Exploring Harar, a medieval city in Ethiopia

In my last post I wrote about how Harar is an alluring walled city that made me throw away my travel plans and stay for three weeks. A serene atmosphere and an ever-widening circle of knowledgeable, hospitable acquaintances were what kept me there, but what is there to actually see?


The main attraction, of course, is the city itself, with its crowded markets, quiet back alleys, and mixture of Ethiopian, Egyptian, Arab, and Italian architecture. A long wander in the Jegol, as locals call the old city, will give you a feel for life in this unique place. Don’t worry about getting lost. While the winding little alleyways make it inevitable, the city is so small you won’t stay lost for long. Walking at night is safe and very romantic with the right company and a full moon.

Harar’s most famous attraction is the hyena man. Yusuf Mumé Salih is a local farmer who lives just outside the walls. He sits out every night feeding the hyenas with raw donkey meat just like his uncle did before him. The Hararis and the hyenas have an unusual relationship. The city wall has small gates to allow the hyenas in at night and one Harari told me he was more afraid of dogs than hyenas! Hyenas are useful for eating garbage left on the streets and also take away djinn, harmful spirits that sometimes possess people. The hyena man will allow you to feed the animals yourself, and they’re surprisingly gentle. Walking in Harar at night one will occasionally slip by you and disappear down an alley. After visiting the hyena man, I didn’t worry about it.

%Gallery-91953%There are also a few museums. The Harar Museum and Cultural Center has a reconstructed traditional home that should not be missed. Harari homes consist of several rooms, including a common room with different platforms for sitting and colorful basketry hanging from the walls. If you stay in Harar for any length of time you’ll be invited into a real home, but it’s nice to poke about here because you can see the private quarters that are otherwise off-limits. Another excellent museum is the Abdullahi Sherif Private Museum, run by a descendant of the prophet Muhammad who has devoted his life to collecting, preserving, and studying artifacts from Harar’s past. The museum is housed in the palace that Emperor Haile Selassie grew up in. Examining the various coins, swords, dresses, and medieval manuscripts will show just how eventful Harar’s history was, and how it was a nexus of influences from all over the world.

Admirers of literature will want to see Rimbaud’s House, an elegant mansion that, in a surprising display of honesty, the curator told me was never Rimbaud’s. Be that as it may, it is now devoted to the memory of the poet, with many of his photos of old Harar and information about his life and work. Rimbaud introduced photography to Harar when he moved here in 1880 and his photos are priceless documents of life in the city more than a hundred years ago.

And there’s much more to explore. I’m planning to go back for two months next year to do an in-depth research project on some aspect of Harari culture. Exactly what aspect I’m not sure. As one Harari friend advised, “Don’t come here with an idea in your head. Let the city give you the subject.” Harar is that kind of place.

An excellent introduction to the city and its people is Harar: A Cultural Guide (Shama Books, 2007) by David Vô Vân and Mohammed Jami Guleid, with beautiful photographs by Alain Zorzutti.

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

Next time: some final thoughts on travel in Ethiopia.