Harar, the ancient walled city in the eastern badlands of Ethiopia, is a place of many apparent contradictions. In a mainly Orthodox Christian country, Muslims consider it to be the fourth holiest city in the world for its collection of 90 mosques and shrines. Once the base of the warlord Ahmed Gragn, who led his armies on an annual jihad against the Orthodox Christian empire that ruled the highlands of the north, it now enjoys UNESCO status as ‘a city of tolerance, peace and diversity.’ Above all, it’s a place where cultures meet: the Harari, Amharic, Somali, Afar and Oromifa languages can all be heard within its walls and bustling marketplaces.
Harar is utterly unlike other Ethiopian cities. With its intricate, winding lanes it bears more than a passing resemblance to the old towns of the Arab world. Its houses are painted white, green, startling pink, or powder blue the shade of Morocco’s ‘blue city’ Chefchaouen. Entering through the Showa Gate, one of five old gateways cut through the sixteenth-century wall, the roadway slopes gently downhill into a maze of narrow streets in which tribeswomen from the surrounding villages lay out colourful displays of coffee, spices, vegetables and cotton. There are low wooden benches where you can enjoy a breakfast of special fool – a spicy mash of beans and scrambled eggs – for as little as 3 birr (around 15 pence), along with a glass of sickly-sweet tea or Ethiopian coffee. And it won’t be long before you’re invited to chew the mildly narcotic leaf khat, on which it seems the entire population is hooked.
Partly due to their incessant khat-chewing, Hararis have a reputation among other Ethiopians as people whose main goals in life are pleasure and relaxation. During Ramadan, I was invited to share feasts of lentils, rice and steaming mounds of spiced vegetables, followed by coffee, dates, halva and perfumed Arabic sweets. ‘During the day, we are not allowed even to swallow our own saliva,’ I was informed by my host. ‘But then we stay up and party til dawn. The Christians here love Ramadan, because they get to have fun all night with us. They drink, and we chew khat. But, you know, when it’s not Ramadan, most of us drink too.’ These words pretty much sum up the spirit of the City of Tolerance. It’s a friendly and permissive place that confounds common preconceptions.
My main pleasure was wandering the streets, getting agreeably lost in alleyways that seem to reveal a new surprise around every corner. But for around £5 a day you can also hire a guide, which is helpful in locating some of the city’s hidden treasures. The guide I found (or rather, who found me) was Grima, a gentle and softly-spoken man who alluded frequently to a profound revelation he’d had recently, the details of which he never quite revealed. It didn’t matter; he showed me other revelations I’d never have found on my own. These included traditional homes, the cool, spacious interiors of which are hung with intricately-woven baskets (again I was reminded of Morocco), and various tucked-away tombs and shrines to sheiks and saints throughout history. We saw the former residence of the poet Arthur Rimbaud (or Rambo, as he’s known round here), who settled down as a merchant here; his old house is now a museum, where, through the coloured glass of the windows on the topmost floor, you can see beyond the city walls to the stippled brown and yellow hills that roll away to Somaliland, 90 miles to the east.
It’s worth taking the road this way, too. A minibus ride of less than an hour brings you to the Valley of Marvels, an arid, acacia-studded landscape dominated by fantastical pillars of precariously-balanced rock that looks like something from the set of a sci-fi film. You can follow a trail through dense cactus thickets to get a closer look at these formations, including one prominent column of granite that was allegedly shelled by a tank during the short-lived Somali invasion (they missed). If you linger here towards evening, you may hear hyenas and the distant roar of lions.
On the way back to Harar it’s worth stopping at Babile, a Somali village that holds a vibrant camel market every Monday and Thursday. Somali clansmen from miles around bring vast herds of camels to trade – I was told there were 20,000 there – and the market is also visited by the local Oromo people, distinctive in their brightly-coloured clothes and beaded jewellery. Upon arrival I was grabbed by a talkative man in a blue turban, who took it upon himself to fill the many gaps in my knowledge of camels (for example, they can retch up their throats and wobble them out of their mouths like a tongue; one of the more disgusting sights on offer). Another man then accosted the first. ‘What are you doing with that Amhara?’ he demanded furiously; the Amhara region is the heartland of Ethiopia’s Orthodox Christians, and I received this label as an apparently Christian-looking outsider. A vigorous argument developed, which seemed to be about to lead to blows, until both men burst out laughing and slapped me on the back. I guessed it had all been a joke, but I couldn’t be sure.
The Valley of Marvels and Babile road eventually snakes to Somaliland, and on the way you pass a steady stream of Isuzu trucks carrying bags of prized khat east, and coming back loaded with contraband – electronic goods and knock-off designer clothes such as the popular ‘Abibas’ t-shirts – from unregulated ports on the Red Sea. The smuggling, pretty much ignored by the police, lends a distinctively roguish flavour to the many pleasures of the region. But it cannot be emphasised enough that despite the relative proximity of a chronically unstable state, Harar is one of the most relaxed, least threatening places to visit in Ethiopia.
One of the city’s strangest attractions are the famous Hyena Men, who follow an obscure tradition of feeding the wild hyenas that gather outside the city walls at dusk. The Hyena Men call the hyenas by name, and it’s an unreal, eerie sight to see these powerful predators emerging from the shadows of the bush and prowling into the light. There they are fed cuts of slaughterhouse meat, which the Hyena Man offers by hand, and if he feels like showing off he dangles the meat on the end of a short stick clenched between his teeth. When I was there the hyenas, after obligingly wolfing down a few of the bloodier hunks, laid down in the dust and went to sleep. The Hyena Man seemed a bit put out, until someone reported a dead cow in the field just down the hill; the hyenas had clearly feasted on that first.
This bizarre understanding between man and hyena is a perfect emblem for Harar, a city where different religions and cultures not only coexist peacefully, but with respect and genuine friendship. If you needed another symbol of harmony, I’m sure any guide would direct you to pass through the Passage of Agreement, an alleyway with such narrow walls that unless you agree with whoever you meet coming in the opposite direction, there won’t be room for both of you to squeeze through. With such a multicultural mix, the city is perhaps best summed up by the words of one resident I met, lazily chewing khat in the shade of a crumbling wall: ‘Some people say Harar is like Allah. It’s all things in one.’