Tallinn, Estonia, to open secret tunnels crossing the medieval Old Town

Tallinn, Estonia
Tallinn, the capital of Estonia, is one of Europe’s most beautiful medieval cities, and it’s getting an increasing number of visitors. Starting next year there will be more to see as the city opens up secret tunnels from the 17th century connecting the city wall, shown above, to the rest of the Old Town.

Parts of the walkway along the medieval walls will also be opened and some of the wall and towers will be restored. By 2012, city planners want to open the route from from the medieval tower Neitsitorn along the town wall to another tower called Kiek in de Kök, where you can see cannonballs stuck in the outer walls from a battle in 1577. By late 2013, the route will open from Neitsitorn to Freedom Square, partly via old tunnels.

Being a fan of all things medieval, Tallinn is on my shortlist of places to go. This UNESCO World Heritage Site is a wonderfully preserved medieval port and has a long history. Thanks to the folks at the Medieval News blog for bringing this to my attention!

[Photo of city wall courtesy Christine Kühnel. Photo of Old Town courtesy Gunnar Bach Pedersen]

Tallinn, Estonia

Mystery mound in England turns out to be ancient monument

England, Silbury Hill
England’s prehistoric landscape has a new addition.

Marlborough Mound in Wiltshire has long been a mystery. The flat-topped cone of earth looks like a smaller version of Silbury Hill, pictured here. The bigger mound was finished around 2300 BC at a time when Neolithic farmers were erecting stone circles such as Stonehenge and Avebury. Now archaeologists have taken samples from Marlborough Mound and carbon dated them to 2400 BC.

Carbon dating, which measures decaying carbon isotopes in organic matter, has a slight margin of error that increases the older the sample is. Thus Silbury Hill and Marlborough Mound may have been finished simultaneously, or at least in the same generation. The two mounds are only about 20 miles apart, a day’s walk for a Stone Age farmer or excited archaeologist.

The mound was reused several times. The Romans had a settlement next to it and the Normans built a castle on top of and around it in the late 11th or early 12th century. Early Norman castles were wooden palisades around an artificial mound. In this case their prehistoric predecessors saved them some work. The wooden walls were later replaced with stone ones but the castle has long since vanished. In the 17th century the mound was turned into a garden. The mound stands on the grounds of Marlborough College and is off-limits to visitors. Hopefully that will change now that its true importance is understood.

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!

An interview with a traditional African healer

healer, traditional medicine, HararAt first glance, Alia Abdi doesn’t look like someone who can cure cancer with a simple recipe. A middle-aged wife and mother living in a typical home at the end of a rambling alley in Harar’s old city, she offers visitors hot coffee and a ready smile, like any other hostess in this hospitable town.

Alia gets a lot of visitors. She’s a traditional Ethiopian healer, with a variety of herbal recipes to cure everything from liver trouble to Hepatitis B to, she says, cancer.

I first heard about Alia through the Harari tour guide Nebil Shamshu Muhammed (nebilha20@ yahoo.com) who was suffering from jaundice. He felt ill and listless and his eyes and tongue had turned an unhealthy yellow. Nebil went to a regular hospital where he was given medicine and instructions about his diet. The medicine gave him a fever and the food he was supposed to eat made him ill.

Five days and a 1625 birr ($95) later, he stopped taking the medicine and decided to go to a traditional healer. Alia studied his symptoms and asked him questions about his appetite and how he felt. Healers don’t make a diagnosis of a particular disease; they look at the symptoms as a whole and brew up a medicine based on that. She presented him with an herbal concoction to take, saying “Pay me what you can. If you’re poor, don’t pay me at all.” Nebil gave her 300 birr ($18)

He took the mixture and proceeded to throw up for the entire day. That was part of the process, Alia assured him.

“After that I felt clean. My fever was gone,” Nebil said.

He looked better too. I have no medical training but I could see his yellow pallor had faded and he had more energy. I decided to visit Alia myself, taking along Helen Sepal, a senior in the pharmacy department at Haramaya University. Reclining on pillows on the floor of Alia’s living room as she burned incense and heated up coffee in a pot set atop glowing coals, she told us about her path to becoming a healer.”I learned from my mother-in-law,” she says, “I’ve been doing this for 14 years. Only one child of each generation is chosen to learn the secrets.”

And secrets they are. Each healer has his or her own cures and they don’t share them with anyone but their apprentice, not even other healers. Alia has 47 recipes, some of which cure more than one malady, but all she’ll say about them is that they’re made from mixtures of local plants.

“Why don’t you share this with us? It would be useful if all the healers pooled their knowledge,” Helen asks.

Alia shrugs and gives a noncommittal, “I’ll think about it.”

Unlike some practitioners of alternative medicine in the West, Alia respects modern medicine. She uses it herself sometimes, and if someone is already taking Western medicine, she won’t give them any of her own because the interaction of different medications could hurt them. Alia studies Western medicine from the sidelines, working as a janitor at a local hospital and asking patients what kind of treatments they’re getting. If she thinks she can help, she’ll give some advice of her own.

Alia also differs from some African healers in that she doesn’t claim to be able to treat HIV. Nebil says many are scared to.

“A healer in Kenya said he had a cure for AIDS and health professionals killed him. They were jealous. Other healers heard this and don’t reveal their secrets now. If they have a cure for AIDS they only use it for relatives.”

Whether this story is true or not is hard to say, but if the healers believe it, it’s stopped them from trying to treat one of Africa’s biggest health problems.

Alia wants to make it clear that she’s no witch. While she does pray to help her patients, there’s no sorcery involved. All her cures are based on herbal mixtures. She also shows a practical side, telling her patients to get proper rest, to take vitamins, and to eat well. Alia admits a certain placebo effect too.

“Sometimes when a person thinks they’ll be cured they get better,” she says with a smile.

After finishing our coffee we say goodbye. Nebil was already a believer in traditional medicine, as are most Ethiopians. Helen and I are impressed too. Helen repeats her comment that healers and Western-style doctors should work together. This is a refreshing change from the knee-jerk negative reaction to traditional medicine I’ve seen from some health professionals. After all, if a people have lived in a region for centuries, it makes sense that they’ve discovered the medicinal properties of the local plants. While I’m doubtful about some of the more grandiose claims like being able to cure cancer, considering that modern medicine hasn’t done a very good job at curing this disease either, it would be a good idea to check out what the healers are doing.

This probably won’t happen, though. Competitors rarely cooperate, and the doctors in the hospitals and the healers in the private homes will continue to treat their patients separately, even though these patients may benefit from both traditional and Western medicine getting together and sharing what they know.

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

Coming up next: A visit to an African market!

Harar home stay: living in a traditional African home

homsetay, home stay, Harar, Harar homestay, Harar home stay
If you’re staying for any length of time in a place, the best way to experience the local culture is through a home stay. Luckily Harar has a number of traditional homes offering spare rooms.

A local guide showed me a few and I chose one hidden away in a small alley not far from the Catholic mission. This is the neighborhood that got Harar a UNESCO religious tolerance award because there’s an Ethiopian Orthodox Church, a Catholic mission, and several mosques all within sight of each other. Walking home I use three minarets and a giant cross as landmarks.

Harari homes look inward. All you see is a gate that leads to a compound of two or more houses, hidden behind their own gates. Enter the second gate and you’re still not inside, you’re in a courtyard with the bathroom to one side and to the other a large, ornately carved wooden door leading to the main building. Harari homes have a unique architecture. With thick stone walls and small windows, they stay cool even in the scorching heat of the day. Leaving your shoes at the front door, you enter the nedeba, or living room. The walls are covered in colorful plates and baskets and often cabinets with multicolored glassware. Hararis love to decorate their rooms with the products of their centuries-old crafts. People sit on a series of platforms, reclining against pillows. The platforms are painted red in memory of those who died at the battle of Tchellenqo in 1887, when the Ethiopian Emperor Menelik II defeated Harar’s Emir Abdullahi and the city lost its independence.

Where you sit depends on who you are. The amir nedeba is where the head of the family sits. It’s on the highest platform, usually in one corner where he can see the entrance to the compound. In olden days there was a spot for keeping some spears right next to the amir nedeba, just in case the person entering the compound wasn’t welcome. After a month in Harar I’ve only seen one guy who regularly carries a spear, though.

%Gallery-119012%I’m a regular at a few Harari homes and nobody throws spears at me. Since I’m an honored guest from far away, I sit at the gidir nedeba, the place of honor. I’ve seen members of the family sitting in that spot immediately move when I come in. No amount of protest will get them to sit back down. The next level down is the tit nedeba (“small place”) for lower-ranking people. This isn’t strictly followed, however. One birtcha (qat-chewing session) I attend has so many people that even some of the most prominent individuals sit on the lower level because there isn’t enough room on the upper. Another, separate platform is called the gebti eher nedeba (“the place behind the door”) and is for the young or people of a lower social class.

Harari homes are full of symbolism. My friend Amir says, “Every color, every shape means something. Most Hararis cannot know it all.”

Even little details are worked out in advance, he says. There’s a special room with a narrow entrance for women to stay during childbirth. It’s wider at the top so that big platters of food can be passed through.

The width of the bedroom door corresponds to the width of a coffin. “That’s to remind you of your fate and to live a good life,” he says.

My house, owned by Faisel and Anisa Abdullah, has a separate upstairs all for me. I get a bedroom, a living room, and a lounge with no furniture but a bunch of pillows ranged around the walls. This is for entertaining. Friends will sit here drinking coffee or chewing qat and talking the hours away. My rooms cost me 3500 birr ($212) a month. Water is included and this is important to confirm when renting a place because water is expensive in Harar, especially in the dry season we’re in now. I wasn’t expecting to have only a squat toilet and bucket showers but it turns out the bathroom has a European-style toilet and a proper shower, luxuries I don’t need but certainly appreciate.

Imme, a German painter staying in a different neighborhood, has three rooms even larger than mine for 3000 birr ($182) a month, but got the more traditional African bathroom. Both of us have far more space than we need, and for a price lower than the city’s hotels!

A home stay allows you to settle in a neighborhood for a while. The closed-off nature of Harari architecture means I haven’t met most of my neighbors, but I’m getting to know the people I pass in the nearby alleys every day. I’m also getting into the rhythm of the place. Just before dawn the muezzin of the Jamia mosque wakes me up with the morning call to prayer. The first couple of mornings I had a hard time falling back asleep, but now the flowery sounds of Arabic barely register in my dreams. I’d make a bad Muslim. The muezzin’s call to prayer is followed by low chanting coming from the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, announcing their morning service.

I’m usually up shortly after dawn in any case. Outside my window I can hear the kids from the local school horsing around before the bell rings. If I peek out my window I can just see the front door of the school over the rooftops. The kids in their yellow shirts and sky-blue pants or skirts wait in the shade or run around after each other laughing.

Soon I’m out wandering around Harar. I usually don’t come back until night, when I sit for an hour or two writing in my living room before turning in. The open window lets in all the sounds of the Harari night. Hyenas laugh and howl at the edge of town like the mad lost souls of Purgatory, sometimes getting closer, sometimes drawing away or shifting position. The town dogs bark defiantly but do no good. I often see hyenas pacing through the alleys in the center of town looking for scraps to eat. They keep quiet then, preferring to make noise outside the city walls. The battle ebbs and flows all night, at times lapsing into an eerie silence. Then the hyenas will call to each other again and the dogs will bark self-importantly, completely ignored by the hyenas.

It’s like falling asleep to music.

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

Coming up next: A visit to a traditional healer!