The Anglo-Ethiopian Society

The Stories Gravestones Tell - The Ferenji Cemetery at Gulele, Addis Ababa

Author - Rudolf Agstner


In 1891 Addis Ababa became the capital of Ethiopia. The new capital of the expanding empire soon attracted numerous foreigners – Armenians, Indians, Greeks, Italians, Russians, French, British, Swedes, Germans, Austrians and Hungarians. When the first foreigners died, the question of a separate burial ground for them arose. In 1912 a ‘European’ cemetery in Gulele far away from Addis Ababa was founded on land donated by Emperor Menelik II. A separate Jewish cemetery was established around 1948 in today’s Burkina Faso Street. The Indian community had its cemetery opposite the Jewish cemetery.

The present article deals with preliminary research into the history of the various cemeteries in Gulele. It is a reminder of the foreign presence in Addis Ababa and should be followed up by a history of the foreign communities in Ethiopia. So far, the only description of foreign communities is contained in Adrien Zervos’ book L’Empire d’Éthiopie, published in 1935. Zervos lists 14,580 foreigners in Ethiopia, 6000 of them in Addis Ababa, among them 103 Americans, 230 Germans, 75 British (and Dominions), 2800 Armenians, 4000 Arabs, 50 Austrians, 350 French, 3140 Greeks, 350 Italians, 125 Jews (under German!! and other protection), 55 Swedes and 3000 Indians. By 1938, the situation had changed dramatically – reflected by the tombstones: there were 17,301 Italians and 2443 other foreigners in Addis Ababa, including 830 Armenians, 800 Greeks, 245 British, 83 Germans (including Austrians), 55 Turks, 46 Americans and 31 French.

Part of the ferenji Cemetery at Gulele, Addis Ababa.
Photo - © Rudolf Agstner

The foreigners’ cemetery, usually referred to by Ethiopians as ‘Petros we Paulos’, is located on Arbaynoch (Patriots) Street on the road to Ambo. Its main gate is marked by a small marble plaque with a barely legible inscription ‘Ethiopian Catholic Cemetery’ in Amharic and Ge’ez – which is misleading, as there are six different cemeteries behind the gate, of which only two are named after the two apostles ‘Peter and Paul’. The main entrance to this cemetery is at N09°03.340' E038°42.975'. The entrance to the Greek Orthodox cemetery of St. George is 150m further on the road to Ambo, and the old (closed) entrance leading to the ‘international cemetery’ another 50m uphill. The cemetery covers an area of roughly 8 hectares, stretched on the slope of a hill from an altitude of 2496 to 2530m at its highest point in the new Armenian cemetery, probably making it the highest Roman Catholic-Protestant-Armenian-Ethiopian Catholic cemeteries in the world. When entering the cemetery, one sees the Chiesa ‘Santi Pietro e Paolo’, a gift of Pietro Tringali, situated at 2512m.

The cemetery consists of seven independently owned and administered parts, some of them walled like the Greek Orthodox and the new Armenian cemeteries. Five are civilian and two are military. Today it faces several challenges, which prevent its further expansion. It is on one side surrounded by the road to Ambo, on the other side by encroaching settlements; to its North the new ring road around Addis Ababa is nearly completed. More and more tombs of Italians buried during the 1940s and 1950s are being removed (in April 2007 alone, 60 tombs from the period 1941-1955 were removed) to make way for tombs of Ethiopian Catholics.


Italian Civilian Cemetery.
Photo - © Rudolf Agstner

International Cemetery

The International Cemetery goes back to 1912 and is the most romantic and the most dilapidated part of the cemetery. Here we find tombs of Germans, Czechs, Armenians, Russians, French, Americans, Austrians – i.e. the SS-Hauptscharführer (Master Sergeant) Dr. Karl Babor, who had served as physician of KZ Groß-Rosen in Silesia from 1941 to 1945 and as director of a hospital in Addis Ababa from 1952 to 1964. He is buried next to the pyramid tomb of the first Imperial Russian minister to Ethiopia, K.N. Lighine (1854- 1906). The gravestones of the Hall family, including the one of Katharina Hall, great-grandmother of Sir Peter Ustinov (‘Wälätta-Iyäsus’, 1850-1932), at N09°03.335' E038° 42.863', are a rather depressing sight. Several tombs of Russians offer a welcome exception, as they have been cleaned and their inscriptions renewed by students of the Russian school. Another prominent person buried here is Carl Gustav von Rosen (1909- 1977), at N09°03.359' E038°42.887'. Rosen was a Swedish pioneer aviator – his sister Karin was married to German Air Marshal Hermann Göring; in 1935-1936 he joined a relief mission in Ethiopia, flying food and supplies for the Red Cross and after 1945 was instructor for the Imperial Ethiopian Air Force. During the Biafra war, he founded the Biafran Air Force, and in 1977, during the Ogaden war between Ethiopia and Somalia, Rosen was again flying relief for refugees. He was killed during a Somali attack near Gode. The gravestone of Wilfred Courtenay Barber (d.1935), correspondent of The Chicago Tribune, reporting on the beginning war between Italy and Ethiopia, reminds us of the dangers of journalism.


Old Armenian Cemetery

The oldest part of the international cemetery is the old Armenian cemetery, donated in 1912 by Hagop Bagdasarian, goldsmith and director of the Imperial Mint established by Emperor Menelik II, to the Armenian community. Until then, the Armenian community – it was the only one allowed to do so – buried its dead in the cemetery of St. George Church on Menelik II Square. Many tombs bear the year of death 1917 or 1918, indicating that many Armenians were victims of the influenza epidemic.


New Armenian Cemetery

The Armenian community is the owner of this walled-in cemetery; the area was bought by the Armenian community in 1961-62 from the son of Bagdasarian when it became clear that no more burials were possible in the old Armenian cemetery. There are 282 burials in the old Armenian cemetery and 267 in the new cemetery giving a total of 549 (not identical with number of graves, which is less).


Greek Orthodox Cemetery ‘St. George’

The Greek Orthodox cemetery with roughly 550 graves is situated in the lowest part of the cemetery area and is walled in. The land is said to have been donated to the Greek community by Emperor Menelik II in 1912. The chapel of St. George, which gave the name to the cemetery, was built by Dr. Zervos, the private doctor of Emperor Haile Selassie. Reverend Chrisostomos Barberis of St. Frumentius Cathedral keeps the two death registers of the church; No. I covers 1912 to 1941, listing 253 persons, whereas No. 2 begins in 1942, registering 640 persons. As of 1928, the death register shows the causes of death including sickness, flu, tuberculosis, pneumonia, suicide, drowning in the Akaki River, or criminal acts like murder by follow countrymen or Ethiopians.


Roman Catholic ‘San Pietro e Paolo’ and Ethiopian Catholic Cemetery

This cemetery is believed to have been established around 1930 – but probably as early as 1920 – on an area of 3500m2, which after the Italian occupation of Ethiopia was expanded to 48,000m2. In 1960 Emperor Haile Selassie donated additional land to the Catholic Cemetery. The area is divided into a Roman Catholic cemetery, administered by the ‘Comitato Cimitiero Italiano’, and the Ethiopian Catholic Cemetery. The European Catholic Cemetery is well kept and it is here that tombs can be most easily located. The Ethiopian Catholic Cemetery is rapidly expanding at the expense of the older parts of the Roman Catholic cemetery. Inscriptions are in Amharic and thus difficult for many ferenjis to read.


Cimitero Militare Italiano – Italian Military Cemetery

This cemetery, administered by the Italian Defence Ministry, consists of 811 tombs of known persons and 1662 of unknown. There are a total of 8 mass burials of unidentified soldiers killed in a total of 48 locations. A look at the dates of death on the graves reveals that the majority were Italian soldiers, ‘blackshirts’ and others who died between 9 May 1936, when Mussolini in Rome had proclaimed the ‘Impero’, and 10 June 1940, when Italy entered World War II. The cemetery is dominated by a cross. Generals Oreste Mariotti (1874-1937) and Giuseppe Malta (1883-1937) are buried in impressive sarcophagus-type tombs.


Addis Ababa Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery

A marble plaque at the entrance recalls that by command of His Imperial Majesty the Emperor of Ethiopia the land on which this cemetery stands has been given for the perpetual resting place of the soldiers and airmen who are buried here. The uniform tombstones are mostly marked with a cross, three marked with a Magen David, and some with an inscription from the Holy Quran. There are 335 known graves in the Addis Ababa cemetery of which 295 are from the Second World War when British and Commonwealth troops defeated the Italians who had invaded Ethiopia in 1936. There are 273 graves of soldiers and 24 of airmen. There are, in the NE corner, 60 tombs of civilians, including Brigadier Sandford’s who died in 1972, and of his wife, who founded the Sandford International School. Brigadier Sandford was a key figure paving the way for the Emperor’s return to Addis Ababa on 5th May 1941 after his five years exile in the UK. Furthermore, five victims of the ‘air disaster’ of 18th April 1972, when an East African Airways VC-10 crashed at Bole airport killing 40 passengers, found their final resting place at Gulele, as did New Zealander Dr. Reginald Hamlin, the founder of the Fistula Hospital Addis Ababa.

Rudolf Agstner is the Austrian Ambassador in Ethiopia. His research is ongoing and is a contribution to the social history of Addis Ababa.

First Published in News File Winter 2008

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