In BBC’s series of letters from African journalists, journalist Ismail Einashe takes a trip to find out about the lost Armenian community of Ethiopia.
He states that In the 19th Century, a handful of Armenians played a vital role in the court of Emperor Menelik II, and later, in the early 20th Century, a community settled that went on to have an economic and cultural impact in the country.
In Addis Ababa, he visits the St. George Armenian Apostolic Holy Church, which was the heart of the Armenian community during the reign of Haile Selassie, or Ras Tafari. In 1924, Ras Tafari visited the Armenian monastery in Jerusalem where he met a group of 40 children who had been orphaned by the mass killing of Armenians by Ottoman Turks during WWI. Moved by their plight, he asked the Armenian Patriarchate of Jerusalem if he could take them to Ethiopia and look after them there. The 40 orphans, or arba lijoch in Amharic, were all trained in music and went on to form the imperial brass band of Ethiopia.
Despite their small numbers the Armenians had a crucial role in ushering Ethiopia into the modern world - from helping to develop the distinctive Ethiopian jazz style to working as tailors, doctors, business people and serving in the imperial court.
But as the Armenian community was tied to the imperial history of the country, once the emperor fell the community declined. Haile Selassie was overthrown in 1974 by the Marxist Derg junta, which went on to seize businesses and property, including that of the Armenians.
They can still be seen in the church for special religious celebrations.
The author says there is also the Armenian social club, which has a restaurant that reminds people of the taste of home. At the restaurant, he meets three women of Armenian descent. “That night, as I tucked into delicious and sumptuous borek and lyulya kebabs, I felt I was tasting the history of the Armenians in Ethiopia.”