History of Harar

A city of mosques, minarets, and markets, a center of Muslim learning, a city which once struck its own local currency, and still has its own unique language – has long been regarded by the outside world as a city of mystery and romance. Situated on a high escarpment overlooking surrounding plains, which extend as far as the eye can reach, it enjoys a balmy climate and a fascinating history.

Harar, situated in rich and highly cultivated agricultural land, watered by innumerable springs, streams and rivers. This land yielded an abundance of crops: wheat, millet, maize and other grains, as well as an unimaginable variety of fruit and vegetables. Also of great importance was coffee, cultivated for many centuries in gardens around the city, and the mild narcotic chat, or Catha edulis, which, as the years rolled by, became increasingly popular, and is today exported in large quantities to neighboring lands.

Harar is remarkable in that it has its own special tongue, A dare, which is known only to the people of the city. This language, which must once have been used much more widely, is one of the offshoots of Ge,ez, the classical Semitic language of Ethiopia. It was the language of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, as well as the root of Amharic, Ethiopias modern official language, and of Tigrinya, the language spoken in the north of the country.

Before entering the city, todays traveler, like those of the past, has to pass through its famous 3,342 meter-long encircling wall, locally known as the Jogal. This structure was erected in the sixteenth century by one of the cities best remembered local rulers of medieval times, Nur ibn-Mujahid, who is said to have dug a defensive trench around the town. This wall, which ensured the cities safety in former days, is made of locally quarried, untrimmed Hashi stone or calcareous tuff, held together with mud, and reinforced with stout juniper planks.

The walls of Harar were pierced in early times by five gates, a number supposed to symbolize the Five Pillars of Islam. These gates, known to the Hararis as bari, were situated respectively to the north, east, south-east, south, and west of the city. Each had its own distinctive name, and provided entry and egress to caravans traveling to and from different stretches of the surrounding country.

Each of these gates thus played a different role in the economy of the city and of neighboring lands. The northern gate, for example, was known as the Assum Bari, because it was used by traders importing assu, or pepper and salt, from the Gulf of Aden coast of Africa; while the eastern gate was called the Argob Bari because it served merchants handling the lucrative trade from Argobba, one of Ethiopias inland regions.

The gates of Harar in olden days were strongly guarded, and were strictly closed at night – for no one was allowed to enter or leave the city during the long hours of darkness. Strangers wishing to enter Harar in daytime had first to deposit their spears, guns and other arms with the cities guards, who would look after them scrupulously, and return them when their owners were ready to leave. The walls had, however, a number of holes placed to allow the drainage of water and sewage and to enable hyenas, who constituted the principal garbage collectors, to enter the settlement at night and leave it before the break of dawn.

The subsequent integration of Harar into the greater Ethiopian realm led to the construction, in the twentieth century, of two additional gates. To the west, the Shewa gate, so called because it afforded access to the important Ethiopian province of that name; and also the Berbere Bari, called after Ethiopias hot peppery spice which seems to have been handled in the area. The first of these gates is today by far the most used, for it links the Old and New Towns, while the Berbere Bari has long since been closed.

Though most of the men of Harar now wear modern, or European, clothes, many of the womenfolk are still dressed in traditional costumes reminiscent of those described by Richard Burton, and illustrated in the engravings he published in his famous book. The women wear clothes of silk or other fine material, sometimes of crimson, purple or, more often, of black decorated with a small diaper of gold. Over this, Harari women will also gracefully drape a shawl, perhaps of orange or black, likewise decorated with gold.

Harar, which is not too large to be inspected on foot, is a place of unique and unforgettable charm, and has much to offer the discerning tourist. Walking down its narrow, cobble stoned and twisting lanes one can easily feel transported back in time to the days of Richard Burton – or even earlier when Amir Nur was constructing the cities stout old walls.

In the evening one can visit the cities infamous hyena-man, who can be seen summoning some of the many hyenas who live, as in the olden days, outside the city walls. There are also numerous well-stocked shops selling the beautiful, finely woven baskets for which the city is famous.

Harars two museums provide remarkable visual insights into Ethiopias unique history, as well as Harars distinct, but still insufficiently studied civilization. The many historical exhibits include old coinage of the city and the clothes and pistol of the Harar patriot Dejazmach Teferra. In the Harar Cultural Museum you can not only see fabulous jewelry, manuscripts and baskets – but you can also sip the quti, with or without salt.

Though Harar is essentially a Muslim town, it also boasts a fine Christian Church, the Church of Medhanie Alem, or Savior of the World. This place of worship was erected during the reign of Emperor Menilek, who occupied Harar in 1887. Like many structures erected in his day, it is octagonal in plan, and stands on a plinth of four steps.

The churchs two roofs are also octagonal. The lower one covers an outer ambulatory or verandah, while the upper roof, divided from the lower by a narrow band of windows, rises to a central point; surmounted by an elaborate octagonal structure supporting a ten-pointed cross or star, decorated, as so often in Ethiopian churches, with ostrich eggs. The reason why these eggs are placed over church roofs is a matter of debate. Some authorities claim that they are used in recognition of the fact that the ostrich always guards its eggs most solicitously, and their eggs, it is hoped, will similarly at all times protect the faithful. The eaves of the churchs two roofs and of the upper-most structure are decorated with fine lacelike ornament. Twenty-four slender, rectangular stone columns surround the verandah, and are topped by wooden brackets with carved tracery curving outwards on either side.

The historical importance of Harar, its unique buildings, its great encircling wall, and its well fashioned gates, received international recognition in 1989 when they were listed by UNESCO as part of the cultural heritage, not only of the city and of Ethiopia, but of humanity as a whole

By Natnaiel(Naty)