Ethiopian Princess Hirut dies aged 84
By Ethiopia Observer
July 15, 2014
Princess Hirut Desta (also known as Princess Ruth Desta) was the daughter of Ras Desta Damtew and Princess Tenagnework Haile Selassie, and granddaughter of Emperor Haile Selassie. She was the widow of General Nega Tegegn, who was governor of the provinces of Begemder and Semien. She has been described by Nathaniel T. Kenney as a "trim, most democratic of princesses," who "was not above grabbing a tool from a workman, I suspect, and showing him how to use it."
Princess Hirut has died in London aged 84. The cause of death wasn’t given, but Hirut had been in poor health for several years. Her funeral services was held on July 4 at the Holy Trinity Cathedral in Addis Ababa, next to her grandfather and other members of her family. The ceremony was attended by members of the royal family, religious leaders, including priests of the Lalibela churches and government officials. The Princess was well educated and knowledgeable in a range of areas. She was described as being down to earth, enthusiastic, hardworking and respectful of traditions. While her role in the formation of the Committee for the restoration of the churches of Lalibela was her greatest legacy, she was involved in other successful ventures in culture, library and education, fields she enjoyed herself.
In the 1960s when Rita Pankhurst was trying to organize the National Library of Ethiopia, she was faced with shortage of professional staff. Rita later recalled that she relied a great deal on the help of volunteers and one of her most productive volunteers was Princess Ruth. Rita described the Princess Ruth as being a modest and deeply religious woman – and a highly responsible library volunteer, who showed up when she said she would and was a superb example for other volunteers as well as to library staff. Princes Hirut had a special interest for Lalibela’s rock-hewn churches and her motivation for becoming involved in preservation started when she was in the United States for her study. One day, her professor would show her a fabulous photo of rock-hewn churches and asked her if she knew where it was found. And she replied that may be in Rome or Greek. The teacher chastised her for her ignorance of her own country’s patrimony. Remorseful, she called her grandfather, Emperor Haile Selassie and told him about it. And he promised to show it to her when she came back.
Visit, she did. She also decided to create the Committee for the Restoration of the Churches of Lalibela, and spent five years in the town working towards the preservation of the rock hewn churches there, and towards improving the lives of the town’s people there. She is credited with having the town made more accessible by having a modern road connect to it, and is credited with introducing electricity and potable to the town. In 1967, she also commissioned the Seven Olives Hotel which was the first tourist hotel in the town, acting herself as hostess in the traditional manner, which helped make Lalibela a tourist attraction. After having finished the work of the hotel construction, she granted the hotel to the Saint Lalibela Monastery Diocese Office. The National Geographic reporter, Nathaniel T. Kenney who visited Lalibela at the time described her as a “trim, most democratic of princesses,” who “was not above grabbing a tool from a workman, I suspect, and showing him how to use it.”
Hirut accompanied her father to the United States on “state visits” during which the royal family she was hosted by President and Mrs. Kennedy. In 1968, Hirut was married to Lieutenant General Nega Tegegne, and upon her marriage was elevated by her grandfather to the title of Princess with the dignity of Her Highness. At the start of the Marxist Revolution, she moved to Gondar with her husband, who was nominated as a governor of the region. Barbara W. Olson in her Gondar, Ethiopia: 1971-1975 Guests in the Ethiopian Highlands and Children of Zemecha, she wrote about the new princess in Gondar. “Every day during the rains, Princesses Ruth has been seen driving to the track that leads the small, circular Debre Tsehai Church next to the ruins of the castle of Kusquam. People say she goes there, in this time of revolution and chaos, for solitude and prayer, to cry and to pray for family and friends who are threatened by revolutionary forces, hunted and imprisoned throughout the Amahra highlands,” she wrote.
When Haile Selassie was deposed in September 1974, everything started to crumble for the royal family. Hirut’s brother, Eskinder, commander of the Imperial Ethiopian Navy, was shot by the revolutionaries in November 1974, together with 60 other notables. Her mother and her three sisters, Aida, Seble and Sofya, were sent without trial to Prison; their male cousins were put in the high-security wing, known by its Amharic name of Alem Bekagne – “I have had enough of the world”.
For 14 years until their release in 1988, Princess Hirut, her mother and her sisters lived in cramped, fetid cells, which they shared with rats and lice. They were not allowed visitors, and were without lavatories, warm clothes and shoes.
The Princess never had any children.
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