Princess Seble Desta (1931-2023), the Granddaughter of the Last Ethiopian Emperor

Princess Seble.

Princess Seble (Sybil) Desta died on 3 January 2023 in Virginia. She was ninety-one years-old.

Princess Tenagnework.
Princess Tenagnework and Princess Seble.

The princess was born in Addis Ababa on 1 September 1931 as the fourth child and third daughter of Princess Tenagnework Haile Selassie of Ethiopia (1912-2003) and her first husband Ras Desta Damtew (~1892-1937). 

Princess Aida Desta, Lij Amaha Desta, Princess Ruth Desta, Rear Admiral Iskinder Desta, Prince Sahle Selassie Haile Selassie and Princess Seble Desta.

Princess Seble joined three older siblings: Princess Aida Desta (1927-2013), Amha Desta (1928-1944), and Princess Hirut “Ruth” Desta (1930-2014). Princess Seble was followed by two younger siblings: Princess Sofia “Sophia” Desta (1934-2021) and Prince Iskander Desta (1934-1974). During the Italian occupation of Ethiopia from 1936 to 1941, Princess Seble lived in exile in the United Kingdom with the rest of the Imperial family. Princess Seble completed her education in Britain, initially at Clarendon School, Abergale, and attended Lady Margaret Hall College of Oxford University.

Empress Menen and Emperor Haile Selassie.

Princess Seble’s maternal grandparents were Emperor Haile Selassie I of Ethiopia (1892-1975) and Empress Menen Asfaw (1882-1962). 

Princess Seble Desta and Kassa Wolde-Miriam on their wedding day.

On 31 January 1959 at the Holy Trinity Cathedral in Addis Ababa, Princess Seble Desta married Kassa Wolde Mariam (1932-1979), an academic and the descendant of an Ethiopian noble family. Seble and her husband were wed in a joint ceremony with Seble’s sister Sofia, who married Captain Dereje Haile Mariam. Kassa and Selbe had five children, one son and four daughters: Jote Kassa (b.1960), Yashimmabet “Yeshi” Kassa (b.1962), Debritu Laly Kassa (b.1963), Kokeb Kassa (b.1967), Amha Kassa (b.1973).

The Ethiopian Royals meet President Eisenhower.
Left to right: President Dwight Eisenhower, First Lady Mamie Eisenhower, Princess Seble Desta, Prince Sahle, and the Emperor, 1954.
Marlon Brando, Princess Selbe, and the Emperor during a visit to the United States.
Princess Seble Desta greets King Hussein of Jordan while her imperial grandfather looks on.
Emperor Haile Selassie and Princess Seble.
Princess Seble accompanied her grandfather Emperor Haile Selassie on many state visits, including to the United States, Canada, Greece, Mexico, the Soviet Union, and Yugoslavia. During these trips, the princess met with many heads of state, royalty, members of the public and celebrities. Like her mother Princess Tenagnework and grandmother Empress Menen, Princess Seble was the President of the Ethiopian Women’s Welfare Association which, during her tenure, built a state of the art high-rise building in Addis Ababa to provide safe housing for young women and to generate income for the Association. In August 1966, Princess Seble was among the members of the Imperial Family to welcome General de Gaulle and his wife during their visit to Ethiopia; she rode in a carriage alongside Madame de Gaulle when the de Gaulles arrived in Addis Ababa. In February 1973, Princess Seble was part of the delegation that met Princess Anne at the beginning of her visit to Ethiopia. 
The Emperor of Ethiopia is escorted from the Jubilee Palace to a prison.

In September 1974, a military junta overthrew Emperor Haile Selassie and imprisoned the Imperial Family, including Princess Tenagnework and her three daughters. Princess Seble had recently given birth to her son and was allowed to remain temporarily free. Until her imprisonment, she unsuccessfully sought help for the Emperor and the imprisoned family members from various foreign embassies. Princess Seble spent fourteen years in jail, initially under house arrest in the former palace of her uncle the late Duke of Harrar, and then in fifteen-foot cell in Alem Bekagn (The End of the World) prison along with the other women of the Imperial family. The horrors that Princess Seble and her family experienced during their imprisonment were documented in a 1977 hearing before the Subcommittee on Africa of the Committee on International Relations in the US House of Representatives:

Several female relatives of former Emperior Haile Selassie and his government ministers were arrested in 1974, at first under house arrest. In September 1975, they were suddenly taken away to Akaki prison in Addis Ababa, where they have been since without trial or charge. On 1 March 1976, Dr. Meyer-Lie visited Akaki prison where the women prisoners were held. This was with the written permission of the Derg and after discussions with the Director of The Ethiopian Prisons Authority and his four branch heads, and the Minister of the Interior. His visit was sponsored by a Swedish humanitarian organization concerned about political prisoners in Ethiopia.

The women detainees were held in a former clinic, a white stone house with cement floor and bars on the windows, the total area being 5 X 10 metres. The building had two rooms, the larger 5 X 6 metres containing 30 to 35women, the other room, about 5 X 4 metres, with about 15 members of the former royal family. Neither room had beds, only mattresses spread out on the floor, and no other furniture or heating arrangements. Each room had a primitive toilet and shower. Dr. Meyer-Lie was only permitted to ask a few questions in the presence of a prison official, and could not carry out any medical examinations. One women told him that before he came people had cleaned and disinfected the room, which had taken away the terrible stench. She said the worst problem was that they were forbidden to communicate with their relatives outside the prison. (Criminal prisoners, it should be noted, are allowed a weekly visit from their relatives.) The women received food each day from their relatives outside, who were paid 120 Ethiopian dollars per month (US $60) supposedly in compensation for the confiscation of their property to provide them with food, brought once a day by a relative who was not allowed to see the prisoner. A few books, magazines, and materials for needlework and knitting were also permitted. Visits from priests were not allowed.

When Dr. Meyer-Lie visited visited Ethiopia again in November 1976, he was not permitted to visit the prisoners. By then prison conditions had deteriorated and during 1976 no visits from relatives were allowed, though after Dr. Meyer-Lie’s first visit, the women detainees were allowed to write a short note on a tiny slip of paper to their relatives once a week . From other sources Dr. Meyer-Lie learned that the rooms in which they were held were infested with rats, lice and cockroaches, and the overcrowding in the larger room had increased with a total of almost 100 women held there. Under those conditions sanitation and hygiene also sharply deteriorated, and their personal morale too. More girls had been detained and a shed of wood with a zinc roof had been constructed to hold 25 girls aged between 12 and 19, arrested when their menfolk were not found by the soldiers searching for them. None of the women has had a full medical examination during detention, though there is a prison doctor and medical orderly. It is reported that there are delays in obtaining a doctor’s visit and in getting medication prescribed. The women request drugs from their relatives outside the prison, such as tranquilizers, painkillers and sleeping tablets, which they administer without medical supervision. Their general condition of health and morale deteriorated seriously in 1976, and many suffer from nervous tension, high blood pressure and other complaints from before the time when they were detained. Yeshashe-Worg Yilma, who is 83 and a diabetic, was taken to the hospital in 1976 reportedly suffering from nervous exhaustion, and Ijegayehu Asfe-Wessen, 42 year-old grand-daughter of former Emperor Haile Selassie, died in the police hospital on 31 January 1977. She was reportedly suffering from extreme dehydration and was in a poor condition for intestinal section surgery. She died a few days later, and it appears that her poor conditions of detention contributed to her illness and subsequent death. Seble Desta, and Aida Desta were both very thin when they were seen by their children in January 1977, Yeshashe-Worq looked very feeble and had to use a stick to walk, and Tenagne Worq had developed a shaking in her hands and body. Sophia Desta and Mimi Asrate (arrested at the age of 17) both suffer severely from psychological troubles, exacerbated by their conditions of detention. In this state of physical deprivation and very low morale, it is feared that many of the older and weaker women will eventually succumb to fatal illness. It is generally thought that the Derg will not release them, that they could be executed at any time (indeed there have been several rumours that the Derg was considering executing them, e.g.,. in September 1975, February and March 1977) but that the Derg may prefer to let them die by neglect. They are in a very poor state to survive their difficult conditions of detention.
Princess Tenagnework, including her four daughters, and her sister-in-law Princess Sara, 1988.
On 21 May 1988, Princess Seble Desta was finally released from prison. A statement from the government-owned Ethiopia News Agency announced: “The State Council of the People’s Democratic Republic of Ethiopia today granted amnesty to seven members of the former royal family of the defunct feudal regime.” In addition to Princess Seble, her mother Princess Tenagnework and her three sisters (Princess Aida, Princess Hirut, and Princess Sofia) were freed in addition to Seble’s aunt Princess Sara, Duchess of Harar. The release of the royal princesses was in part aided by lobbying on the part of British schools that Princess Seble and her sisters had attended in their younger years. 

Princess Seble eventually relocated to the United States, where she was able to be near to her children. Yeshi Kassa, her daughter, was recently involved in the production of a documentary entitled “Grandpa Was An Emperor,” which investigates what happened to her father Kassa after the 1974 coup. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CJlOuHUNaVs
Princess Seble.

The children of the princess released an addendum to a biographical communiqué that was published after her death:

The biography above tells you the facts of Princess Seble’s life. But it does not tell you who Mammy, as we knew her, or Emama Seble, as many knew her, was as a person.

Mammy was an exemplary and devoted granddaughter, daughter, and sister, remaining exceptionally close to her mother and sisters throughout her life and always putting the needs of others before her own.

When the murderous Derg regime imprisoned her husband and entire family but allowed her a few months of freedom with her newborn son, she spent that time, at tremendous risk to her own life, calling on embassies and human rights organizations, pleading for the release of her elderly grandfather and family.

Mammy was a mother to not only her biological children but to countless children whom she and Dejazmatch Kassa, or Kassilu as his children knew him, raised as their own. As Kassilu was posted to different parts of Ethiopa, they brought the entire large clan along with them, much to our collective delight.

While Princess Seble grew up in the formal atmosphere of the Imperial Palace and state visits, she had a very different side as a fun and loving mother, grandmother, and auntie who doted on children especially. The house that she and Kassilu built together is warmly remembered as a place where

children would gather to enjoy the trampoline, swimming lessons, and festive birthday parties. She and Kassilu would lead children’s camping trips where kids were actively encouraged to make themselves seen and heard. Often, she would advocate on behalf of younger family members with their parents and grandparents, gently arguing for strict rules to be tempered with leniency and high expectations to be balanced with freedom to learn and explore.

Over the years she kept up with a network of hundreds of relatives and friends, including Kassilu’s large family after his death, and had an extraordinary memory for the life stories, birthdays, and milestones of her loved ones. She could constantly be found on the phone, checking in on cousins, siblings, aunties, and uncles and all of those that she and Kassilu had turned into family, or at the kitchen table, writing letters and notes. Her home was always a gathering place, especially for holidays and life celebrations. Her thick address books—one for Ethiopia, one for the England, and one for America and the rest of the world—were a testament to her belief that no one should be left behind. She refused to let any member of her clan drift away, constantly reaching out and pulling them back into the family fold.

Her love of her country and all Ethiopians was endless. Although naturally very shy, she nurtured many connections and a strong network, which she used for extensive informal social work, helping others find jobs, advance their education, and connect to community, always helping those in need and promoting Ethiopia. From the cashier at her supermarket to her fellow volunteer librarians in Annandale to the bus driver in Nazret, she took time to get to know people, identifying their joys and troubles and getting involved.

She had a way of making anyone feel at ease. From the old to the young, from European royalty to farmers from the Ethiopian countryside, everyone responded to her kindness, respect for all regardless of station, and genuine interest in the lives of others. Even the hardened guards and fellow prisoners at Alem Bekagn spoke warmly of L’ilt Seble years later.

To her grandchildren, she was “Nana,” who took them swimming, taught them bike riding, and chauffeured them to their various ballet, gym and football games. She was an avid “tifozo” of football and spectator. But Nana also firmly reminded her grandkids about the importance of care for family, faith in God, and kindness. It is a testament to who Nana was that every one of her grandkids adored her and found her fascinating.

But Mammy’s unshakeable foundation, and how we will remember her most, was her deep Christian faith and profound trust in God. Her faith comforted her through unimaginable hardships, and Mammy credited God’s mercy for allowing her family and her to survive the darkest years in Alem Bekagn. During her 14 years in prison and the decades after, she faithfully thanked God for each day that she enjoyed with her loved ones. She found daily joy in God’s creation, and daily gratitude for every gift of sunshine, flowers and birds. Her life of quiet faith was a shining testament to the power of forgiveness and leaving all in God’s hands. We commend her eternal soul to her Creator, in faith that He will welcome home His faithful servant.

The coffin of the princess enters the cathedral.

The funeral and burial of Princess Seble Desta took place on Thursday, 12 January, at Addis Ababa’s Holy Trinity Cathedral. Services were presided over by His Holiness Patriarch Abune Mathias I, Patriarch of Ethiopia, Archbishop of Axum and Echege of the See of St. Tekle Haimanot. Also attending were His Eminence Archbishop Abune Abraham, Administrator General of Patriarchate and Archbishop of Bahr Dar, several other Archbishops of the Orthodox Church and Church officials, as well as members of the Imperial family and their friends. The Patriarch spoke of the contributions of Princess Seble to Ethiopian society and praised her for her tireless work. Princess Seble’s remains were interred in the crypt of the Cathedral.

May the Princess Rest In Peace. 
  • Leave a Comment