Burial of an African dream

David Orr witnesses the funeral of Crown Prince Amha Selassie

Addis Ababa - "Stay with me, stay with me," beseeched Princess Mederash-Worq Abebeas she threw herself on the coffin of her late husband, Crown Prince Amha Selassie. In the gloom, the Holy Trinity Cathedral was filled with chanting and incense as the remains of Emperor Haile Selassie's eldest son were lowered into the crypt to rest alongside the bodies of three of his brothers and sisters.

The service marked an emotional end to a troubled life which had latterly been lived in quiet obscurity near Washington in the United States. Crown Prince Amha Selassie, pretender to the imperial throne of Ethiopia, died in exile last month aged 80. He had not set foot in his native land since a stroke forced him to seek medical treatment in England 23 years ago.

The year after his departure, his emperor father was overthrown by the brutal Marxist Dergue regime which ruled until 1991. Since then, Ethiopia has been a democratic republic and obeisance to the old monarchy has been discouraged.

"This is a sad day," said one mourner. "Thank God Amha Selassie didn't live under the Dergue, a band of robber thieves. The monarchy is part of our history. Please God it will one day return."

No foreign dignitaries were present at the funeral, which took place in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, yesterday. Nor had there been any announcement in the media about the ceremony. So it was a measure of the esteem in which the country's monarchy is held that so many turned up to pay their last respects to the man who, though uncrowned, was widely regarded as Emperor of Ethiopia.

Between 10,000 and 15,000 mourners thronged the cathedral. Among them were members of the royal family, many of whom had returned from exile in the US and Britain for the private funeral. In a front pew was the new claimant to the throne, Prince Zera Yacob, who lives in a Rastafarian community in Manchester. Gazing at the vaulted ceiling above the altar, Prince Yacob might have wondered at the downfall of a dynasty which traces its roots back to the Old Testament. The panels depict scenes from the life of his grandfather, the Conquering Lion of Judah, Elect of God, Haile Selassie, Emperor of Ethiopia.

Emperor Haile Selassie was put in prison by the Dergue regime and there he died in 1975. Partially paralysed, the Crown Prince and heir to the throne settled in London. By the time the underground Crown Council proclaimed him Emperor in 1989, the monarchy had been abolished and Amha Selassie had no dominion. He later moved to the United States which, with its large Ethiopian community, he found more conducive than Britain. "I hoped he would come back alive", said one man. "I would like to see Ethiopia continue as a constitutional monarchy like Britain. But I don't suppose I'll see the day when the monarchy is reinstated".

It was, said one of the few young people, a bit like a fairy tale: a reminder of a more glorious past.

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