Harar: Ethiopia’s medieval masterpiece

If you’re lucky, every now and then when you’re on the road you’ll come to a place where a little voice will say, “Stop here. This is what you were looking for.” You’ll have other plans, a nice neat schedule you made up in your head of what you wanted to see in the time you have for your trip. If you stop, if you listen to the little voice, you’ll miss a lot of things you had planned to see.

Do it.

For me that place was Harar, a walled medieval city I visited halfway through my two-month trip around the Horn of Africa. My wife had flown home, having thoroughly enjoyed the lifetime of memories I gave her as a tenth anniversary present. Now I was free to go anywhere I liked without consulting anyone else. Or I was free to go nowhere.

Harar is reached on a ten-hour bus ride from Addis Ababa. That’s not as bad as it sounds. The road is paved and the two main bus companies, Salaam Bus and Sky Bus, offer modern, comfortable transport. The scenery gradually changes from the hilly green of the Amhara and Oromo provinces to the rockier, drier region around Harar. The city is at a lower elevation than Addis or most of the north and I could feel the change in temperature.

Nobody knows how old Harar is. Hararis say it was founded in the early part of the Muslim era, perhaps in the 7th century AD, but given its location on the border between the core of the Ethiopian empire in the western and northern highlands, and the Somali lowlands and the sea to the south and east, it was probably a trading center long before that. Harar has always been a place where different cultures meet.

The first thing I noticed about Harar is how small it is. It’s more of a town than a city, with a bit of sprawl in the surrounding hills. The area encompassed by the 16th century walls can be walked across in fifteen minutes, and walked around in little more than an hour. It’s slightly less than 120 acres. Yet within these walls there’s an entire history and a unique culture rich in symbolism. For example the Jegol, as the old city is called, has five gates, corresponding to the five pillars of Islam. There used to be 99 mosques in the Jegol to correspond to the 99 names of Allah. The list of symbols both in the geography of the city and in the shape and layout of the buildings could and does fill volumes.

%Gallery-91809%Walled cities have an atmosphere all their own. Damascus, Jerusalem, Istanbul, Segovia. . .they all feel like they’re worlds unto themselves. The wall is more than just a physical barrier. In the days when city gates were closed at night the walls provided a very real social and psychological barrier. The people who grew up inside the city will be subtly different than those who lived only a few miles away. In the case of Harar the difference isn’t so subtle. Hararis have their own language spoken only within the walls of the Jegol.

My education in the ways of Harar started on the first day. I hadn’t been inside the Jegol for more than an hour before I was invited to join a meeting of the Harar Revitalization group, which is rebuilding dilapidated old buildings and wants to restore three of the five city gates that the Emperor Haile Selassie knocked down in order to allow access to cars. We sat on a carpet on the floor in the back room of one of the museums as a local poet and songwriter coached a group of young people who were recording a CD of songs about their city.

I soon found that the shopkeepers and office workers sitting around me were some of Harar’s intelligentsia–writers and historians and lexicographers. I’d tapped into a rich vein of scholars who cared about their city so deeply that they spent their spare hours learning its secrets and preserving it for future generations. As a former archaeologist turned writer, I couldn’t ask for better company. Over the following days and weeks I found many doors open for me, and over endless rounds of rich Harari coffee I met people who shared vast amounts of knowledge, and were curious to learn what I knew.

I soon settled into a rhythm. Every morning I’d sit at my favorite cafe on the main square sipping an excellent macchiato and watching the world go by. A Somali friend would often join me, and sometimes some of the Harari researchers. After some leisurely conversation it was time for a stroll around town, followed a conversation in some shaded alley or courtyard. Afternoons were spent in one of three homes, drinking coffee and talking about everything from linguistics to travel to history. Then as the sun set it came time to walk the darkened streets of the Jegol under the light of the moon.

It wasn’t long before I became a familiar face. The touts in the main square stopped trying to get me to go on tours and people always knew where to find me. Once I was headed down one of the main streets to find Amir, the assistant curator of a local museum. As I passed down the street someone I didn’t know said, “Amir is in the cafe.” He didn’t tell me which cafe, but I figured it was the one people usually saw me at. Sure enough, there sat Amir. Now this fellow couldn’t have known I was looking for Amir, hell, Amir didn’t know I was looking for Amir, but Harar is that sort of place.

So when you get to Harar, slow down. Skip the sights for a while and sit in the shade with a good companion. Or don’t. Perhaps you need to stop somewhere else.

Don’t forget to read the rest of my series on travel in Ethiopia.

Next time: more on Harar (with suggestions on what you can actually see there)