Harar Ethiopia is a beautiful and one of the oldest cities of Ethiopia. It is found in the eastern part of Ethiopia, close to Djibouti and Somalia, at a distance of 515 kilometers to the south-east of Addis Ababa.
It is a plateau with an elevation of 1750 meters above sea level, with deep gorges, surrounded by deserts and savannah. Harar Ethiopia is a fortified city with walls. The walls surrounding this sacred city, considered “the fourth holy city” of Islam, were built between the 13th and 16th centuries.
There were five historic gates, which corresponded to the main roads leading to the town. These gates also served to divide the city into five neighborhoods. It is a region inhabited mainly by Muslims.
History of Harar Ethiopia
The evolution of Harar Ethiopia goes back to the seventh century when Muslims from Mecca migrated to Ethiopia before Medina. For more than 40 years (from 1520 to 1568), Harar Ethiopia served as the capital of the Harari Kingdom, then it became a self-serving emirate in the 17th century and was integrated into Ethiopia in 1887.
From the late 16th century to the 19th century, Harar Ethiopia was an important trade center between the coast and the interior highlands and a location for Islamic learning.
Harar Ethiopia is known to have experienced turmoil and bloodshed for its existence. Ahmed Gragn killed Abu Beker Mohammed who was the ruler of the city. Ahmed Gragn was a militant Muslim leader.
In 1528, he used Harar Ethiopia as his base to launch his jihad and raids against the Ethiopian Christendom. He destroyed many churches and threatened the complete destruction of the Ethiopian Christian Empire. He was then killed by Emperor Gelawdewos in a Battle near Lake Tana in 1543. The incursion continued against the Christians led by Ahmed Gragn’s widow Bati Del Wambara.
In 1559, Emperor Gelawdewos marched on Harar with the aim to abolish the constant religious attack taking place. As a result, Gelawdewos was killed in a battle and his head was paraded around the city on a stake.
In 1647, Emir Ali ibn Daud took control of Harar Ethiopia and established an autonomous administration. Despite the continuous fight with Oromo tribes, Harar became larger; it became well populated, an important city for trade, and a center of Muslim scholarship.
Harar issued its own currency. After 250 years of autonomous rule, in 1875, Egypt occupied Harar and killed the Emir. The Egyptians action resulted in a strong resistance to the Muslim community of the city. Therefore, Emir Abdullah took control and led a campaign against the Egyptians, which came to an end in 1885.
In 1887, Menelik, Prince of Shewa, who later became Emperor of Ethiopia in 1889, started a war against the army of Emir Abdullah. In the end, Harar Ethiopia lost its autonomy when Menelik defeated the Emir at the Battle of Chelenko in 1887.
Menelik then established a new administration which will be headed by Ras Mekonnen, the father of Emperor Haile Selassie. This new administration included several members of the emir’s family to prevent renewed religious movement.
At the end of the 19th century, Harar Ethiopia began to disintegrate and lost its status as a trade centre. From 1902, Dire Dawa became the main commercial centre of Ethiopia when the railway line was built between Addis Ababa and Djibouti through Dire Dawa.
Despite this, Harar Ethiopia continued being the spiritual City of Ethiopia’s Muslim community, the political capital of Hararge Province until 1994, and has become a federal city-state since 1995.
The current Harar
Today Harar Ethiopia is the administrative capital of the Harar Ethiopia People National Regional State (HPNRS) which is one of the nine regional states of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia. This regional state is the smallest in terms of size, surface area, and population.
A walled city
The old city wall is the main attraction of Harar. The cityJugol wall is believed to be built somewhere between the 13th and 16th centuries and served as a protective barrier.
This thick, 5 meters high and 3.5 km long wall was built to keep away the rising migration of the Oromo people, which later also served its protective purpose when Menelik tried to take control of this fortified town.
This walled city once had five gates, a number supposed to represent the five pillars of the Islam: Shoa Gate, Buda Gate, Sanga Gate, Erer Gate, and Fallana Gate, each providing five pathways into five different quarters of the city.
These gates known as Bari to Hararis, were located on the north, east, south-east, south, and west of the city. In the old times, the gates of Harar Ethiopia were strongly guarded and were strictly closed at night.
Their locations have been determined according to defensive strategy as well as to the direction of trade routes, the location of lakes around the city, as well as the contribution of topography, rivers and springs.
The northern gate was known as Assum Bari because it was used to import assu, or paper and salt, from the gulf of aden coast of Africa. The eastern gate was called Argob Bari as it served merchants handling the lucrative trade from Argobba, which is a neighboring town.
Each of these gates played a different role in the economy of the city as each proceeded entry and egress to people traveling to and from different parts of the surrounding. The Harar gate, from where the main streets lead to the center, is constructed recently.
The Harari and their culture
The Hararis also called Geyusu (People of the city), according to linguistic classification, are one of the Semitic speaking peoples of Ethiopia in the Horn of Africa. To this day they have their own language called Gey sinan (the language of the city). So far, diverse people had lived in today’s eastern part of Ethiopia.
Hararis social history is based mainly on the social life of organizations or groupings identified by age, and sex and social obligations. The core of the city society is built around kinship, friendship, and afocha, or community organizations.
When it comes to kinship, the Harari does not marry non-Harari. Friendship provides the city with a small group of trusted equals who remain friends throughout their lives. Characteristically, a boy becomes close friends from other neighborhood boys his own age. A girl forms a friendship with the daughters of women who are close to her mother.
The afocha, or community organizations provide the Harar Ethiopia with social, ceremonial, and economic support for such occasions as weddings and funerals.
The traditional associations, i.e. the fraternities, the sororities, and the adult Jema’ah also enhance the quality of life of the Harar Ethiopia people in their own ways, as these organizations are directly concerned with the social needs and problems.
The ceremonies serve the purpose of bringing people together, strengthen the tradition of helping each other, and also pave the way for public deliberations. This can be done by creating a favorable atmosphere through these events, and, thereby, maintain the continuity of the city core values.
Among extraordinary elements that portray the self-identification of Hararis, the cultural dresses vibrant in color and intricate designs, are vivid. The Harar Ethiopia garment dresses for girls, married women, and the elderly appear identical yet they are distinct.
The daily hyena feeding tradition is also another example of this city’s unique heritage. Harar Ethiopia is famous for its ‘Hyena Man’. Feeding hyenas is actually a tradition in this part of town.
It all started in the 20th century when the people started feeding the local hyenas to stop them from decimating their livestock.
Consequently, these hyenas stopped searching for their own food and started coming into the city to get their meat from the local hyena men.
These Hyena men collect offal and bones to feed to the wild hyenas usually about 100 meters outside the Fallana Gate of the old city walls of the town. Hyenas appear just after sunset to take food from their hands.
This tradition has continued for the past century and to this day, the hyenas still come out at night to be fed by the local people.
Over a long period of time, the African and Islamic traditions influenced the development of the city and its typical urban planning and resulted in its particular character and uniqueness.
The present urban layout follows the 16th-century design for an Islamic town with its central core occupied with commercial and religious buildings and a maze of narrow alleyways with colorful facades.
The traditional city house has a typical, specific, and original architectural form, with exceptionally ornate interior design. At the end of the 19th century, Indian merchants built new houses with wooden verandas that created a different urban landscape and resulted in the construction of the combined Indian/Harari houses.
Material for the fortification wall and the houses were rough stones of granite and sandstone from the vicinity; clay was used as mortar.
A unique and distinct architectural feature in Harar Ethiopia, the traditional Adare house (derbi-gar) is a two-story structure with a flat roof made of thatch.
Inside the house, the main living room always consists of five raised platforms (Nadabas) of differing level where guests and household members sit befitting their status.
Sutri-nadaba is meant for the owner of the house, Gideer-nadaba is for elderly intellectuals and Sheikhs, and spiritual fathers, Amirnadaba is for the Amir or respected Alim; and the is gabti-ehernadaba which is the Nadaba behind the entrance door is for illitrates, and the lower platform in front of the house, Tit nadaba, is for students.
At the first sight of this living house, the eye is met by a scene of painted and carpeted area, walls covered with the city artifacts and antiquity, revealing a remarkable Harari identity. On the walls of this living room, the balance and color composition of the display of baskets is amazing.
The other ornate element of the house is the door (gambari). This door is a craft that is entirely made of wood. The door frame is decorated with carved ornaments; simple geometrical patterns and rosettes. These houses’ architectural and ornamental qualities are now part of the Harar Ethiopia cultural heritage.
Harar Ethiopia is a city that has a lot to offer culturally, historically, architecturally, and more. Harar Jugol is a one of a kind case of a relatively well-preserved historic town that has retained its traditions, colorful urban fabric, and rich Harari Muslim cultural heritage to this very day, and for this, it has gotten the recognition from UNESCO.
It is a city that has its own unique language, adorned architectural elements, and other identities. Its famous thick, five-meter-high walls were erected in the 16th century as a defensive response to the neighboring Christian Ethiopian Empire, resulting in a fortified city.
However, today Muslims and Christians share the city in peace. With its 99 mosques, including the 16th century Grand Mosque with the twin towers and slender minaret, it is considered to be the fourth most holy city in Islam after Mecca, Medina and the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem.
The Harar Ethiopia people are identified by the continued cultural traditions and quality of their handicrafts, including weaving, basket making, and bookbinding.
This historic town has a traditionally functioning community, forming a complex social-environmental whole where each element has its representative and practical importance.
The organization of the communities through traditional systems has preserved its social and physical inheritance and, especially, the city language.