Amlak, who claimed descent from Solomon and reinitiated the Solomonic era of Ethiopia.
The dynasty would last until 1974, ended by a coup d’état and deposition of the emperor Haile Selassie (through grandmother). Eleni played a significant role in the government of Ethiopia during her lifetime, acting as de facto co-regent or advisor to a number of emperors.
Mateus arrived at Goa in 1512, and traveled to Portugal in 1514, from where he returned with a Portuguese embassy, along with the Portuguese missionary and explorer Francisco Álvares (c. 1465 in Coimbra – 1536~1541, Rome).
In 1515 he traveled to Ethiopia as part of the Portuguese embassy to emperor Lebna Dengel accompanied by returning Ethiopian ambassador Matheus. The embassy arrived only in 1520 to Ethiopia where he joined long sought Portuguese envoy Pêro da Covilhã.
The Portuguese only understood the nature of his mission after they arrived in Ethiopia in 1520, shortly after Mateus’ death, a fact that complicated their mission to the new Ethiopian Emperor.
Besides the obvious religious affiliation, there is also the story of the “Arba Lijoch” children, a group of 40 Armenian orphans who had escaped from the atrocities in Turkey, coming to Ethiopia after the Armenian Genocide.
Arba Lijoch were adopted by Haile Selassie I of Ethiopia (1892 – 1975), then Crown Prince Ras Tafari. He was Crown Prince and Regent of the Ethiopian Empire from 1916 to 1928, and then King and Regent from 1928 to 1930, and finally Emperor from 1930 to 1974.
Among the Rastafari movement, whose followers are estimated to number between 700,000 and one million, Haile Selassie is revered as the returned messiah of the Bible, God incarnate.
Beginning in Jamaica in the 1930s, the Rastafari movement perceives Haile Selassie as a messianic figure who will lead a future golden age of eternal peace, righteousness, and prosperity. He was an Ethiopian Orthodox Christian throughout his life. He is a defining figure in modern Ethiopian history. He was a member of the Solomonic dynasty who traced his lineage to Emperor Menelik I.
He was born to parents with ethnic links to three of Ethiopia’s Afroasiatic-speaking populations: the Oromo and Amhara, the country’s two largest ethnic groups, as well as the Gurage. He came to power after Iyasu V was deposed, and undertook a nationwide modernization campaign from 1916, when he was made a Ras and Regent (Inderase) for the Empress Regnant, Zewditu, and became the de facto ruler of the Ethiopian Empire.
Zewditu (born Askala Maryam; 29 April 1876 – 2 April 1930) was Empress of Ethiopia from 1916 to 1930. She was the first female head of an internationally recognized country in Africa in the 19th and 20th centuries, and the first empress regnant of the Ethiopian Empire.
Her reign was noted for the reforms of her Regent and designated heir Ras Tafari Makonnen who following her death, in 1930, succeeded her as Emperor Haile Selassie I. After becoming the regent and de facto ruler of Ethiopia in 1916, Selassie began to gradually modernize Ethiopia, beginning with the capital, Addis Ababa.
He started by having Ethiopia admitted to the League of Nations in 1923 and his diplomatic trips in the following years aimed to solidify stable connections outside of Ethiopia. The first of these diplomatic visits was in 1924, when Selassie went on a trip to Europe and the Middle East in the hopes of establishing allies in Europe.
But it was in the heart of the Middle East — in Jerusalem — that Selassie would soon become acquainted with the 40 Armenian orphans who would ultimately become the forerunners in the modernization of mainstream music in Ethiopia.
As Selassie toured Jerusalem, he visited the Armenian Quarter and marveled at the St. James Armenian Apostolic Church (Surb Hakobyants Vank.’) There he observed a marching band composed of 40 young Armenian men; he was deeply moved by the band’s musical talent.
Selassie himself was a devout member of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church and he noted the striking similarities between the two churches, as well as the likeness in written script.
After concluding his tour of the Armenian Church and district, Selassie had a conversation with Patriarch Turyan and learned that these 40 talented young musicians were orphans of the Armenian Genocide. He also learned of the terrible financial strain that came with raising these orphans.
In response, Selassie offered to adopt and bring the marching band back with him to Addis Ababa. They impressed him so much that he obtained permission from the Armenian Patriarchate of Jerusalem to adopt and bring them to Ethiopia, where he then arranged for them to receive musical instruction.
The 40 Armenian orphans arrived to the capital on September 6, 1924, accompanied by Father Hovhannes Simonian, and officially became known as the Arba Lijoch (“forty children” in Amharic, the official language in Ethiopia.)
The Arba Lijoch became the first official orchestra of the nation and formed the royal imperial brass band of Ethiopia. Each of the children were allocated a monthly stipend, provided with housing and trained by their musical director, the conductor and composer Kevork Nalbandian. These 40 orphans who were once deprived of their most earnest childhood memories due to genocide and dispossession had now found their beacon of hope through music.
Nalbandian was an Armenian orphan himself, originally from Aintab (modern-day Gaziantep) in the southeastern region of the Ottoman Turkish Empire. It was Nalbandian who led the Arba Lijoch with his musical compositions and Selassie was so impressed with the band’s compilations, he asked Nalbandian to compose the music for Ethiopia’s national anthem.
In 1926, Nalbandian composed the music for the Ethiopian Imperial National Anthem titled, “Teferi Marsh, Ethiopia Hoy,” which translates to “Ethiopia, be happy” (words by Yoftehé Negusé) which was the Ethiopian National Anthem from 1930 to 1974.
It was performed by the 40 orphans for the first time in public during Haile Selassie’s official crowning as Emperor on November 2, 1930 in Addis Ababa. In fact, Selassie’s initial coronation on November 2, 1930 set a defining tone for the Arba Lijoch and the Armenian community in Ethiopia.
The Arba Lijoch began performing for nearly every imperial event of the state, and later trained Ethiopia’s army and imperial bodyguard bands. While not much is recorded about the personal lives of the 40 orphans, Mesfin Kebede, a native Ethiopian resident of Addis Ababa, possesses some documents that provide a look into the lives of the orphans, including their names, ages and hometowns.
Kebede recounts that the majority of the orphans were originally from various Armenian towns and that most of the orphans came from Vaspurakan (Van), Karin, Zeytun, and Sis. Kebede described the Arba Lijoch as “diligent, abstemious, and honest,” virtues that, according to him, “are qualities of the race to which they belong.”
Nerses Nalbandian was an Ethiopian a musician and educator of Armenian descent. He was born into a family living in Syria who had escaped the Armenian Genocide in Turkey in the early twentieth century. Stateless Armenian, he gained Ethiopian nationality in 1959.
Nalbandian’s family settled in Addis Ababa at the end of 1930’s. There he becomes a musician and a conductor (playing the violin, piano, saxophone). With the agreement of Haile Selassie, he takes over his uncle Kevork Nalbandian after retiring in 1949 as the head of the major musical institutions of the country in Addis Ababa.
In particular, Nalbandyan conducts the orchestra of the Imperial Guard, the Police Orchestra, the Municipal Orchestra of Addis Ababa (where he is a professor in 1946), the orchestra of Hayle-Selassie Theatre (directed by Franz Zelwecker) and the music schools and Nazret Yared.
His influence is essential in the evolution of Ethiopian music from the 1940’s, following the work of his uncle, which he incorporates into traditional instrumental and stylistic basis (pentatonic scale, rhythm) to infuse them with principles of Western classical music and jazz (including the use of brass), modernising without occidentaliser.
Nalbandian’s contributions lay foundation for the creation of the Ethio-jazz in the 1950’s, most of the musicians – Tlahoun Gésésé, Bezunesh Beqele, Alemayehu Eshete, Mahmoud Ahmed, Hirut Beqele, Menelik Wzsnatchew – played or sung in bands of Addis Ababa that Nerses Nalbandian led.
How Armenian Genocide Orphans Sparked A Revolution In Ethiopian Music
In The Company of Emperors: The Story of Ethiopian Armenians