Harar, Ethiopia: Two months in Africa’s City of Saints

Ethiopia, ethiopia, Harar, hararWhat makes an adventure traveler return to a place he’s been before? When so many other destinations beckon, why spend two months in a town you’ve already seen?

Because there’s so much more to see. Harar, in eastern Ethiopia between the lush central highlands and the Somali desert, can take a lifetime to understand. For a thousand years it’s been a crossroads of cultures, where caravans from the Red Sea met Central African merchants, where scholars and poets have traded ideas, where a dozen languages are heard in the streets.

Harar’s influence spread wide in those early days. Harari coins have been found in India and China, and a couple of my Harari friends have subtly Chinese features.

The Harari have always mixed with other tribes. Some say if you live within the medieval walls of the Jugol, the old city, and follow Harari ways, that you are one of them. Hararis have their own language spoken only by the Jugol’s 20,000 residents, yet this language has created literature, poetry, and song for centuries. As Harar faces the new millennium, a dedicated group of artists and intellectuals are working to preserve and add to this heritage.

But this is no Oxford, no Western-style center of learning. Harar is different. The day starts at dawn with the muezzin’s call to prayer. Hararis are moderate Sunnis with a broad streak of Sufi mysticism. There are more than 90 mosques hidden in the labyrinthine alleyways of the Jugol, and more than 300 shrines to saints. Harar is considered the fourth holiest city of Islam after Mecca, Medina, and Jerusalem.

The morning is a busy time. Oromo farmers from the surrounding countryside fill the markets with their produce. Camels and donkeys jostle each other in the narrow streets. Kids go off to school. Offices and shops fill up. As the sun reaches its zenith and presses down on the city, people retreat to the cool interiors of their whitewashed houses with bundles of qat under their arm. Groups of friends chew this narcotic leaf during the hot hours of the day. As the buzz sets in, people relax and engage in long, animated conversations that after a time lapse into quiet reflection. One man will go off into a corner to write the lyrics to a song, while another will set to work on a Harari dictionary. Others will remain together, sharing stories about Harar. The afternoon and evening are spent in studious concentration, the main benefit of the so-called Leaves of Paradise.

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%Gallery-91809%Night falls and people still work. Ethiopia is a developing country and want is never far away, so everyone puts in long hours. As the final evening call to prayer echoes away, the Hararis set down to eat or chat in cafes over a cup of the region’s coffee (considered by many the best in the world) or retire to a shrine to perform all-night ceremonies of ecstatic chanting.

Then Harar’s other residents appear. Packs of hyenas gather at the edge of town, waiting for the humans to go to sleep so they can prowl the streets, eating the garbage or scraps left out for them. The Hararis consider the hyenas neighbors and they share an uneasy but close relationship. The Jugol walls even have low doorways to allow them to pass. Hyenas are magical beings, able to take the djinn, spirits, out of the city. Some say they’re djinn themselves, or blacksmiths turned into animal form. Sometimes as you walk home along a moonlit alley one will pass by, its bristly fur brushing against your leg.

I’m spending the next two months living here. This is a journey measured not in miles traveled but by people befriended and knowledge gained. I’ll sit with Harar’s great scholars and artists to learn about the heritage of this unique city, and I’ll meet the regular people–the Oromo farmers and Harari shopkeepers, the Tigrinya university students and Somali refugees. I’ll watch traditional blacksmiths working the way their ancestors did, and women weaving the colorful baskets that adorn every Harari home.

As a former archaeologist, there are some mysteries I want to explore. I’ll visit the ruins of Harla, said to be the predecessor to Harar, and investigate the prehistoric cave paintings at Kundudo, the region’s sacred mountain. I’ll descend into the Somali desert to visit Chinhahsan, where the 16th century conqueror Ahmad The Left-Handed is rumored to have had the capital of his vast but brief empire. Among the ruined castle and crumbling city walls I’ll look for the truth behind the legend.

I’ll also venture further afield, taking in the sights of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s bustling capital. If I can assemble the right team, I’ll lead an expedition to Maqdala, a mountaintop fortress deep in the Ethiopian wilderness where the mad Emperor Tewodros defied the British Empire. I might even return to Somaliland.

There’s another reason I want to see Harar again–to catch a feeling that comes only once every few trips. Sometimes you’ll come to a spot where everything falls into place. The person you need to see appears just at the right time, the bit of information you’re searching for comes from an unexpected source, the mood is serene and the hospitality never ends. I’ve had that a few times before, like at Kumbh Mela, a giant Hindu pilgrimage that attracted 20 million people, but this feeling of everyone getting along despite their differences, everyone striving forward despite their lack of material resources, that’s a rare thing to experience.

So I’m going back.

This is the first of a series titled Harar, Ethiopia: Two months in Africa’s City of Saints. Join me as I discover more about this fascinating culture. A word of warning: the entire country is on dialup and there are frequent power cuts. I’ll try to post at least twice a week but please be patient! To be sure you don’t miss an installment, subscribe to my Gadling feed and in the meantime check out last year’s Ethiopia travel series.

For some views of my temporary home, see this video of a day in the life of Harar.