Category Archives: History

Royal fanfare: Ethiopia’s 40 Armenian orphan musicians

Talk: 5 March at 7pm
Organized by: Programme of Armenian Studies and the Centre of World Christianity at SOAS
At SOAS, Vernon Campus (not the main campus)

The Arba Lijoch, photographed by Haigaz Boyajian, royal photographer of Ethiopia. Source: The Armenite
The Arba Lijoch, photographed by Haigaz Boyajian, royal photographer of Ethiopia. Source: The Armenite

Several of our students of Amharic in London have interest in Ethiopian music, and this talk promises a fascinating spotlight on a key development.

In 1924, the Ras Tafari, Crown Prince of Ethiopia (later known as Emperor Haile Sellasie), went to Jerusalem where he met with a marching band of 40 Armenian orphan boys and was deeply moved by their musical talent. He talked to Patriarch Turyan who told him of the financial strain of raising the boys and the future Emperor offered to adopt them and bring the band to Ethiopia.

The boys arrived on 6 Sept 1924 which Father Hovhannes Simonian and were officially known as Arba Lijoch (“40 children”). They formed the royal imperial brass band and played the official music of the court, forming the Royal Fanfare and the Ethiopian Government Fanfare. Their musical director, Armenian musician Kevork Nalbandian, was asked by Ras Tafari to write the first Imperial Ethiopian national anthem “Teferi Marsh, Ethiopia Hoy” (“Ethiopia, be happy”) performed for the first time by the Arba Lijoch during the crowning of Emperor Haile on 2 November 1930.

The boys had survived the genocide which began in 1915 and saw the Turkish Ottomans kill 1.5 million, forming most of the present Armenian diaspora communities. They were described as “diligent, abstemious and honest”.

Tracing the history of Armenians in Ethiopia, historian Boris Adjemian casts new light on these legendary events in the lecture. Boris Adjemian is curator of the AGBU Nubar Library in Paris. In 2013, he published La fanfare du négus : Les Arméniens en Ethiopie (XIXe-XXe siècles), Paris: Éditions de l’EHESS.

The Programme of Armenian Studies and the Centre of World Christianity at SOAS are jointly hosting his lecture: “The Kings and the Forty Orphans: Looking for Armenians in Ethiopia”. It is chaired by Erica C. D. Hunter, Head of Department for the Study of Religions and co-chair of the Centre of World Christianity at SOAS, University of London.

It starts at 7.00pm on Thursday 5 March in Room V211, SOAS, Vernon Square, London WC1X 9EW – all welcome. Please note that the lecture does not take place at the Main Campus of SOAS, but at the VERNON SQUARE CAMPUS (which is about 10 minutes walk from Kings Cross).

Musical influence

Before their arrival, prominent musical instruments were mostly wood and string although there were some brass musicians. The Arba Lijoch and Kevork Nalbandian were hailed as helping modernization as they trained other bands and performed in public. Kevork Nalbandian, with Greek and Ethiopian musical colleagues, also helped found the Yared School of Music at Addis Ababa Univeristy in 1954 and led to “a stately brand of jazz-funk” or Ethio-jazz which developed in the 1950s and reached its height in the late 1960s and Kevork’s nephew Nerses Nalbandian helped drive the genre and influenced great musicians such as Mulatu Astatke, father of Ethio-jazz.

The Ge’ez alphabet, diligently studied by students of Amharic in London in their Amharic language lessons, apparently also influenced the creation of the Armenian alphabet due to historic links said to go back to the Trojan War and well established as the Orthodox Christian Church grew in both countries from the early centuries after Christ.

Source: Ani Aslanian writing in The Armenite blog and alert mailing from the Anglo Ethiopian Society.

Commemorating Adwa victory – 1 March 1896

Battle of Adwa - St George assists the Ethiopian forces (credit: Wikipedia)
Battle of Adwa – St George assists the Ethiopian forces (credit: Wikipedia)

Commemorating the 119th anniversary of the decisive victory of Ethiopian forces against the invading Italians on 1 March 1896. Many students of Amharic are inspired by Ethiopia’s decisive victory against colonialism.

“In March 1896 a well-disciplined and massive Ethiopian army did the unthinkable—it routed an invading Italian force and brought Italy’s war of conquest in Africa to an end. In an age of relentless European expansion, Ethiopia had successfully defended its independence and cast doubt upon an unshakable certainty of the age—that sooner or later all Africans would fall under the rule of Europeans. This event opened a breach that would lead, in the aftermath of world war fifty years later, to the continent’s painful struggle for freedom from colonial rule.” Professor Raymond Jonas.

At the Battle of Adwa, Emperor Menelik II led the Ethiopian army. It led to Italy’s formal recognition of Ethiopia’s independence.

This article in New African highlights the role of Empress Taytu Betul and warns today’s African leaders to be careful in the contracts they negotiate with foreigners (the Italian version of a contract signed was different from the Amharic version, giving the Italians pretext to attack Ethiopia). It also urges Africans to stand together and put their continent first.

Empress Taytu and Emperor Menelik
Empress Taytu and Emperor Menelik

Lessons of Adwa?
“The first is Menelik’s ability to win the loyalty of all the bickering factions in Ethiopia, who in the face of a common enemy, put aside their differences and contributed 100,000 troops. Unity was crucial in the face of a superior force on paper. The Chiefs (Ras) put aside personal animosities and fiefdoms to march in unison to Adwa. Amongst them were Ras Makonnen, Ras Tekle Haymonot, Ras Mengesha Yohannes, Ras Sibhat of Tigray, Ras Mikael of Wollo, Ras Wole of Yejju Oromo, and Ras Gebeyehu, who died fighting at Adwa.

“Secondly, Menelik enjoyed the unqualified support of his wife, the Empress Taytu Betul, who personally went to the battlefield in full combat gear as a cavalry commander. She turned out to be a formidable leader, and outperformed some of the male commanders. In a declaration to the Italian envoy Antonelli, prior to marching to war, she drew a line in the sand: “We have also made it known to the powers that the said article, as it is written in our language, has another meaning. Like you, we also ought to respect our dignity. You wish Ethiopia to be represented before the other powers as your protectorate, but this shall never be.”

Perhaps the most useful lesson of all is the wisdom of executing such an important treaty or contract in their native language.”

Taytu was very perceptive and strong willed. She founded Ethiopia’s capital in the late 1800s, selecting the site after coming down from the colder military site on Entoto above the city that was the previous capital, and named it Addis Ababa (‘new flower’). She spotted the Italian treaty deception and helped with battle strategy. Later she ran Ethiopia for three years after Menelik was incapacitated with a stroke.

Talk 3 March – the Massacre of Addis Ababa, February 1937

Organized by the Anglo-Ethiopian Society
At Brunei Gallery, SOAS, Russell Square, London WC1H 0XG time is 7:00pm.
Free but space is limited so do your bookings here:

Yekatit 12 is a date in the Ethiopian calendar (equivalent to 19 February) and commemorates the indiscriminate massacre and imprisonment of Ethiopians by Italian forces. Italian Viceroy Rodolfo Graziani had led the Italian forces to victory over their Ethiopian opponents in the Second Italo-Abyssinian War and was supreme governor of Italian East Africa. He had organized an event to distribute alms to the poor on 19 February 1937 at Genete Leul Palace (now Addis Ababa University).
Two members of the crowd, Abraha Deboch and Mogus Asgedom, brought in grenades, slipped through the crowd to the steps, and threw up to 10 grenades before escaping. According to historian Richard Pankhurst, Abraha has very bitter about racist practices although he worked at the Fascist Political Bureau and was seen as a collaborator.
The grenades wounded the Viceroy, top Italian generals and Abuna Querellos but prompt hospital treatment saved the Viceroy who later claimed 250 pieces of steel had pierced him, although the overhanging balcony shielded much of the blast.
Wikipedia quotes historian Anthony Mockler on the immediate Italian response: “Italian carabinieri had fired into the crowds of beggars and poor assembled for the distribution of alms; and it is said that the Federal Secretary, Guido Cortese, even fired his revolver into the group of Ethiopian dignitaries standing around him.” A few hours later Cortese ordered: “Comrades, today is the day when we should show our devotion to our Viceroy by reacting and destroying the Ethiopians for three days. For three days I give you carte blanche to destroy and kill and do what you want to the Ethiopians.”

Italian massacres, source Yekatit 12 website
Italian massacres, source Yekatit 12 website

In three days (19-21 February), the Italians had killed 30,000 Ethiopians in Addis Ababa only, using daggers and truncheons to shouts of “Duce! Duce!” and “Civiltà Italiana, burning down houses with gasoline and lynching servants of local Greeks and Armenians.
Reprisals and imprisonments continued for weeks. Investigators found that Abraha and Mogus had stayed a while at Debra Libanos and slight circumstantial evidence suggested that the monks had foreknowledge of their plans. Graziani, who was already very suspicious of the Coptic Orthodox clergy, on 19 May cabled the local commander: “Therefore execute summarily all monks without distinction including the Vice-Prior.” The following day, a feast day of their patron saint Tekle Haymanot, 297 monks plus 23 laymen were shot, the entire population of the monastery.

Debre Libanos by Rasta Photographer
Debre Libanos by Rasta Photographer

The massacres greatly increased the scale of the resistance by Ethiopian patriots.

Picture of Ethiopian patriot troops from the memoirs of an Allied bomber pilot shot down by Italians near Gondar and sheltered and fed by patriot troops under Imperial Officers while walking 150 miles to Debre Tabor.
Abyssinian patriot troops

Ian Campbell is a development consultant specializing in East Africa who arrived in Addis Ababa in 1988 and has been studying Ethiopia’s cultural history since then. Author of “The Plot to Kill Graziani” (Addis Ababa University Press, 2010) and “The Massacre of Debre Libanos” (Addis Ababa University Press, forthcoming), he will present the findings from research he conducted over a 20-year period into the massacre of Addis Ababa – a hitherto undocumented event and the greatest single atrocity of the Italian occupation.
Ian will present the circumstances surrounding the massacre, maps showing the extent and location of the attacks on residents, rare photographs of what happened, previously unpublished documents showing that the massacre was authorised by the Italian authorities, and his analysis and estimates of the number of victims.

Anthony Mockler (2004). Haile Selassie’s War, published by Signal Books, available here.
Richard Pankhurst: Who was the Third Man? Article in Addis Ababa Tribune, published 27 February 2004.

St Yared, father of church music and lessons for students of Amharic

Thanks to our tutor for sharing this interesting article

St. Yared was a poet, composer and choreographer who lived in Aksum in the 6th century AD. He is attributed for inventing the zema or the chant tradition of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church and also for creating a system of musical notation long before other parts of the world.
His music has been used for almost 1,500 years and traces can be found in some other religious music thanks to the travels of missionaries around the ancient world. It also informs much of modern music – apparently Ethiopian popular singer, Theodros Kassahun (Teddy Afro, here is his facebook page) traces the geneaology of his music back to the saint in his (Ethiopian) millennium song Musika Heiwete (Music is My Life).
People who learn Amharic in London are often interested to learn more about Ethiopian language and culture and St Yared is a seminal force in world music.

A poor student inspired by an ant
St Yared was born on 5 April 501 AD in Aksum and at the age of 6 a priest was assigned to teach him but he was a poor student and was sent back to his parents. His father passed away and St Yared was adopted by his uncle, Aba Gedeon, who was a well-known priest-scholar. However, he still lagged far behind the other students, got mocked and even lashed. He got discouraged with school and on his way to live with another uncle was caught by a rainstorm under a tree. “While he was standing by leaning to the tree, he was immersed in thoughts about his poor performance in his education and his inability to compete with his peers. Suddenly, he noticed an ant, which tried to climb the tree with a load of a seed. The ant carrying a piece of food item made six attempts to climb the tree without success. However, at the seventh trial, the ant was able to successfully climb the tree and unloaded the food item at its destination. Yared watched the whole incident very closely and attentively; he was touched by the determined acts of the ant. He then thought about the accomplishment of this little creature and then pondered why he lacked patience to succeed in his own schooling.”
He headed back to school and his uncle forgave him and started teaching him the Book of David and after much effort and prayer he started to make progress and his friends saw the change. He started to overtake other students as he learned the Old and New Testaments and became fluent in Ge’ez, Hebrew and Greek, becoming a Deacon and taking over his uncle’s role after he died when Yared was only 14 years old.

Three little birds
According to Ethiopian legend, St.Yared obtained the three main Zema scores from three birds. He called them Ge’ez, Izil, and Araray. When he was waiting in ambush to kill someone he saw the birds and started to learn the singing, forgetting his mission. He began to wonder how he could become a singer like the birds and kept the melodies of the birds, fresh in his memory, while he practiced hard.
Yared transformed himself to a great singer and composer as well as choreographer, composing the zema from 548 to 568 AD.
Apparently Yared also went up to heaven, where 24 scholars conduct the heavenly choruses and he listened and committed the music to memory. He came back to Aksum and at 9am, stood beside the Tabot (The Arc of the Covenant) in Aksum Zion Church and raised his hands to heaven, singing in praise of the natural world, the heavens and Zion, and in high notes, which later labeled Mahlete Aryam (the highest), referring to the seventh gates of heaven, where God resides. Yared, guided by the Holy Spirit, saw angels using drums, horns, sistra, Masinko and harp and tau-cross staff instruments to accompany their songs of praise to God, so he decided to adopt these instruments to all the church music and chants.

Figure 1: An artist rendering of St Yared while chanting Zema accompanied by sistrum, tau-cross staff. The three main zema chants of Ge’ez, Izil, and Araray which are represented by three birds. Digua, a book of chant, atronse (book holder), a drum, and a processional cross are also seen here. Source: Methafe Diggua Zeqidus Yared. Addis Ababa: Tensae Printing Press, 1996)
Figure 1: An artist rendering of St Yared while chanting Zema accompanied by sistrum, tau-cross staff. The three main zema chants of Ge’ez, Izil, and Araray which are represented by three birds. Digua, a book of chant, atronse (book holder), a drum, and a processional cross are also seen here. Source: Methafe Diggua Zeqidus Yared. Addis Ababa: Tensae Printing Press, 1996)

The chants are usually chanted in conjunction with aquaquam or sacred dance.
St Yared composed chants for all natural and spiritual occasions, laying down the foundation for common purpose and plurality among various ethnic, linguistic and regional groupings of the Ethiopian people.

Emperor Gebre Mesqel, Aksum at its peak
The Ethiopian emperor of the time was Emperor Gebre Mesqel (515-529), the son of the famous Emperor Kaleb, who in successfully, though briefly, reunited western and eastern Ethiopia on both sides of the Red Sea in 525 AD. He ruled at the peak of Aksumite civilization, presiding over large international trade from within and outside Africa, and consciously promoted good governance and church scholarship
Emperor Gabra Masqal was a great supporter of the arts and gave unconditional and unlimited backing to St. Yared, often going to church to listen to his spending chants. was given unconditional and unlimited backing from him. The Emperor would go to church to listen to the splendid chants of St. Yared. He reportedly built the monastery of Debre Damo, where one of the nine saints from Syria, Abuna Aregawi, settled. St Yared visited and performed his Zema at the monastery.

Setting a musical heritage that is still strong today
St Yared’s compositions follow the three musical scales (kegnitoch), which he used to praise his Creator and are reported to contain all the possible musical scales:
Ge’ez, first and straight note. It is described in its musical style as hard and imposing. Scholars often refer to it as dry and devoid of sweet melody.
Izel, melodic, gentle and sweet note, which is often chanted after Ge’ez. It is also described as affective tone suggesting intimation and tenderness.
Ararai, third and melodious and melancholic note often chanted on somber moments, such as fasting and funeral mass.
According to tradition, the scales are symbolized as the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.
St Yared wrote the notes of the Digua on parchment and he also composed ten musical notations which were fully developed as musical written charts in the 17th century AD. This took place much earlier than the composition of the musical note using seven alphabetic letters within the Western tradition. St Yared named the ten musical notations as follows: Yizet, Deret, Rikrik, Difat, Cheret, Qenat, Hidet, Qurt, Dirs, and, Anbir. The ten notations have their own styles of arrangement and they are collectively called Sirey, which means lead notations or roots to chants. The notations are depicted with lines or chiretoch (marks).
The ten Zemawi notations are designed to correspond with the ten commandments of Genesis and the ten strings of harp. The notes, however, were not restricted to them. In addition, they have developed notations known as aganin, seyaf, akfa, difa, gifa, fiz, ayayez, chenger, mewgat, goshmet, zentil, aqematil, anqetqit, netiq, techan, and nesey.
The ten chants are assigned names that fully described the range, scale and depth of Zema. Difat is a method of chanting where the voice is suppressed down in the throat and inhaling air. Hidet is a chant by stretching one’s voice; it is resembled to a major highway or a continuous water flow in a creek. Qinat is the highlighted last letter of a chant; it is chanted loud and upward in a dramatic manner and ends abruptly. Yizet is when letters or words are emphasized with louder chant in another wise regular reading form of chant. Qurt is a break from an extended chant that is achieved by withholding breathing. Chiret also highlights with louder notes letters or words in between regular readings of the text. The highlighted chant is conducted for a longer period of time. Rikrik is a layered and multiple chants conducted to prolong the chant. Diret is a form of chant that comes out of the chest. These eight chant forms have non-alphabetic signs. The remaining two are dirs and anber which are represented by Ethiopic or Ge’ez letters.

Figure 3. The front cover of Metshafe Digua Zeqidus Yared (Book of Digua). The cover shows the five volumes of Yared’s Zema composition: Digua, Tsome Digua, Miraf, Zimare, and Mewasit. Processional Ethiopian cross, drum, sistrum, and tau-cross staff are also illustrated in the cover.
Figure 3. The front cover of Metshafe Digua Zeqidus Yared (Book of Digua). The cover shows the five volumes of Yared’s Zema composition: Digua, Tsome Digua, Miraf, Zimare, and Mewasit. Processional Ethiopian cross, drum, sistrum, and tau-cross staff are also illustrated in the cover.

Yared’s composition also includes four main modes of chant and performance. Qum Zema is exclusively vocal and the chant is not accompanied by body movement or swinging of the tau-cross staff. The chant is usually performed at the time of lent. Zimame chants are accompanied by body movements and choreographed swinging of the staff. Merged, which is further divided into Neus Merged and Abiy Merged are chanted accompanied by sistrum, drums, and shebsheba or sacred dance. The movements are fast, faster and fastest in merged, Neus Merged, and abiy merged respectively. Abiy Merged is further enhanced by rhythmic hand clappings. Tsifat chant highlights the drummers who move back and forth and around the Debteras. They also jump up and down, particularly with joyous occasions like Easter and Christmas.
The author writes: “St. Yared’s sacred music is truly classical, for it has been in use for over 1,000 years and it has also established a tradition that continues to inform the spiritual and material lives of the people.” The first school of music that was established in the mid 20th century in Addis Ababa is named after him.
For more, look at the original article, which you can find on, which has many articles of interest to students who want to learn Amharic in UK. It is written by Professor Ayele Bekerie who is author of Ethiopic: an African Writing System, a book about the history and principles of Ethiopic (Ge’ez) and is a Professor at Cornell University’s Africana Studies and Research Center. Here is the link to the Ethiopian Orthodox Church telling of the story, with more explanation about the melodies:
You can buy Prof Ayele’s book here

Peace in 2015 – Tolerance and respect mark origins of Christian-Muslim relations in Ethiopia

The first Muslims came to Ethiopia for the protection of the Christian king (Aksumite title “Negus”) of Axum at the beginning of the 7th century. They were fleeing Mecca and persecution by the Quraysh tribe. In 615 AD, the Prophet Mohammed told a group of 70 converts to find safe haven in northern Ethiopia, Abyssinia, where they would “find a king there who does not wrong anyone.” It was the first hijra (migration) in Islam history.

The king may be King Sahama, known from coinage, or it may have been King Armah or his father or son. He is known as Ashama ibn Abjar in Arabic tradition, according to Wikipedia. He settled the exiles in Negash in the Tigray region and the Quraysh sent an emissary, Amr ibn al-Aas who was friend of Sahama, to bring them back.

Considered response based on study
According to another Wikipedia account: “Sahama did not act in a hurry but showed patience and demanded the holy scripture of Muslims to be read. At this, Ja`far ibn Abi Talib recited some verses from the Quran from the chapter of Maryam (Mary). According to Ibn Hisham, al-Najashi and the Ethiopian Orthodox priests in his court were greatly affected by the touching verses that they began to shed tears. And so, Sahama firmly denied Amr’s request to be handed the Muslim refugees.”

The account continues: “The very next day, Amr tried to play a trick, in order to sow dissension between Sahama and the Muslim refugees. Amr was greatly distressed, and promised Ja`far and other Muslims that he’s going to cause a great schism between them and King Sahama. Amr arrived the next day at the court of Sahama, and demanded in his presence that the Muslims make known their creed about Jesus. This was a difficult situation because Jesus is not considered as the son of God in the Qur’an, which was expected to greatly enrage a devout Christian like Emperor Sahama. To this, he explained that Jesus is considered in Islam to be a messenger of God, the word of God, and the miraculously born son of the Virgin Mary.”

According to the article: “In reply to this statement, King Sahama made a line on the sand with his mace and said, “By God, Jesus is not more than what you have described him. By God, I will never give you up to anyone.” He then declared that Muslims could live in Axum for as long as they wished for. According to Muslim tradition, it is during this situation that King Sahama converted to Islam.” Other traditions do not support this and say he is buried at Wukro.

Mosque in Negash (credit
Mosque in Negash (credit

Muslims respect Christians
The Prophet instructed his followers who came to the Axumite empire, to respect and protect Axum as well as live in peace with the native Christians. Even after the exiles returned to settle the city of Medina, north of Mecca, many remained on in Negash, as shown by a 7th-century cemetery excavated inside the boundaries of Negash.

According to the paper mentioned earlier and other accounts, the Prophet had instructed his followers: “Leave the Ethiopians alone as long as they leave you alone”. The earliest Ethiopian model for Muslims was the acceptance of a non-Islamic regime and living in peace under the Christian government, a model still respected by Muslims. They were also able to flourish. Harar in Eastern Ethiopia has 82 mosques, 3 of which date from the 10th century, as well as 102 shrines. It is a key centre of Islamic culture, learning and propagation and classed by UNESCO as the fourth holiest Muslim site. Trade routes were able to pass through the different religious areas.

The term “People of the Book” features in several religions, according to a Wikipedia article, but in the Qur’an “Ahl al-Kitāb” refers to followers of monotheistic Abrahamic religions that are older than Islam including Christians, all Children of Israel (including Jews, Karaites and Samaritans), Sabians and in some places Zoroastrians. They share many similar views

Does this tolerance exist today?
Ethiopia started in the Jewish tradition and converted to Christianity in the 4th century AD. The three religions grew side by side and existed in a tolerant atmosphere, according to one paper. Successive Ethiopian governments have continued tolerance and accommodation since those days. However, I have heard Ethiopians say that pressures from foreign fundamentalists on both sides are seeking to push the religions apart.

According to a facebook discussion by Abebe H Woin “Ahl al-Kitāb” refers to those who are possessors of divine books (i.e., the Torah, the Gospel, and the Avesta), as distinguished from those whose religions are not based on divine revelations. He argues: “We Ethiopians, Christians and Moslems need to understand and respect each other. Respect comes from knowledge. Ignorance leads to hatred, misunderstandings and worse. Tolerance is the result of knowing and not guessing.

“The Prophet Muhammad gave many privileges to Ahl al-Kitāb that are not to be extended to heathens. Ahl al-Kitāb are granted freedom of worship; thus, during the early Muslim conquests, Jews and Christians were not forced to convert to Islam and had only to pay a special tax (jizya) for their exemption from military service.

“Muslim authorities are responsible for the protection and well-being of Ahl al-Kitāb, for, according to a saying of the Prophet, “He who wrongs a Jew or a Christian will have myself [the Prophet] as his indicter on the Day of Judgment.” After Muhammad’s death, his successors sent strict instructions to their generals and provincial governors not to interfere with Ahl al-Kitāb in their worship and to treat them with full respect.”

Abebe asks: “Do you think this was respected in our history as well as exemption of Abyssinia from jihad by the prophet Mohammed? Are these concepts taught to Ethiopian Muslims in the Mosques and madrasahs?”