Harar tour: a walk around one of Africa’s most unique cities

Harar, harar, Ethiopia, ethiopiaAfter a few days in Ethiopia’s capital Addis Ababa and a long Ethiopian bus trip, I’ve made it to Harar, my home for the next two months. I’ll be exploring the culture and history of this unique city and making road trips to nearby points of interest.

Harar is a medieval walled city in eastern Ethiopia between the central highlands to the west and the Somali desert to the east. It’s been a center of trade for at least a thousand years. The majority of Hararis are Muslim (I’ve met only three Harari Christians) and Harar is laid out on Muslim lines. The are five old gates corresponding with the five pillars of Islam, and there used to be 99 mosques corresponding with the 99 names of God. Time has eroded the symbolism somewhat. The Emperor Haile Selassie created a sixth gate and made a wide avenue leading to a big square called Feres Magala (Horse Market). Also, some of the mosques have disappeared. I get different answers as to how many are left, but there seems to be a few more than 80. There’s talk about rebuilding the missing ones but that hasn’t happened yet.

Feres Megala is a good place to start a tour of Harar. It’s the main entryway into the walled city. This noisy square is filled with people and bejaj, the blue three-wheeled motor rickshaws that are everywhere in Ethiopia. Dominating the square is Medhanialem Church (“Savior of the World”) an Ethiopian Orthodox church erected after the Emperor Menelik II captured the city in 1887, ending its days as an independent city-state. A mosque used to stand on this spot but the Christian emperor destroyed it to show his power.

Streets head off to the left and right. The right slopes down Mekina Girgir (“Tailor’s Street”). “Girgir” is the sound sewing machines make. Tailors set up their machines on the street, doing piecework for the shops on either side. You can often find me here hanging out with Binyam, a tailor who speaks good English and looks a bit European thanks to his Greek grandfather. While the tailors and shopkeepers are Harari, many of their customers are Oromo, Ethiopia’s largest ethnic group. The Oromo own most of the farmland around the city. The land used to be Harari but was taken from them during the Communist Derg regime that ruled Ethiopia from 1974-1991.

Continuing down the street you find out why so many Oromo are around. The street opens up into a large market filled with Oromo women selling fruit, firewood, colorful baskets, incense, and a thousand other things. The men work in the fields or as laborers. Not far off is the meat market offering everything from cow to camel. The market is in a long courtyard surrounded by high walls. Eagles line the ramparts looking to grab a freebie. Hararis don’t like sending their kids to do the meat shopping because if an eagle sees a child carrying meat it will get bold, swoop down, and take it out of the kid’s hands!

%Gallery-118876%From the market the way breaks into innumerable little alleys that twist and turn around gated compounds of two or more houses. The walls of the compounds create the alleys. Like the medieval cities of Europe, Harar has seen very little urban planning and grew spontaneously as the population grew. Many alleys are so narrow you can stretch out your arms and brush both sides with your fingertips. Wandering this maze you’ll inevitably get lost but don’t worry, Harar is too small to stay lost for long. Besides, what could be more fun than being lost in a foreign city? If you do need to find someplace, everyone will help you, especially the school kids who will tag along practicing their English.

My favorite alley is Meger Wa Wiger Uga, “the Street of Peace and Quarrel”. It’s Harar’s narrowest, and if you pass by someone you’re arguing with here, you have to speak nicely to them!

At the heart of Harari identity are the more than 300 shrines to Muslim saints, including about 40 female saints. Some are sizable monuments while others are simply special areas known only to the people of that neighborhood. Each neighborhood makes sure the shrines are properly cared for and the proper rituals are conducted. One of the most important shrines is for Emir Nur, Harar’s ruler from 1551-1568. He led a long war against the Oromo and decided to build a wall around the city. Not knowing how to go about it, he prayed for help. Two expert masons in Mecca heard his prayers and crossed the Red Sea and Somali Desert to build the wall that preserves Harari identity to this day.

Harar is alive with tradition and change, a meeting place for a half dozen ethnic groups and an increasing number of foreigners drawn to its deep heritage. In addition to being a UNESCO World Heritage Site, UNESCO also awarded it a commendation for religious tolerance. Harar is small, you can walk around it in an hour, but there’s enough here to explore for a lifetime. To learn more, check out Harar: A Cultural Guide, and follow me as I learn more about my temporary home in Ethiopia.

Don’t miss the rest of my Ethiopia travel series: Harar, Ethiopia: Two months in Africa’s City of Saints.

Coming up next: The Arab revolution: the reaction of one Muslim town