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The Kings and the Forty Orphans: Looking for Armenians in Ethiopia

Date: Thursday 5 March 2015
Venue: SOAS, University of London
Speaker: Dr Boris Adjemian (AGBU Nubar Library in Paris)
Chair: Dr Erica C. D. Hunter (Head of Department for the Study of Religions and co-Chair of World Christianity at SOAS)

What initially took Dr Adjemian to Ethiopia was his intention to write about Ethiopian history itself, and more specifically, about the history of the foreigners that were residents of the country, and not about its Armenian community. Nevertheless, the experience of the Armenian community struck Dr Adjemian as not being one of a ‘foreigner’. A current of thought that Dr Adjemian wished us to keep in mind throughout the talk was the specific paradox that the Armenian community in Ethiopia has lived; the paradox of being a foreigner, yet being considered a native and part of the nation. The specific experience of the Armenians in Ethiopia has been seen to be a particularly interesting case to consider when attempting to conceptualise the ideas of ‘foreigner’ and ‘indigenous’ and whether these two concepts are even enough to describe the experience of certain communities, such as the Armenian community of Ethiopia.

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Dr Adjemian (left) and Dr Erica Hunter

Dr Adjemian stated that this specific Armenian experience was epitomised by a statement made by his Ethiopian friend: ‘Ethiopia is a nation made of ninety ethnic groups, and Armenians are our ninety-first ethnic group’. He reinforced this idea by taking a quote from the late anthropologist, Jacques Bureau, who worked for a long time in Addis. He said that ‘Armenians were not to be considered faranj in Ethiopia’. Faranj is an Amharic term, taken from the Arabic al-faranj, which is a corruption of the word Frank. It denotes foreigners; anybody who is of European descent; ‘white people’. The Armenians living in Ethiopia today generally consider themselves to be Ethiopian; they speak Amharic, their families had settled in the country 2 or 3 generations ago, and they feel themselves to have a special attachment to Ethiopia. Among all the ‘foreigners’ living in the country, Armenians were perceived to be the closest to the Ethiopian people. This then leads to a comparison between faranj and habesha, which means Abyssinian (a term ascribed to peoples and cultures from the Christian highlands of Ethiopia and Eritrea very generally). Armenians then seem to occupy a space between the broad concepts of faranj and habesha. The crux of Dr Adjemian’s research focused on how such a situation became possible for the Armenians of Ethiopia and how a community that has arrived from abroad can adopt such a space of social experience in the host country. Answering this question is a near impossible task since many of the Armenians of Ethiopia left the country in the 1980s after the Ethiopian Revolution. The Armenian community consequently decreased dramatically in size and is visible only in Addis Ababa today. The Armenian community was in fact never large. Around 200 Armenians were there at the end of Menelik’s reign in 1913. Their number reached approximately 1200 in the 1930s after an influx of emigrants to Ethiopia following the Armenian Genocide and World War 1. The population of the community reached its peak in 1936 just before the Italian occupation. The number of Armenians in Ethiopia has never really exceeded beyond 1200.

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Looking for Armenians in Ethiopia

There has been abundant research undertaken regarding the history of foreigners in Ethiopia. Most of these works were written from the perspective of ‘community studies’, which left aside the question of the definition of the ‘foreign’ in Ethiopia. This historiography described the Armenians, the Greeks and the Indians merely as foreign traders and craftsmen who introduced novel technology and practices to Ethiopia. This academic discourse perceived Armenians, like the Greeks and Indians, as ‘brokers’, or passeurs, between the foreign world and the local society, as a kind of kink in the chain between Europeans and Ethiopians. This helps us to establish a parallel between this conception of a ‘trading diaspora’ and ‘middle-men minorities’, which were concepts developed in the 1960s and 70s in the social sciences. The situation of Armenians in Ethiopia, however, has been far more complex than simply being considered to be a case of a ‘middle-man minority’. This is due to the depth of the settlement of the Armenians in the host society. An in-depth study of the collective experience of these Armenians is necessary to situate their status in Ethiopia. This task is made difficult by the fact that there is hardly any written material concerning the Armenians in Ethiopia. Dr Adjemian had to rely mostly on ‘oral’ material, photographs etc. to conduct research. As mentioned before, Armenians have thus far been perceived solely as merchants and craftsmen in Ethiopia, however, they have occupied several other professions and roles within Ethiopian society. A close look at the ‘fanfare royale’, or the ‘fanfare du négus’ underlines the complexity of the collective Armenian experience in Ethiopia. This is a story about a band of 40 Armenian orphans brought to Ethiopia by Ras Tafari, later known as Emperor Hayle Sellasie. These boys were invited to play the official music of the court and they formed the Royal Fanfare and the Ethiopian Government Fanfare. Their director, the Armenian musician Kevork Nalbandian, was asked by Ras Tafari to write the first national anthem of Ethiopia. The Armenian band brought European tunes and foreign styles of music to Ethiopia. They were a part of the modernisation process in the country. The experience of this band doesn’t fit with the common perceptions of Armenians’ role within Ethiopian society and what Armenians contributed to Ethiopian culture.

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Dr Adjemian provided an insight into the social experience of Ethiopian Armenians

One small episode epitomises the intimate relationship of Armenians and Ethiopians and the special status that Armenians enjoy in Ethiopia. An Italian envoy to Ethiopia, Augusto Salimbeni, remarked that a crown that was offered to the Ethiopian king by the Italian government was refused by King Menelik, who accepted the crown made by an Armenian, despite it being comparably shabby according to the Italian. This symbolic gesture serves to highlight the ‘naturalisation’ of Armenians in Ethiopia. The fanfare is also considered to be evidence of the protection and acceptance of Armenians in Ethiopia. Dr Adjemian provided us with a precious insight into the life and social experience of the Armenian community of Ethiopia. An examination of this diasporic experience adds substance to the conceptualisation of the idea of ‘foreignness’ and its shifting dynamics. The special historical relationship between the Armenians and Ethiopians and the particular experience of Armenians in Ethiopia all the more complicates the singularities of ‘foreign’ and ‘indigenous’, and more specifically in the Ethiopian case, of faranj and hasheba. This makes the categorisation of Armenians in Ethiopian society extremely difficult, but Dr Adjemnian provided a rich context and a critical lens through which we can perceive this community.


1 Comment

  1. viken says:

    A very insightful work. Dr. Adjemian mentions the lack of written material regarding the Armenian community of Ethiopia. The material may not be in Addis, but I’m sure the Armenian church has much material about it in Etchmiadzin, Jerusalem, maybe even Cairo. We should not forget that the Armenian and Ethiopian churches have been in communion since the very beginninvs and part of the reason that Armenians were not considered ” faranj ” in Ethiopia lays therein.

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