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

Top five sights of Ethiopia: traditional tribes, rock-hewn churches, and medieval castles

Ethiopia, ethiopia
As I mentioned on Monday, I’m moving to Harar, Ethiopia, for two months to explore the ancient and unique culture in that medieval walled city. Before settling in, I thought I’d share some of the most popular places to visit in the country. Many of them were covered in my travel series about Ethiopia during my visit last year. All but the Southern Tribes are UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

Southern Tribes
Perhaps the best known images of Ethiopia come from its sparsely populated southern region. Here there are tribes living much the way they always have, herding and hunting animals and living off the lush hills and open savannah. The most famous tribe is the Mursi, known for their giant lip plugs like you see here in this photo by user MauritsV courtesy Wikimedia Commons. There are many more tribes, and each day will introduce you to a very different culture and set of traditions. The drive is hard going but everyone says it’s worth it.

Lalibela
Lalibela is another famous spot in Ethiopia. Starting in the 12th century the people dug out a series of churches from the bedrock, making fantastic buildings that will keep your jaw dropped for your entire visit. Not only are the stone structures impressive in their construction (or should I say, excavation) but there are rich frescoes and carvings in the interiors. The priests will show you gold and silver crosses dating back hundreds of years. If you’re lucky, you can witness an religious ceremony in which white-robed worshipers chant verses from the Bible and Kebre Negast, a holy book of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church.

%Gallery-90277%Gondar
Often called Ethiopia’s Camelot, the medieval capital of Gondar offers some of the country’s best architecture. It’s also on some of the best land, a high valley that’s green and soothing, completely the opposite of the parched desert many people imagine Ethiopia to be. Several palace/castles stand here, looking vaguely familiar thanks to the influence of Portuguese mercenaries hired to help the Ethiopians fight off the Somali conqueror Gragn The Left-Handed. I’ll be searching for his capital later in this series. Nobody is exactly sure where that is, so it should be a bit of an adventure.

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Axum
In the dry uplands of the northern Tigray province stand the remains of Axum, one of the greatest civilizations of the ancient world and Ethiopia’s oldest city. In the fourth century BC a civilization sprang up here that even the ancient Greeks admired. It reached across the entire region and colonized what is now Yemen. It traded as far as India and China and probably Europe too. It also converted Ethiopia to Christianity in the fourth century AD, making it the second oldest Christian nation after Armenia. While the civilization is long gone, you can still admire its huge palaces and lofty obelisks.

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Lake Tana
For several different but amazing experiences all in one day, head to Lake Tana, Ethiopia’s largest. A boat takes you out to where the Blue Nile flows into the lake and you can see hippos wallowing in the water as locals in traditional reed boats steer carefully around them. On several islands are monasteries where monks have lived and prayed for centuries. They’ll show you illuminated manuscripts colorfully illustrated with holy scenes. After a long overland trip, there’s nothing better than sitting on one of these islands, free of electricity and cars, and gazing out at the placid waters of the lake.

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For more on Ethiopia, check out this video below. I know nothing about the tour company that sponsored it and this isn’t an endorsement. They do make informative travel videos, though.

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

Coming up next: Returning to Harar, Ethiopia’s medieval city!

Ethiopian Jesus

Jesus, Nativity, Christ, jesus, Christmas
It’s Christmas, when the Christian world celebrates the birth of Jesus Christ. The Muslim world celebrates too because in Islam Jesus is considered a prophet.

Christianity has spread all over the world. One of the best things about travel is the different world views it exposes you to, and one of these insights is that religious artists have created Jesus in their own image. Europe has a white Jesus, Africa has a black Jesus, and Latin America has a Latino Jesus.

So what did Jesus really look like? The Bible is a bit sketchy about his personal appearance, but being a Levantine Jew he wouldn’t have looked like the Nordic hippie we’re familiar with in the West. He probably looked a bit more like this picture above, which is in the 16th century church of Ura Kidane Mihret on Lake Tana, Ethiopia. Brown skin, dark eyes and hair. . .this is what most people in ancient Judea looked like.

Ethiopia became Christian in the 4th century, and is the second oldest Christian nation after Armenia. The Ethiopian Orthodox Church has built incredible houses of worship all over the country, including the famous rock-hewn churches of Lalibela, stone buildings dug out of the bedrock.

For more on the fascinating culture that produced this image, check out my series on travel in Ethiopia.

Medieval monasteries on Lake Tana, Ethiopia

The Christian communities of Ethiopia have an eye for dramatic settings. From the sweeping views of Debre Libanos to the many monasteries perched atop sheer cliffs, the surroundings of a holy place are often as beautiful as the place itself.

It makes sense from a religious point of view. If you’re going to spend your life celebrating Creation, where better to do it than a place where Creation is at its most awesome or serene?

This is certainly true of the monasteries and nunneries on the islands of Lake Tana. These religious communities are set in a placid lake surrounded by green hills and fields. At 65 km (40 miles) in diameter it’s the largest lake in Ethiopia and has been a center of worship for more than 500 years.

Hiring a boat is pretty straightforward at the lakeside town of Bahir Dar, and our first stop is a peninsula a few miles along the coast where stands the 16th century church of Ura Kidane Mihret. The boat docks at a little pier and my wife and I take a narrow path through a dense forest. Coffee grows everywhere under the shade of the forest canopy. I’ve never seen coffee growing before. Splitting open one of the red berries I find the bean inside, a pale yellow, sticky thing that bears little resemblance to the roasted beans I’m used to. We drink Ethiopian coffee every morning at home so it’s nice to see where it comes from.

We climb a hill and pass though a simple stone gate. In the yard the monks are busy laying the foundation for a new building. All the monks have to work hard, either at farms on the mainland or helping out around the church and monastery. The church itself is deceptively simple on the outside–a large, round building topped by an elaborate cross–but when we pass through the tall wooden doors we’re stopped short by brilliantly colorful paintings reaching from floor to ceiling.

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The outer wall of the church shelters an inner wall that encloses the worship area and holy of holies. Every inch of this wall is covered in paintings. Some scenes are familiar, like the Crucifixion and St. George defeating the dragon. Others are strange to us, coming from holy books that have been discarded by or lost to the Western tradition, like the Miracle of Mary and the Kebre Negast. The Ethiopian Orthodox Church includes many such books in their canon. The books of Enoch and Jubilees were translated into Ge’ez, the ancient Ethiopian language still used in church services, but were lost to the West and survive in the New Testament only in a few quotations. If it wasn’t for ancient Ethiopian translators, these books would be almost entirely unknown.

The paintings are vivid, showing scenes of miracles and worship. Mary is a popular figure and every phase of her flight to Egypt is shown in detail. There’s also a brilliant painting of all the souls in Hell being freed after the Crucifixion.

The paintings sometimes take interesting twists to familiar themes. For example, the common image of St. George killing the dragon has a unique legend attached to it in Ethiopia. There once was a village that worshiped the dragon and made human sacrifices to it every day. A maiden named Brutawit was going to be sacrificed and St. George told her that if she believed in God that she would be saved. She was, thanks to George’s skill with a lance, and she took the dead beast back to the village to show that God was more powerful than the dragon. The entire village then converted to Christianity.

A short boat ride away is the island monastery of Kibran Gabrael. Like many monasteries, it’s off-limits to women so my wife hung out in a shady grove while I went to see the monastery’s famous library of medieval manuscripts. The monastery is quiet, most of the monks being on the mainland tending crops, but the librarian is in and he leads me to a little building stuffed with books. As a dedicated bibliophile I’ve been to some of the great libraries of the world and looked through many rare illuminated manuscripts, but I was very impressed with what I saw on this peaceful little island. The level of artistry in the books is equal to any of the great works of medieval France or Italy, yet completely different in style. The librarian opens up book after book of sturdy goatskin, showing me richly colored paintings of Bible scenes. Each of the Gospels has its own book, and there’s a hefty New and Old Testament that weighs in at 17 kilos (38 pounds)! Also in the library are a selection of icons. When a monk goes off on his own to pray in solitude for a few days, the abbot gives him a book to read and an icon to meditate on. Thus the monks get some fine art to admire and think about while they are cut off from the rest of humanity.

Lake Tana has several other monasteries and churches other than the ones I mention here. Some take an entire day trip by boat to visit. Someone seriously interested in seeing them all would need about a week to do it properly. Hopefully some day I’ll go back and write about them all here.

Next stop: Gondar–Ethiopia’s Camelot!

You can read the rest of the Ethiopia series here.