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Adventures in the ancient walled city of Harar, Ethiopia

My unexpected adventures in the ancient-walled city of Harar, in Eastern Ethiopia. From eating Fetira on the streets, to bumping into friendly locals in the maze of alleyways, and ending up staying in the store room / outhouse of a local family, Harar was definitely my most memorable part of Ethiopia.

Harar was historically a centre for Islamic scholarship and the gateway for Islam into Northeast Africa

More reminiscent of a city in North Africa than any other place in Ethiopia, Harar’s small streets and crooked alleyways make it an explorer’s heaven. Having just arrived into Harar after a 10 hour bus journey, I proceeded to the house of a lady called Anisa where I was to stay as a paying guest. Life here is far from digital – bookings involve the old school way of calling someone and explaining when you’ll be arriving, with the other party writing down details in a notepad and awaiting your arrival – very trust-based.  Unfortunately for me, there was a mix up and they got confused – a German guy came enquiring about a vacant room earlier in the day, they thought he was me and gave the room away! Polite laughter and serious embarrassment followed as they tried to explain this to me (with the help of a neighbourhood friend who spoke a smattering of English). But there’s always a solution.

So, we decided that I could sleep in their store room / outhouse. Completely sealed with a lockable door, they cleared away some items, put in a mattress, lots of frankincense to chase away any unwelcome visitors (I didn’t ask which kind) and lots of blankets to keep me warm.

My host family consisted of Anisa, her sister Samira, their old mother, and their domestic helper Hamdia. They were extremely apologetic and invited me to watch Turkish tele-dramas later in the night which were dubbed in Amharic, while eating oranges and sitting in their traditional Harari living room, fragrant with incense. As we watched an episode of a crime drama where police detectives were trying to catch the mafia boss, with Hamdia squealing in delight and Samira exclaiming, I remembered how some of the most memorable travel experiences have absolutely nothing to do with visiting the most urgently photogenic sites.

I set off to explore that evening itself and landed in a street called ‘Sewing Machine Sound Street’, a nod to the numerous tailors that sit at their storefronts busily creating various garments and cloth bags. Harar is a place that you can just lose yourself in, while wandering down its small streets and crooked alleys (there are over 350 alleyways squeezed into just one square kilometre). The two most celebrated residents of the city are however not human. They are hyenas. Somewhat occupying celebrity status, these hyenas are fed diligently by two families and bumping into them while wandering down the city’s quaint streets might just be the more bizarre (or most scary) encounter in Ethiopia. I for one had no desire to bump into them – but who knew what was in store.

While walking past the tailor shops and absorbing the sights and sounds of Harar, one of the chaps managing a shop waved and said hello. Normally I try and run away from any sales spiels as quickly as possible, but he seemed friendly and kind so I replied back in Harari (I managed to learn a few phrases).

He was so taken up by the fact that I knew phrases in his local language (which is different to Amharic – the lingua franca in Ethiopia) that he insisted I come in for a chat. Soon, the man from the neighbouring store joined us. They were both very intrigued by my presence in Harar, having come from so far on my own (I had to explain where Sri Lanka was) and even more curious as to how I learned Harari. It turns out that Mubarak was just minding this store for his uncle and he was a journalism student in Harar.

So warm is the Harari culture that before I knew it, Mubarak was proudly introducing me to all of his family and showing off his traditional Harari home (round the corner) which he said was the site of the first Arabic bank in Ethiopia. Our conversation could have easily been the foundation for a sales pitch, an offer to be an informal guide, or to convince me in some way to accept the services of a friend or relative – which is what I normally would have assumed. But it wasn’t. It was one of genuine interest and curiosity filled with Harari warmth. I’m still recovering from the Argentinian incident in 2015 when I was mugged, and gradually learning to see the best in people again. Allamaghan, Mubarak (Thank you in Harari).

The ever friendly children of Harar

Ethiopian children are in general very jovial and friendly but the kids in Harar were on another level. Every time children on the street saw me they would smile widely and yell ‘Hi’ a few times, wait for my reply and yell ‘Bye’ and keep grinning until I was out of sight. Most of them would proactively ask me to take a photo of them and would appear so crestfallen if I declined, that I decided to appease them and take a few shots, with their parents looking apologetic somewhere behind them. Usually this resulted in fits of giggles and laughter and more kids running to join the photo. Their faces lit up like they’d seen magic when I showed them the photos I’d taken. I’m usually not one to be swayed by children, but I think the Harari kids softened me, just a little bit.

One of the historic gates which punctuates the old defensive wall around Harar

Harar’s founders were believed to have been Arabian immigrants. Given its strategic position between the Ethiopian highlands and the Gulf of Aden, it quickly became a bustling crossroads for commerce between the Middle East, India & Africa. In fact, the city has an Arabic name – Madeenat-ul-Awliya (the City of Saints). The thick 5 metre high walls surrounding Harar were built by its ruler in response to the threat of the neighbouring Ethiopian Christian Empire in the 16th century. But today, Muslims and Christians live side by side in harmony. I was amazed to learn that this tiny city had over 100 mosques – a clear legacy of its historic status as a centre for Islamic scholarship and the gateway for Islam into Northeast Africa. It’s considered by some to be the fourth holiest city in the Islamic world, after Medina, Mecca and Jerusalem. I couldn’t help but exclaim “Yek Umsar” while seeing different parts of the city with locals; a Harari phrase meaning “that is beautiful.”

Harar has a thick 5 metre high wall that is about 3.5km long – originally built by its ruler in response to the threat of an expanding neighbouring Ethiopian Christian Empire in the 16th century


Getting there: Harar is easily reached from Addis Ababa by long distance coach (e.g. SkyBus) leaving early morning, which takes approximately 9-10 hours

Staying there: While there are more modern hotels outside the old town, I think the best experience is to stay as a paying guest in a local Harari home (you might need someone who speaks Amharic to help make your booking over the phone)

Getting away: I took a minibus from Harar to Dire Dawa and then flew from Dire Dawa Airport onwards to Djibouti City

Food in Harar 

To my great surprise, I found samosas all the way in Harar. Except, they were called sambusas here – an Ethiopian/Arabian twist to the Indian version, usually with goat meat and an accompaniment of green chutney. But my favourite street food was Fetira, particularly popular in Harar. It resembles a savoury pancake or crepe, with egg, tomatoes, onions, and green chilli cooked within it over hot coal, before being wrapped into a little parcel. Deliciously simple, especially with a good Ethiopian tea to wash it down.

I visited Harar, Ethiopia in February 2019

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