Exploring the Ancient City of Harar

Gates of Harar
Entering Harar

AFRICANGLOBE -The sun was nowhere to be seen in the sky as the bus carefully drove into its parking spot in Meskel Square. It was 5 o’clock in the morning as my first journey out of Addis Ababa began, a journey that would completely change my view on the country I currently live in.

Luckily I was in the company of two friends who were going to explore what is outside of Addis Ababa for the first time as well.

The bus seats on which we were going to travel on were tattered, the footrests missing in front of at least half of the seats and the food tables were either pointing downwards or simply too fragile to stay in the right position when a bottle of water was placed on them. But, the view was amazing.

I was lucky enough to get one of the front seats, and from there, the sight of the Ethiopian countryside kept amazing me as the bus took us further and further away from Addis Ababa. It was beautiful; all the passengers on the bus experienced the busy mornings of the Ethiopian peasants, small villages waking up as well as the sun rising above the mountains alongside the road.

As the day progressed, the heat of the sun got stronger and Harar got closer, the air-condition system of the bus was set on a difficult task; to keep everyone in the bus at a pleasant temperature. Fortunately it succeeded its task and we arrived in Harar with a lot of spare energy after we had been sitting down for almost ten hours with only a few breaks.

After a five-minute ride in a bajaj, we arrived at the hotel where we were going to stay for the next four nights. Our hotel room was a small one, but a couple of beds, a toilet and a showering facility were enough to keep us happy. Harar differs a lot from Addis Ababa, the amount of people trying to sell fruits, spices or bread on the streets is incredible, the lack of restaurants and cafes were something I noticed quickly and for the first day there was neither water nor electricity in the entire city.

The city is divided into two parts, a new and an old one. The old part is preserved meaning that if somebody wants to build a new house or reconstruct their old one, they have to make sure that the house still looks old from the outside, to maintain the special feeling the old city has.

In the evening of the first day we went to see what I had been looking extremely forward to: feeding hyenas. My expectations of the hyenas were mostly a result of what I have seen in Walt Disney’s ‘The Lion King,’ where the stupidity of those animals was the only counterpart to their evil nature. I had no idea about the quantity of hyenas, but I was certain that they would all be tame, but even then, my biggest concern was to get bitten by one of them.

Harar was a closed city for much of its history

The hyena show was just outside the city and we went there with a local guide. He arranged a bajaj and on the way, he told us a lot about the old part of the city as well as the show that we were about to participate in. Finally, we arrived at our destination. Headlights were used to light up a small field, and in the middle of that field, a man, surrounded by roughly ten hyenas, stood with a barrel full of meaty bones a stick to pick it up. I asked our guide about the chances of getting bitten; “They are non-existent,” he answered, simply because the hyenas only want the meat in the barrel, and since we were going to feed them the meat, they would not want any more to eat, not even delicious humans.

The hyenas were not tame, but the hyena-man, the man with the barrel, knew how to handle them, and it was very clear that this was an everyday event. He named all the hyenas and upon calling their names, they knew that it was their turn to get fed. After watching a few others feeding the hyenas, it finally became my turn.

My heart was beating rapidly as I walked into the middle of the field to pick up the stick and feed the hyenas myself. It was a great success. I made the hyenas stand on their short back legs to reach the meat and I even tried the hyena-massage; sitting down on my knees while a hyena was using my back to reach the meat above my head, a terrifying but at the same time wonderful experience.

Every Monday and Thursday a camel market takes place a bit outside of Harar. We went there on Thursday to experience an animal market with a very exotic animal. An enormous field was separated into two parts, one of them containing an uncountable number of sheep, cows and goats while the other, for me the more exciting part, was filled with camels of all sizes. The camel owners made us clap, hug and take pictures with those incredible creatures and we spent close to two hours walking around the camels, who were all there to get sold.

Even though the hyena feeding and the camel market were both a great and very exotic experience, we still had yet to see one of the most important things while visiting Harar: a guided tour throughout the old part of the city.

The old part of Harar is called jegol, which means the old walled city. The walls around Harar are more than two meters tall, and were built to defend the city from migration as well as attacks from enemy armies. To get into the city you would have to go through one of the six gates, where guards would make sure that nobody would enter illegally.

We followed our guide around in the narrow streets of Harar while he told us stories. Our first destination of the tour was a Harari traditional house, also called aderae house. The house was beautiful inside; colorful baskets, bowls, pots and pans were covering the walls of the living room as great decoration. The floor was raised into five different levels, all covered with cushions and blankets ensuring a comfortable place for sitting or lying down. The traditional house also serves as a guesthouse, where people can stay in the same way as a hotel.

Rimbaud Museum Harar
Harar’s Rimbaud Museum

Next stop was the Rimbaud Museum. The style of this museum was like nothing else in the old part of Harar, it is a big and very beautiful tree house with columns and colorful windows. It serves as a memorial house for the French poet Arthur Rimbaud as well as a museum with pictures of Harar, some of them taken more than 100 years ago. Furthermore, there is a wonderful view from the top window of the house, from where you can see the entire old city of Harar.

Similar to the hyena show, we saw kites taking meat from the bare hands of people at the meat market. People buying meat from the market have to hide it under their clothes to make sure that they get everything with them on their way home. The crows are sitting on the top of the roofs waiting for someone to be a little incautious with their fresh meat, but luckily, people made it a business to entertain examiners by feeding the crows with spare meat. We did not feed the crows ourselves, but watching it was just as great.

Harar contains more than 82 mosques, one Orthodox and one Catholic Church. The mosques are spread all over the old city behind the walls of private houses but one, a very big one called Jamia Mosque. From the Catholic Church there was a wonderful view of the fields outside of Harar as well as the mountains surrounding the area.

Ethiopia is not only the modern life, displayed in Addis Ababa. Visiting the old city of Harar felt like traveling back 100 years in time, and it is a great experience if you want to understand just a little about the history of Ethiopia. Harar really changed my view on Ethiopia, and made me realize how developed Addis Ababa actually is. It was a journey I will never forget, but after spending four days there, I was happy to return to my beloved home.


By; Teis Feldborg Gregersen