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Recognizing Ethiopian-Armenians during Black History Month

Updated: Feb 14, 2023

What started with an invitation to attend a Black Doll Power Workshop from my friend and fellow doll collector, Debbie Hall, resulted in learning even more perspectives of Armenians in the diaspora. Following instructions to bring small pieces of fabric, trinkets and beads to create a Personal Spirit Doll, I researched the little-known history of Armenians in Ethiopia. I was aware there had long been a connection between Ethiopia and Armenia through the Orthodox Church and wanted to learn more about the origins.

I discovered stories that need to be told! Stories of our common Orthodox Faith, similar letters of the alphabet, and the integration of food, music, culture, innovation, hope and joy.

Note that while the history goes back to the Middle Ages and for the purpose of this blog, I will focus on the research that touched my heart and guided my creativity in designing a Personal Spirit Doll.

Photo Credit: EVN Report

The growth of the Armenian community came from the hearts of the future Emperor Haile Selassie and Empress Menen in 1924. As Selassie was walking through the Armenian Quarter of Jerusalem, he observed a marching band comprised of 40 young Armenian men; and was deeply moved by their musical talent. He learned that the 40 talented young musicians were orphans of the 1915 Armenian Genocide. He also learned of the terrible financial strain that came with raising these orphans. Without hesitation, he offered to adopt the 40 orphans to look after them and their talented conductor in Ethiopia. Upon arriving in Ethiopia, the group went on to create the first Imperial Brass Band and gave Ethiopia the opportunity to modernize its music. Band leader Kevork Nalbandian even composed the music for the Ethiopian national anthem translated to “Ethiopia, be happy” and it was performed by the 40 orphans for the first time in public during Haile Selassie’s official crowing as Emperor in 1930.

The Armenian influence wasn’t just limited to the wave of musical modernization, but also encompassed various professional roles in the society. The Armenian community also governed the pharmaceutical and medical institutions at the turn of the 20th century and thrived in engineering and city planning.

Most Armenians left after the 1974 Revolution when Haile Selassie was overthrown by the Marxist Derg junta, which went on to seize businesses and property, including that of the Armenians. A few people did stay and some married within the local community, creating a unique blend of Armenian and Ethiopian cultures.

My Personal Spirit Doll

It is the profound generosity of Emperor Haile Selassie and Empress Menen who gave refuge to build new lives and create a new homeland, that moved me to design a spirit doll.

What started with an invitation to attend a Black Doll Power Workshop from my friend and fellow doll collector, Debbie Hall, resulted in learning even more perspectives of Armees and thrived together to build a legacy of peaceful co-existence.

It just goes to show, again and again, that one doesn’t have to look far to find ways in which we are more alike than different.

If you did find this fascinating and want to learn more, check out these references that were invaluable to writing this blog:

I Want to Die with a Flag” by Vartkes Nalbandian

Sevadjian, R.P., “Remembering the Armenian of Ethiopia”, The Armenian Weekly 5/6/2015

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