Harla: Ethiopia’s lost civilization

Harla, harla, Ethiopia, archaeology, Harar
Eastern Ethiopia’s history is shrouded in mystery. Most archaeologists investigate early hominids like Lucy, the famous Australopithecus afarensis, or study the great civilizations of the north like Gondar and Axum. The east, though, is virtually unknown, and only enigmatic ruins and strange legends remain.

Scattered around eastern Ethiopia all the way to Somaliland and the Red Sea are the ruins of towns with large stone buildings unlike anything made by the modern Oromo and Somali peoples. These are the remnants of the little-known Harla civilization. Wanting to learn more, I contacted archaeologist, author, and Harar tour guide Muhammed Jami Guleid (guleidhr @yahoo.com). “Dake”, as everybody here calls him, helped me travel to Somaliland last year and is an invaluable resource for local culture and history. He knows everybody and he’s excavated Harla graves in Ethiopia’s Somali region and in Somaliland.

They were a race of giants, people say, and immensely strong. They’d perform amazing feats of strength like playing with balls made from the entire hide of a goat. A schoolkid we gave a lift to told us the Harla were three meters tall! This rumor probably came about because of their unusual graves. They’re long and thin, sometimes three or four meters long, although the skeletons in them aren’t unusually tall. The graves are usually covered with a layer of ash (probably from burnt offerings), the skeleton of a sacrificed cow, and below that a stone slab sealing the tomb.

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Harla skeletons are often buried with pots resting above their head. Inside the pots are black sand (why? nobody knows), necklaces of gemstones, and silver coins that are slightly smaller than a dime. There seems to be writing or designs on the coins but they’re old and poorly minted, and if they ever once said anything, they’re unreadable now. The necklaces are usually agate, but also ruby and amber. The style of the pots, coins, and jewelry are the same both in the mountains around Harar and in the Somali lowlands all the way to the Red Sea. This has convinced Muhammed Dake that the sites all belong to the same culture.

Legends say the center of this civilization was around Harar, which makes sense since it has the best land in the region. The kings of Harla were wizards who boasted about their powers. One said he’d make a river of milk between two mountains; another bragged he could make a sorghum plant that could be laid down and be used as a highway all the way to the Awash River, 150 miles away. Allah got angry at all this and destroyed them. A few Harla survived and fled to Kush in the Sudan, the site of another great civilization.

The Hararis are believed to be descended from the Harla. The closest Harla site to Harar is at the Oromo village of Harla, from which the civilization gets its name. We have no idea what the Harla called themselves. When Allah destroyed the civilization and the survivors fled to Kush, one woman stayed behind to found the modern town of Harla. With a population of about 2800, it’s a half-hour drive from Harar on a winding mountain road that offers sweeping views of the lowlands to the north.

When we arrived at the modern Harla I saw the Oromo there looked and dressed a bit different than other Oromo I’d met. The women didn’t wear the usual Western-style striped shirt that’s almost a uniform for Oromo women in this region. Was this a remnant of their different origins? It’s hard to say, but the modern residents of Harla say they’re of different origins than the rest of the Oromo. Over the years they’ve taken on Oromo customs and the Oromo language, but still consider themselves a distinct people.

Like everywhere else, Muhammed Dake seems to know everyone in Harla. Some of the villagers showed us the ruins. There are thick walls of stone cemented together with a type of plaster that’s still strong after centuries of weathering. Some remain standing above the height of a man, and one field is filled with a network of walls, showing the ancient town was a cluster of closely built structures. In one spot, a tree has grown up through a wall. Plants may be slow, but are almost unstoppable. This tree cracked through the tough Harla plaster and grew around the ancient stones, lifting them into the air as the tree grew. Now the building looks like it’s frozen in the middle of an explosion, its stones suspended several feet above the ground. The local kids love to climb this tree, using the Harla stones embedded in the wood as footholds.

Muhammed Dake believes the Harla people were pagan, judging from how they built their graves. They don’t look either Muslim or Christian. But the Harla village presents another mystery. At one ruin that looks constructed in the Harla style, a villager pulls away some bushes along one wall to reveal a niche. To confirm my suspicions he raises his hands and says “Allahu akbar” (God is Great). It’s a miqrab, the niche in a mosque that points the way to Mecca. And it does point the right direction. Is this mosque from the Harla times? If so, the Harla were the first Muslims in the region, predating the Harari people who can trace their roots back to the tenth century.

Or perhaps it’s a later ruin. So little is known about the Harla, and so little archaeological research has been done here, that for the time being all we have are legends of a race of giants who once ruled the land.

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

Coming up next: Exploring Ethiopia’s Somali region!

A visit to an African market

African market, market
One of Africa’s best attractions are its markets. Full of vibrant life and color, an African market always makes for a fascinating visit.

Harar has one big and several smaller markets. There used to be one at each of its five gates, but some have dwindled to barely half a dozen women selling tomatoes and potatoes. The only big gate markets now are at Assum Gate, where there’s a busy market for qat, Africa’s favorite narcotic leaf, and at Asmaddin Gate, which has a huge market–Harar’s biggest and some say the second biggest in Ethiopia, with only Addis Ababa’s famous Merkato being bigger. Merkato is unfair competition since it’s the biggest African market of all!

The markets are dominated by the Oromo, a different ethnic group than the Hararis. The Hararis live in town and the Oromo farm the surrounding countryside. Most sell fresh produce and you’ll see piles of fresh vegetables as well as sacks of grain. People also sell manufactured goods, mostly cheap Chinese imports such as shoes, blankets, radios, and pretty much anything else you can think of.

The Oromo have a strict segregation of the sexes at the market. Only women sell food, while men will often sell manufactured items. Men never sell qat. In his Eating the Flowers of Paradise, Kevin Rushby tells a story of an Oromo man whose wife had died. Needing money, he went to the market with a bundle of qat. He was laughed out of town and even years later he was known as “the man who tried to sell qat.” Nobody could explain to me why this division of labor exists; it’s just the way it is.

%Gallery-119721%The markets start at daybreak and Oromo from the more distant villages set off from home well before dawn, sometimes carrying their produce for miles. The women balance amazingly heavy loads on their heads, keeping their backs perfectly straight and walking in neat lines along Harar’s narrow alleyways.

Prices for food are pretty much set, although you can always haggle a little bit. For manufactured goods expect a long struggle as you and the vendor clash over the price. It’s not a frantic as Arab markets but it’s still an amusing battle of wits.

Inside the walls of the old city are a few major streets lined with shops and one open-air market called Gidir Magala. It used to be the largest in town but now it’s only a few dozen covered stalls selling produce. Next to it is a firewood market and a meat market. Oromo women lead donkeys loaded with wood from this market to deliver to private homes. Women who can’t afford a donkey carry giant bundles of wood on their head. There’s also a huge blue water tank where people fill twenty-liter yellow plastic jugs. With Harar’s water shortage, porters are busy carting piles of these jugs on wheelbarrows to people’s houses.

Women also sit by the sides of the major streets and squares selling food. One cooks up delicious samosas. Several more sit behind piles of peanuts, selling packets of them for one birr (six cents) each. Others sell bananas. You don’t have to go far to find a snack.

Besides the markets, there are wandering vendors selling everything from posters to perfume. It’s a hard life, walking around all day trying to sell things people generally don’t want. These folks don’t make many sales but they manage to contribute a little to the family income. One guy who is a common sight in the Old City carrying the same three bottles of perfume should get an award for persistence. Every day for the past couple of weeks I’ve asked him if he’s made a sale, and every day he shakes his head sadly. Yesterday, though, he strode up to me, looking a foot taller, and announced that he had sold a bottle.

One item that does sell well are lottery tickets. I guess I’m not eligible to win because the lottery guys are the only street vendors who don’t try to sell to me. Everyone else keeps trying, even the perfume seller After a month in town, the shoeshine boys in front of my favorite café are still trying to shine my Gore-Tex hiking boots.

I hate shopping at home, but shopping is never dull in Africa!

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

Coming up next: Harla: Ethiopia’s lost civilization!