I had come to Harar with a small group from Addis Ababa, which lies about 250 miles to the east, about a twelve-hour journey by road in good conditions. We chose to take the more widely preferred route, a flight into Dire Dawa, Ethiopia’s second-largest city. Located 35 miles west of Harar, Dire Dawa was established as Addis Harar (New Harar) in 1902 as the main rail station between Addis and Djibouti. (There are currently plans to refurbish the royal railcars used by Haile Selassie for an Orient Express–style excursion train on the line.)
On the mountain road from the airport, we passed several villages, workmen chipping stone by the roadside, and herds of cattle being driven to new pastures and markets. In the village of Aw Wadai, we paused to join the people congregated for market. The main commodities offered were fruits, vegetables, and the leaves of a mildly addictive though stimulating plant called chat (qat). Muslims are not allowed alcoholic drinks, but some spend their spare time hazily chewing chat.
Before entering Harar, we took a side road to a point overlooking the city. Its impressive walls and gates are intact, although Harar has clearly outgrown itself. New buildings, shops, and most of the non- Muslim population are located outside the old walls. Circling back to enter the city we passed Badr Beri, one of the original sixteenth- century gates. The area is relatively peaceful, with a few people walking in and out. The gate is now always open, but a look inside reveals that it was a double gate. If any invaders managed to get past the first gate, they would probably have received a rude greeting at the second one.
Harar is Ethiopia’s only walled city, its streets so narrow that they must be negotiated on foot. Historically it was a center of Muslim learning and today houses the world’s largest concentration of mosques, around ninety in all. The majority of those living within the walls are Muslim, and those walls have long been considered a symbol of the sanctuary Harar offered Muslims from Christian and animist attacks. That sense of protectiveness today extends toward tourism. Though the city wants to encourage visitors, holy Muslim sites are not made available, and it is not considered appropriate for outsiders to visit mosques.
Ethiopia has been Christian since the fourth century and has strong connections to the Egyptian Coptic Church. Ethiopians even claim that their emperors, up to and including Haile Selassie, were descended from Menelik I, the son the queen of Sheba bore to King Solomon. What I had not realized was that Ethiopia is also strongly Muslim. About 45 percent of the population is Christian, but an equal number are Muslim. (The remaining 10 percent are animist.) Ethiopia also boasts a direct link to the Prophet Muhammad. When the prophet was being persecuted for his faith in Allah, the One God, he sent some of his family to Axum, at that time the capital in northern Ethiopia. He called the Ethiopians “godly people” and knew his relatives would be safe there.
Even after the prophet’s death in 632, relations with Axum remained cordial. By 732, the Islamic empire had spread through Saudi Arabia, the Middle East, Egypt, North Africa, and Spain. The Kingdom of Axum was exempt from the jihad, or holy war of conversion. The Arabs considered Axum to be on a par with their own Islamic state, Byzantium, and China one of the world’s great kingdoms. Gradually Muslim traders established outposts along the coast of East Africa, from present-day Djibouti and Somalia south, further isolating the Axumite Kingdom.
During this time, the trading village of Harar was established, with emirs ruling from the tenth century. Over seventy of them are recorded, the most notable being Ahmed Gragn. From 1520 until 1560, Gragn and his nephew (Nur Ibn al-Wazir) launched a series of raids that nearly caused the collapse of the Christian empire. It was at that time that the walls of Harar were constructed to keep out the Oromo tribe, which had occupied much of southern Ethiopia due to a Muslim-Christian conflict.
Harar was an important center of Muslim trade and learning into the nineteenth century. The emirs even sent Islamic missionaries educated here to many parts of the world. But because only Muslims were allowed to enter Harar, many rumors grew up concerning it. The first European to penetrate its seclusion was the noteworthy British explorer Richard Burton (disguised as a Turkish trader) in 1854. He spent an uneasy ten days within Harar’s walls, at considerable personal risk. A more widely known foreign visitor was the French poet (and gunrunner) Arthur Rimbaud, who resided in Harar for a tumultuous ten years. The house associated with his time there is now promoted as a tourist attraction.
A world within itself
Harar’s independence ended in 1875. The city was captured by Egyptian forces, and its ruling emir was killed. Egyptian occupation collapsed in 1884, but in 1887 Harar was captured by the future emperor, Menelik II. He headed off religious warfare by naming several members of the emir’s family to his new administration, under a Christian governor named Ras Makonnen. He would be the father of Ras Tafari, the future Emperor Haile Selassie.
Despite Harar’s often turbulent past, most of its original wall remains. The wall can be observed from the road that follows the city’s perimeter. Some sections were rebuilt by the Egyptians and, more recently, the Italians. The parts that look newer are often in fact the older ones, with fresh paint or plaster added. We toured the city by entering through the Argo Gate, wandering about until we emerged at the Duke Beri Gate. We then made a quick trip to the Asedin (or Lion Faith) Gate. This portal, built by Emir Nur, is over four hundred years old; Bab al Nasr (Gate of Victory) is written on it in Arabic. Close by is the brand-new Belayneh Hotel, which opened in 1995. The gate marks the location of the chief outdoor market in the area. Bustling with men in mostly western clothing and women in black skirts or long, colorful dresses and head scarves, the market appears to have almost no physical structures or stalls, just piles of produce for sale. The area is permeated by the smell of animals waiting to be sold for ritual slaughter. But anything from vegetables to a laptop computer is available here, if you know to ask the right person.
Although visitors are not encouraged to explore Harar’s extraordinary number of active mosques, the city does offer several other places of interest. One is the former emir’s palace, which is now a museum. We also had the opportunity to share a meal in a “typical” Harar Muslim family home. The main room featured a raised platform where meals were taken, and family hierarchy was indicated by seating arrangements. On the walls were hung huge oval pots and bowls used for transporting food to other homes for festivals, weddings, major family occasions, or just visits. The pots were made of metal, clay, or reeds. The reed pots and their cone-shaped lids were woven in geometric patterns of orange, black, and dark earth colors.
Another attraction is the restored Rimbaud House. The house is inside a courtyard next to a whitewashed wall. A few blocks away is a small museum, kept in a school administrative building. There are spears and guns from Harar’s past and some paintings rescued from Haile Selassie’s reign, including a sign that once hung over the newest (Duke Beri) gate. But such relics really do not capture the city’s heart. “When you thought of Ethiopia, what images came to mind?” I asked myself. In modern times, it has been the nation where hundreds of thousands died of famine in the mid-1980s, due to drought and the deliberate mismanagement of food supplies by the Marxist government. More recently, of course, there has been the civil war with Eritrea. But in Harar, I encountered a world within itself, steeped in a culture uniquely protected within its own walls.
“Harar is a city with a rich history and high civilization,” Mohammed Garad, a native of Harar and now counselor-in-chief of trade and investment at the Ethiopian Embassy in Washington, D.C., comments to me. “I grew up near the Lion Gate and attended Islamic schools here before going to university in Addis Ababa. My class graduated in 1973, and we were the last to receive our degrees directly from Haile Selassie before he was overthrown. But I am most proud of the fact that my home city, because of its legacy of Qur’anic schools and the many teachers it sent into the world, is considered one of the four holy cities of Islam (with Mecca, Medina, and Jerusalem). This city holds a special place within Islamic culture and heritage.”