When Ethiopia took in Armenian refugees

Julian McBride October 16, 2021
Haile Selassie. Photo: EPA

Africa is a continent known for some of the richest histories of mankind. Each nation has its own story to tell of persistence, plight, and humbleness. One such nation is Ethiopia who shares a strong connection to various other ethnicities outside of Africa. One such group of people are Armenians, who also share a very ancient and rich history. When Armenians became scattered, demoralized, and suffered one of the worst genocides in human history, Ethiopia opened its doors to them, leaving a long-lasting bond.

The Armenian Genocide is infamously known as the brutal acts of liquidation against 1.5 million innocent Armenians who lived under the Ottoman Empire by the Young Turks regime. The genocide also incorporated the deaths of 1 million Greeks, 500,000-750,000 Assyrians, and 200,000-400,000 Maronites. Orphanages were set up across the Middle East to care for the orphans, as many of their parents were killed. These orphanages were underfunded with barely any self-sufficient funds to feed Armenians, especially in the brutal winters.

One such orphanage was in the Armenian Quarter of Jerusalem, where a group of 40 Armenian orphans specialized in instruments. They were known as the ‘Arba Lijoch‘ and they were a communion of 40 Armenian orphans that were adopted by Ethiopian Crown Prince Ras Tafari Makonnen (later emperor Haile Selassie I).

In 1924, Prince Ras Tafari visited the Armenian Quarter of Jerusalem, where the Armenian Orphans played a beautiful percussion piece for the crown prince. Prince Ras Tafari was so impressed by the orphans’ musical talents and heartbroken when he heard of their personal stories of the genocide. He personally adopted all of them from the Armenian Patriarch of Jerusalem. He housed them, fed them, and paid for their formal musical education in Ethiopia. 

The Arba Lijoch would play a major role in Ethiopian society under the leadership of Ras Tafari. Not only were they a professional band in the empire, but they also wrote the national anthem used under HIM’s rule. The Armenian who wrote the Ethiopian National Anthem was Kevork Nalbandian, whose nephew, Narses, would continue the band and musical performances in Addis Ababa.

Along with paying for their musical and scholarly education, Ras Tafari, who took up the crown name His Imperial Majesty Haile Selassie I, allowed Nerses Nalbandian and Kevork Nalbandian to create the Ethiopian National Anthem, used from his coronation in 1930 to 1974. The Armenian orphans were also handpicked personally by HIM to play at his coronation as Emperor of Ethiopia, who rejected any foreign bands as he considered the Armenians as his “family.”

Outside of the Arba Lijoch, the Royal photographer of Haile Selassie was also an Armenian named Haigaz Boyajian, and their church and community would play a prominent role in Ethiopian society afterwards. 

Ethiopia has always been a home and place of refuge for those in need and one of the greatest deeds in its history was the day they took in Armenian refugees in need. Not only were these refugees given new lives in their new homes, but they were also able to excel and play a major role in the modern foundations of the Ethiopian Empire. To this day, the descendants of the Arba Lijoch carry photos and documents of the memories made in the heart of Africa. 

Last Edited by:Mildred Europa Taylor Updated: October 15, 2021


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