It was hard, though, not to see this as the last gasp of the old dynasty. The Emperor’s features did not seem to be reflected in their faces. (Court gossip at the time ascribed this to a complex pattern of extra-marital affairs and dubious paternity.) Most of the younger members of the royal family have lived outside Ethiopia all their lives. An inordinate number work in public relations, a skill they may have inherited from their grandfather. They have come to resemble the disinherited royal families of Europe, with little to distinguish them from the rest of the free-floating global haute bourgeosie apart from their orotund ranks and titles.
The patriarch spoke. He discussed the role of the Emperor in the church, in the history of the country, and the cruel manner of his death. There were murmurs of approbation. Abuna Paulos is from Tigray and had been assumed to be a supporter of the government; so his unambiguous praise for the Emperor, contrasting with government statements, came as a pleasant surprise to the royals and their supporters.
Soon the priests began to dance, a feature of the Ethiopian ritual that reenacts the dance of King David before the ark of the covenant, a reminder of the Solomonic pedigree of the Emperors of Ethiopia. As the ritual unfolded, the photographers clambered higher up the statues of the evangelists; the journalists consulted their translators assiduously. Finally, the giant coffin was carried inside the cathedral, up the aisle to a screened area where the sculpted tomb was open to receive it. Princess Tenagne-Worq took the flag that covered it and the pall-bearers prepared to lower it into the tomb.
But there was a last-minute hitch. The coffin would not fit. It was too big. Stone-masons had to be called to chip away the inside to make space for it. It was some hours before the interment finally took place. Even in death, it seemed, the Emperor, diminutive though he was, turned out to be a greater figure than the tomb could hold.
For one group of mourners none of this mattered. This was because they did not believe the Emperor was in his coffin at all. For his rastafarian followers Haile Selassie is, in some sense, still living. This, however, did not stop a number of them attending the funeral. Most prominent among these attendees was Rita Marley, Bob Marley’s widow. She cut an impressive figure, a grande veuve clad in an extravagantly gold-embroidered Ethiopian dress, her locks piled high on her head, entwined in a mauve velvet ribbon. Shortly before the service began I saw her behind the cathedral clutching a wreath taken from the hearse. I asked her whether she thought the Emperor was actually dead. She began to sing, sotto voce. “Like Bob say,” she murmured, “It not an end, it a new beginning.”
Later, inside the Cathedral, I saw Rita Marley again. She had removed her shoes in the appointed manner before stepping over the threshold. Then, when the service was over, she approached the Patriarch to be blessed. Though her attire was hardly self-effacing, it was eclipsed by his: his gold floor-length robe, his white satin slippers, his many rings, his head-dress decorated with enamel vignettes of saints, surmounted by a jewelled crucifix. As Mrs Marley approached the Patriarch she stooped and kissed his signet ring, a revealing gesture of obeisance towards the Ethiopian church from one of its wayward new world offspring.
After the ceremony I talked to a leading British-born Rastafarian, Ambrose King, who lives in Addis Ababa. Mr King works as a building engineer and acts as international liaison officer of the Ethiopian World Federation, which was founded in New York in the 1930s with the aim of promoting the repatriation of Africans in the diaspora to Ethiopia. It was one of the organizations that sponsored settlement in Shashemane, in the Rastafarian community in the Rift Valley, south of Addis Ababa, which was established in the 1960s by the Emperor’s fiat. Much of Mr King’s present work involved raising funds for its development. He had not been in attendance at the funeral. He was skeptical, he said, about the identity of the body we had seen buried the week before.
“This is the third time they try to bury these bones, you know,” he told me over breakfast.
“The first time, in 1992, them say they was a thousand Rasta coming to the funeral, but Rasta stay away from it, then and now.”
“If they is a body lost for seventeen years and you find this body ‘tis a natural thing to do tests and t’ings. But they don’t. No one saw him die. No one saw him buried. And no one do any DNA test.”
“So,” Mr King concluded as we tucked into our breakfast, “we do not believe it is him.”
In the Menilek Palace
One day in Addis Ababa I walked back towards the Menilek Palace, where the Emperor spent his last days. Though he was now, pace Ambrose King, in his final resting place, in legal terms his death still remained an unsolved crime. For seven years, off and on, in a courtroom on the other side of Addis Ababa, the members of the Derg, who have been imprisoned since their fall from power in 1991, have been on trial. They are charged with a range of offences that include, among many others, the killing of the Emperor. In the courtroom, from time time, fragments of evidence are presented that add to the picture of his last days. From recent testimonies in the trial, now in its eighth year, it is finally possible to construct a more detailed account of the event.
The Menilek Palace, named after Haile Selassie’s predecessor, founder of the city of Addis Ababa, is a rambling collection of Ottoman-style wooden and Italianate stone buildings on a hill in the heart of the city. The word “palace” is misleading: the random distribution of the buildings reveals its origin as a military encampment, a role it reverted to under the Derg, where it served as a prison and torture centre.
Despite its commanding position above the city it is a gloomy place, overshadowed by pines and cypresses and the ubiquitous blue-gum trees of Addis (eucalypts that were introduced during Menilek’s reign in order to provide a perennial source of firewood, an innovation that enabled Menilek to make the city his permanent capital). On the summit of the hill is a colonnaded building known, owing to its unusual shape, as the Egg House. From here Menilek used to survey the city with a telescope. This is where Haile Selassie spent much of his working life, and where he spent his last days.
The Palace is still one of the centres of power in Ethiopia, normally inaccessible to those not on high government business. In 1995 I was able to visit it in the company of one of Haile Selassie’s former court officials, a man who had been imprisoned there for six years under the Derg. He showed me the site on the north side where the Emperor had been buried and the Ottoman-style pavilion where he had passed his final days. And he showed me the meeting room of the Derg (a word which means “Committee”), the room where the Emperor’s fate had, allegedly, been decided.
So who did kill Haile Selassie? What exactly happened on the night of August 25, 1975? Even twenty-five years afterwards, in international press reports on the funeral, the most popular adjective was still the journalistic stand-by, “mysterious”. Although it is widely accepted that the Emperor was murdered, the event has been surrounded for years by rumour and invention. The official announcement of the death of the ex-emperor (the term used by the Derg) appeared in a single paragraph in the government newspaper at the end of August 1975. It ascribed his death to “circulatory failure”. In Addis Ababa, a city where no one believes government announcements, and where rumour travels faster than light, it was assumed immediately that he had been done away with.
In the years that followed the stories multiplied. It was said that the killers and the witnesses had all themselves been killed. And that those who killed them had been killed in their turn. Or, alternatively, that the man who murdered the Emperor—by strangling and kicking him—was still alive and living clandestinely in Kenya. It was said—without evidence—by some that Haile Selassie had been killed by Mengistu Haile Mariam himself, with his bare hands, after others had wavered.
Who killed the Emperor?
The first of these stories, it now seems, was false. For a start, there was clearly someone who knew where the body was buried. When officials of the new regime took over the Menilek Palace in 1991 they were told where they could find the Emperor’s remains, as they were told where to find the remains of other victims of the Derg. These exhumations formed part of the evidence at the Derg trial when it began in 1995.
I was in Addis Ababa at that time to cover the opening of the trial. During the first weeks of the proceedings I found myself sitting next to a lawyer named Teshome Gabre-Mariam. He had been Attorney-General in the imperial administration and was one of the witnesses to the exhumation of Haile Selassie’s body. In the account I wrote of the trial of the Derg I described Teshome’s reaction to the reading of the charges. It was the first time since the announcement of the Emperor’s death twenty years before that his name had been uttered in official discourse:
“His Imperial Majesty, Haile Selassie, King of Kings, The Lion of Judah Shall Conquer….” the judge began, using the Emperor’s full title and his official motto, “was murdered in a cruel and disgraceful manner, suffocated in his bedchamber.”
There was a momentary hush in the courtroom at that point. In the recess Teshome stared at the Derg members as they filed back into the courtroom. “Ah,” he said. “Murder the emperor! A man of eighty-three! What was the point? These people have no honour.”
Teshome, I learned then, had been a prisoner in the Menilek Palace when the Emperor was killed. He had narrowly escaped death himself. In 1974, he told me, he had been arrested with other government officials and incarcerated in the cellar beneath the Derg’s meeting room, near the iron-roofed pavilion where the Emperor was held incommunicado. On November 23, 1974, in the evening, guards came to the cellar at the Palace and called out the names of forty-seven of the ministers–rases, dejazmatches, fitwraris, the feudal dignitaries of the court–along with the highest-ranking admirals and generals and their bodyguards, a group that a US diplomat at the time described as “our guest list for the Fourth of July celebration”.
Teshome described to me how he and the other prisoners watched through the skylight of their cellar as their colleagues were driven away from the palace. Later they learned how the officials, with a dozen others who had been held elsewhere—fifty-nine in all—were taken to the central prison, the same prison where the Derg members are held today. They were lined up against a floodlit wall, the outer wall of an electrocution chamber that had recently been installed by order of the Emperor, intended for the execution of those convicted of capital crimes. There, soldiers raked the government officials with machine gun fire. They were buried the next day in a trench. Today their remains are in a locked mausoleum in the graveyard of the Holy Trinity Cathedral, a hundred yards from the Emperor’s tomb.
The nature of the imperial administration meant that the Emperor was related by marriage or birth to at least half of the fifty-nine victims. And their fate was a foretaste of his. Weeks later he, too, was arrested. He was driven from his office at the Jubilee Palace in an anonymous Volkswagen Beetle, so that he would not be recognised as he passed through the streets. He was accompanied, it was reported, only by his poodle, Lulu. Thus the King of Kings and his lapdog, rode, for the first and last time, in the people’s car.
Eight months later, on August 25, 1975, soldiers of the Derg came to the Emperor’s quarters in the Jubilee Palace and ordered his servants to leave. It was the last the servants saw of him. In court two decades afterwards, one of them, now an old man himself, described how the eighty-three year old monarch wept and prayed to God when he realized he was about to be killed. The court translator used an archaic form of words in his English version, corresponding perhaps, accidentally or otherwise, to the antique Amharic diction of the witness. According to him the servant heard his master say, “Is it not true, Ethiopians, that I have strived for you?” Then, he told the court, “The emperor sprinkled the floor with his tears. He knelt down and wept and started praying. He understood that it was the end of his days.”
A second palace servant, a man named Eshetu, said he was ordered by guards to leave the room adjoining the Emperor’s, where he normally slept. “The next morning,” he said, “I knocked on his bedroom door and opened it. There was an unusual odour and his face was black.” The emperor’s bedclothes, he added, were not his usual ones; and a bandage was around his neck.
Finally a third witness, a maintenance worker at the palace, described how security officials ordered him to dig a number of graves in the grounds that morning. He was told to dig four graves; this was so that it would not be known which of them contained the Emperor’s body. Others said that Mengistu came to the palace and inspected the corpse before it was interred.
No autopsy was performed. The Emperor’s physician, Asrat Woldeyes, was not called to the palace in time to observe the death. He told the court “The day his death was announced, I received a phone call from the Derg office asking me to go to the office of Colonel Mengistu Haile Mariam. I saw that Colonel Mengistu seemed angry… then we were informed that there would be no interview and we could leave.”
Professor Asrat, a leading figure in the opposition to the current government of Ethiopia (who himself died in May 1999, soon after he gave this account to the court), said he did not think the deposed emperor had died naturally. He testified: “Despite an operation on the prostate a few months before his death, his Majesty was in excellent health.”
According to those who spoke to him outside the court, Ato Eshetu, the Emperor’s servant, believed that the emperor had been asphyxiated, suffocated with an ether-soaked pillow. He was reported to have said, elaborating his statement to the court, that in death the Emperor’s face “looked like granite. There were blue spots on his skin.”
No one has been named as Haile Selassie’s murderer, and the prosecution has not produced any evidence to show that there was a formal decision taken to end his life. A Norwegian journalist, Einar Lunde, citing a former Derg member, Major Negash Tesfatsion, has stated that the Emperor’s fate was decided by a formal vote of the Derg. But this is denied by another of the defendants in the Derg trial, Fikre-Selassie Weg-Deres, the former Prime Minister, who was Mengistu’s second-in-command. When I interviewed Fikre-Selassie Weg-Deres in prison in 1995, soon after the start of his trial, he maintained that there was no evidence that the Emperor was killed at all.
“It was not the subject of a meeting,” he told me. “We don’t believe that he was killed. We believe he died a natural death. He was an old man. There was no danger from him.”
Fikre-Selassie’s statement, of course, serves his interests as a defendant. It may be noteworthy, however, because, while denying complicity in the Emperor’s death, he does acknowledge the Derg’s responsibility for other deaths at the time, including the decision to execute the fifty-nine ministers.
Only one man knows the whole truth: Mengistu Haile Mariam, leader of the Derg throughout its bloodstained history. And he is not likely to break his silence. After his fall from power Mengistu was given sanctuary by President Mugabe of Zimbabwe. He has lived ever since in a guarded villa in the suburb of Gun Hill in Harare, where he has survived at least one assassination attempt. The condition of his domicile in Zimbabwe is that he does not speak to the press, though he has broken this injunction on a number of occasions. On the day of the funeral, using a borrowed mobile phone in Meskal Square, I tried calling Mengistu to ask how he felt about the ceremony, but I got no answer from the house in Gun Hill.
The trial of the Derg continues today in Addis Ababa. It has been riven with delays and procedural irregularities. At one point the Special Prosecutor was himself arrested and jailed for contempt of court. It seems unlikely that the prosecution has any more significant evidence to present. When the Emperor’s body was exhumed the royal family reportedly refused to submit it to forensic examination. This may have been because of a superstition that if the body of the monarch were to be tampered with other members of the family would die; or it may have been due to fears that tests could expose irregularities in the tangled bloodline of the Solomonic dynasty, where there are many cases of disputed paternity.
Now that the Emperor has been buried it is fairly certain that there will never be an autopsy, nor a DNA test. In this sense Ambrose King and the Rastafarians are right: there is no certain proof that the body is the Emperor’s. Unless the perpetrator himself comes forward, or unless Mengistu Haile Mariam, in his refuge in Zimbabwe, has a sudden attack of conscience, it seems that this account of the Emperor’s death is all that posterity is likely to have. Not enough to convince a die-hard Rastafarian, but enough for most other people to conclude that Haile Selassie’s end certainly did not come by natural means.
Before leaving Ethiopia I visited the national museum in Addis Ababa to see another celebrated skeleton, that of the early hominin, Lucy. Lucy—or Denkinesh as she is known to Ethiopians—lived three million years ago in the Awash Valley in lowland Ethiopia. Her remains were discovered by a team of American and Ethiopian paleoanthropologists in 1974, shortly before the Emperor was killed and buried in Addis Ababa. Her skeleton is the most complete record of early hominin anatomy known.
A cast of Lucy’s bones lies in the basement of the museum, not far from the Cathedral where Haile Selassie lies entombed. The descent to the basement of the museum put me in mind of my earlier visit to the crypt of Bata Mariam church to see the Emperor’s coffin before its transition to its final resting place. In the basement of the museum Lucy’s bones are laid out in a glass case, a splay of carefully arranged and labelled ribs, vertebrae, and skull fragments. In this respect her fate is the antithesis of the Emperor’s. While his remains are now inviolate, sealed from the public gaze, Lucy’s have been studiously exposed and tested to extract every possible ounce of meaning.
During the year 2000, though, new evidence was revealed suggesting that Lucy is probably not our oldest ancestor after all. Remains of more ancient hominins have been found in Chad, and in Ethiopia itself. The story of human evolution, like that of the Solomonic dynasty, is not settled yet. As with the Emperor, interpretations put on Lucy’s life are liable to change—and continue to change—as time passes.
Haile Selassie’s burial may mark the end of the monarchical idea as a force in Ethiopian history, even as autocratic forms of government continue there. Across the world the age of kings is finally coming to an end. Outside North Africa and the Middle East only half a dozen countries still have hereditary rulers. And among them only the rulers of Thailand, Cambodia, Nepal, Bhutan and Japan still have any whiff of mystical authority about them. Monarchs have become an endangered species.
In Ethiopia, the burial of Haile Selassie concludes a phase in the country’s political history, but this does not mean that his life will cease to be subject to scrutiny and reinterpretation. Rather, it marks a release of his memory into the competing realms of historiography and mythology. Harold Marcus, an American academic who has been working on a biography of Haile Selassie for the last two decades, is due to complete his work this coming year. There are a growing number of websites devoted to the idea of the Emperor’s divinity and to the merits of obscure claimants to his throne.
Whether it is the forensic gaze of the legal process that continues at an ever-slowing pace in Addis Ababa, or the mythopoetic magnifying lens of the Rastafarians, or the patient documentary attentions of biographers and historians, the memory of the Emperor, the small man who was too big for his tomb, is unlikely to lie undisturbed for long. ✭
Five months after Haile Selassie’s funeral a new political crisis began to unfold in Ethiopia. Internal divisions in the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), the majority party in the ruling coalition, led to a purge of government ministers. A strike by students at the university was violently suppressed. And on May 12, a key figure in the TPLF, the youthful head of security, Kinfe Gebremedhin—the man we glimpsed in the Leya Muya café in Meskal Square on the morning of the funeral—was assassinated as he entered the armed forces officers’ club.
The assailant was identified as Tsehaye Woldeselassie, a major in the Ethiopian army and fellow-member of the TPLF. The killing was said to be a crime of passion rather than a political assassination, but there were doubters. In August 2007, Major Woldesellasie was executed. Further splits and purges in the government followed; the President resigned, then withdrew his resignation. Some of the officials of the Derg era, detained since 1991, were released, then rearrested. The effect of these tremors in the body politic, as is often the case in Ethiopia, was not clear.
In April 2003, Haile Selassie’s only daughter, Princess Tegagne-Worq, died in Addis Ababa at the age of 90. The Emperor’s biographer, the American scholar Harold Marcus, died the same year, with the second volume of his biography still unfinished. Edward Ullendorf, translator of Haile Selassie’s own autobiography, died in 2011. And in August 2012 Meles Zenawi, who had been successively president and prime minister of Ethiopia, himself died. He was succeeded by his deputy, Hailemariam Dessalegn.
Among other accounts of the Emperor’s funeral, there was a noteworthy article in The National Post of Canada, which appeared on March 3, 2001. The author, Aida Eidemariam, interviewed Prince Beede Mariam Mekonen, the grandson of Haile Selassie, who had delivered the main oration at the Emperor’s funeral service in Holy Trinity Cathedral. The article noted that another member of the royal family, also living in Canada, had recently taken the role of Simba, the lion, in a Toronto production of The Lion King.
A correction to the article is due: the original version stated that in Haile Selassie’s last drive, in a Volkswagen Beetle, from the Jubilee Palace to the Menilek Palace, he was accompanied by his poodle, Lulu. Though this has been reported in other places, it seems that the information is incorrect. Lulu died some years before and was buried in the Japanese garden at the Jubilee Palace. If the Emperor was accompanied by a pet dog on his last drive, as he seems to have been, it must have been a different one. (My thanks to Tafari Wossen for this information, incorporated in the revised version of the article here.)
In a subsequent article in the Times Literary Supplement the present author reviewed some of the misrepresentations of Haile Selassie and his court in Ryszard Kapuściński’s book, The Emperor (See “At Play in the Bush of Ghosts”, published in the TLS, July 27, 2001, as “Tales of Mythical Africa”).
In 2019 a statue of Haile Selassie was unveiled at the headquarters of the African Union in Addis Ababa.