by Dr. Hanna Rubinkowska

Harer's colorful marketIt is only a day trip to take you from Addis Ababa to Harar.

For the standards of traveling in Ethiopia, it is a short route and far less exciting than the steep and curly paths of northern Ethiopia.

The road is good and asphalt in comparison to those roads which lead you in other directions from Addis.

On its most it is not passing through mountainous ranges. This, however, does not mean that it does not offer views worth taking a picture here and there.

Also a chance of seeing small mammals is quite high. Not to mention proud camels eating leaves from the trees at the side of the road.

The quick trip from Addis brings travelers to another world. Harar has been an Ethiopian town only for a little bit over a hundred years now.

At the end of the 19th Century Ras Makonnin, father of Haile Sillassie I, was sent by Emperor Menilek II to conquer the province of Hararge and he succeeded.

Hararge and its capital, Harar  was incorporated into the fast growing Empire. From then on, it started to serve as an extremely important economy base for the country and also was a scene of some of the most important political events in the 20th Century.

Harar is one of the most striking, colorful and impressive places in Ethiopia. Its history is as colorful and intriguing as the spirit of the town is today.

There are two parts – the outer one: Christian, created after conquering the Muslim town by Christian Ethiopians, and inner one: Muslim and historical, included on the UNESCO list.

The new part of the town is relaxed, clean and with some nice spots, the old part leaves an unforgettable impression. Today it still looks like Muslim towns were centuries ago.

It has been walled since the 16th Century, when this kind of protection was needed against the raids of the Oromo people. These raids constituted one of the main threats both to the Muslim Harar and Christian Ethiopia in the 16th and 17th Centuries.

Today the Oromo, make probably the biggest group of inhabitants in Ethiopia.

The foundation of Harar is attributed to Sultan Abu Bekr Mohammed from Walasma dynasty, who reigned in the 16th Century, but historians agree that the town is much older than this.

Another historical personality whose name is connected with the town is Imam Ahmed Ibn Ibrahim al-Ghazi, known in Ethiopia as “Gragn,” meaning “Left-handed.”

This religious and military leader made Harar a center for a new strong political power: Adal Sultanate, and led his troops in a jihad against the Ethiopian Empire.

The 14-year war, victorious for the Muslim forces, finished when Gragn lost his life in a battlefield and the successors of the Imam had to face the growing threat of Oromo raids. For over two centuries no European was allowed into the walled city. However, in 1855 British orientalist, Richard Burton entered Harar dressed as a Muslim.

French poet, Arthur Rimbaud was another famous European who not only visited Harar, but chose it to be his home. He settled there in 1880 to trade arms, and he eventually died in the city in 1891.

The city of Harar is now, as it has been for hundreds of years, a web of tiny streets leading the visitor among high walls surrounding Harari houses and their inner yards. Life goes on inside these walls as well as in the streets and colourful market places.

Colour is the most distinctive feature of the city. The entrances to private houses and to the mosques are decorated in colours, the ladies gowns and jewelry they wear are colourful, the bars and shops are full of colours.

Harar being now, as it has always been, a commercial center, brings different people from the area to buy and sell colourful goods in its markets.

Chat is among these goods. Chat chewing is something what Harar cannot exist without. This plant isHarer's chat market cultivated and used as a drug in the Horn of Africa and in the Arab world.

It is one of the most important Ethiopian export products and Harar is the center for chat production.

The chat itself and those who chew it are to be found everywhere in Harar.

Huge bunches of the leaves are being sold, bought and transported around in huge quantities.

On Thursday nights it helps those who participate in mosques ceremonies – it keeps them awake to recite the Koran and dance to the sound of a drum for the whole night.

Harar being probably one of the oldest places where Islam was followed and taught is a town of hundreds of holly places. The shrines, tombs of holly men and little mosques spot the city and the area around it.

It has also served for centuries as a center for crafts and teaching. The works of Muslim art, the holly books and secular pieces of art like jewellery, weaponry or even baskets, are to be found in Harar museums.

And all this accompanied by hyenas laughing at night – nothing to be afraid about. They are friendly animals, well fed – as feeding hyenas is among one of the main tourist attractions in Harar. This should not be missed…

Dr. Hanna Rubinkowska

Dr. Hanna Rubinkowska has traveled extensively throughout Ethiopia and is a regular contributor to this blog.

She has specialized in modern history of Ethiopia and currently lectures at Warsaw University, Department of African Languages and Cultures.

Dr. Hanna Rubinkowska (Ph.D.)

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