Addis Aaba, Ethiopia Bells tolled and thousands of Ethiopians wailed and applauded Sunday as Haile Selassie, their last emperor, was finally laid to rest 25 years after his mysterious death.
As leaders of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church stood by, resplendent in their colorful robes, elderly veterans of Ethiopia's 1936-41 struggle against Italian occupation carried the coffin draped in the nation's red, green and gold flag up the steps of Trinity Cathedral. The emperor's family, friends and associates embraced at their first public gathering since 1974, when he was overthrown by Marxist military officers.
A crypt had been waiting at the cathedral since Haile Selassie's remains were discovered under a concrete slab on the grounds of his former palace in 1992 17 years after he died under house arrest.
Officially, his death at age 83 was due to complications from a prostate condition. The Haile Selassie I Foundation, which had worked for eight years to give the emperor a suitable burial, claims he was assassinated. During a trial that seeks to bring members of the 1974-91 regime of Col. Mengistu Haile Mariam to justice for the killings of dissidents and monarchy loyalists, two of the emperor's personal servants testified that he was killed on a night they were ordered out of his room.
Haile Selassie, who assumed the throne in 1930, was the last in a line of emperors who forged the modern Ethiopian state out of an ancient land of feuding chieftains. To his supporters, his rule was a time of peace and stability during which modern education was introduced in the oldest independent state in Africa. Critics say he was too slow in reforming a feudal society.
Since the 1974 revolution that ousted him dissolved into terror, Ethiopians have suffered a series of wrenching events. A cataclysmic 1984-85 famine devastated the nation and the 1991 ouster of Mengistu by another group of rebels sent the nation of 62 million reeling once again.
Haile Selassie's supporters had a small memorial service in August marking the 25th anniversary of his death. Sunday was the 70th anniversary of his coronation.
The late emperor was not only important to Ethiopians. Hundreds of thousands of Jamaicans embraced him as their living god and head of the Rastafarian religious movement. Dozens, wearing red, gold and green caps covering their dreadlocks, attended the funeral.