Ethiopia: Harar

Harar is Ethiopia’s great muslim city, in the east of the country. Founded in the 8th century and having sheltered a relative of the Prophet Muhammad, it is considered by some as the fourth holiest city in Islam. With its winding alleys, traditional houses built around a hidden courtyard, and 99 tiny mosques (allegedly the highest density in the world), Harar feels like a cross between Zanzibar and Timbuktu.

The Old City is surrounded by fortified walls behind which nestle 4000 traditional Harari houses and many markets in small squares. Little has changed in Harar since the mid-19th century when the explorer Richard Francis Burton visited, disguised as an Arab, and found a bustling trading city ruled over by the Emir of Harar.

Closer to the Arab world than to Christian Ethiopia, Harar remains a prosperous trading hub at the crossroads of the Arabian Peninsula and East Africa. An ancient city whose spirit of tolerance has attracted people of all faiths and beliefs for many centuries, from Sufi mystics to the French poet Arthur Rimbaud who lived in Harar for 11 years in the early 20th century. With 70% of the population chewing chat, a hallucinogenic herb, Harar is a relaxed, not to say torpid place indeed.

city walls and the Egyptian Gate
one of the 99 tiny mosques of Harar
narrow lanes of Harar, and houses hiding their secret courtyards
ladies selling hallucinogenic chat leaves
Traditional Harari house where we spend the night. The baskets on the wall are Harari family heirlooms.
visiting a traditional home
feeding the hyenas, called every evening by the “hyena men” as part of an old pact between Harar and the hyenas