"Where is Mr Rimbaud's house?" Harer by kokoryko

Harer Travel Guide: 45 reviews and 642 photos

The fourth holy city of Islam


For many Harar is considered as the fourth holy city of Islam (for others, it is Kairouan in Tunisia. . . . ) and indeed, before its takeover by Menelik in 1887 and integration into Ethiopia, non Muslim foreign visitors were few; Sir Richard Burton is said to have been the first European to enter Harar in 1850. After him many European, lured by business opportunities, mostly, entered the city, and one of the most famous was (the famous not anymore poet) Arthur Rimbaud.
Till that time Harar was a mysterious city, known by its name, but not visited and described by foreigners, and when discovering its walls, its gates and the small narrow steep streets, one can still imagine how it was in the past and a mysterious, exotic atmosphere is perceivable in the markets, shops, streets, everywhere his feet lead the curious traveller.
More than hundred mosques are in activity in Harar, and the strange thing is that one does not feel a lot of “religious pressure” here, and the visitor immediately feels that this city is cosmopolite, lots of different ethnic groups live here, there are other religions, one can feel the influence of deep central Africa, Arabia, Europe, . . . . and all this makes it a very interesting and pleasant world to discover.

Hectic history

High walls built in mid 16th century by Emir Nur ibn Mujahid encircle a 40.000 inhabitants city which barely changed from that time, at least the small streets, houses, backyards. . . . the 130.000 people living outside the 4 metres high walls and occasional visitors enter the city through huge gates which were open only during day time until end 19th century.
Harari people speak a Semitic language and their origin is still a mystery: a legend says that Au Abadir(father Abadir) the saint patron of Harar came in the region in 940-950 and converted to Islam and united the different tribes living in the region; fact is that Harar became rapidly an important city in that part of Africa.
Islam was well established and in the 16th century, a Jihad was proclaimed by Imam Gragn against Christian Abyssinia; the war lasted 15 years and the Christians finished pushing back the Muslims who just managed to keep Harar; at that time, the walls of the city were built, now Islam was on defensive on the Eastern Marches of Abyssinia.
Harar was a more or less independent city (emirate) until Egyptian takeover in 1875. It became an important city and stop-over for trade between central Africa and the Red Sea ports: ivory, tobacco, saffron, wheat, mules, slaves . . . . . transited in one direction, manufactured goods, weapons . . . . . transited in the other direction.
But Egypt, with the help of British could not long maintain its army in that remote place, and the Emirate became independent for a few years, before Abyssinian Emperor Menelik II invaded and annexed Harar to the Christian empire. The first governor of Harar was Balambaras, the father of Haile Selassie, the last Negus of Ethiopia.
In addition to the cathedral, built in “lieu and place” of the Great Mosque, a number of public administration buildings, a hospital, a hotel, a prison. . . . have been erected under Balambaras’ administration. At the beginning of the 20th century, Harar was a cosmopolite melting pot with traders from all over the world, and there were even Italian, British, French . . . consulates.
The last historical vicissitude Harar experienced was the Ogaden war (1977-1978), when Somali troops besieged Harar during two months, before the Ethiopian army (with help of Cuban and Russian “advisors”) pushed back the Somali.
And here, a parallel with the history of a big European city: Paris. Yes! in 1944, the German commander of Paris had order to destroy Paris (“Is Paris burning?” Asked the Führer to Von Choltitz, every day) before his troops left, but he did not for mainly “cultural” reasons; here in Harar, the Somali chief commander was ordered to destroy Harar before he leaves, but as it is a holy city, as a good Muslim, he did not obey, and we still can admire Harar in the state of an old city.

Thanks UNESCO?

Harar has been designated “World heritage site” by Unesco in 2006. The good thing is that money flowed in to renovate some parts of the walls, streets and buildings, and many people have a job for some time in the renovation works. More and more visitors come to this city. A less good thing is that many people are used to get “help” (money) just with begging, and the visitor (faranjo!) is sometimes literally assaulted or harassed by beggars, mostly kids. There are also some bars in the main street where nice looking women call the foreigner to come in. . . . . I am sure this did not exist before many expatriate workers took part in the renovation works and later, “special tourists” visited the place. . . . .
This being written, even there are no “spectacular” monuments in Harar, a visit here is a dive into a special atmosphere, and generally people here are very welcoming and even not speaking their language, a few words, exchanging glimpses, smiles are a highlight of a visit in Harar; there are a few museums, old houses, the small busy or the very quiet streets which take you back in history and dreams. . . . . Harar is certainly a nice place to visit!

Pros and Cons
  • In a nutshell:Deceived by Rimbaud's house, but such an exotic place!
  • Intro Updated Dec 20, 2010
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Reviews (20)

Comments (5)

  • DAO's Profile Photo
    Apr 20, 2012 at 3:35 PM

    Your photos are fantastic. You have taken me back to Harar.

  • Bwana_Brown's Profile Photo
    May 12, 2011 at 6:16 PM

    Hermann, I loved the detail in your tips on Harer! Amazing how the ancient architecture and customs have been adjusted to fit today's ways. My old Peugeot 204 never failed me in Zambia! Beautiful photos as always!

  • mircaskirca's Profile Photo
    Jan 23, 2011 at 11:49 AM

    The sewing machine street reminds me of a street in a small town in Panama from my recent trip. And by chance, the same town is also known for the best coffee in the country :) Loved the smiling faces, these women are very beautiful!

  • Jan 11, 2011 at 4:14 PM

    what a fascinating place! still can't believe those little peugeot 404's run - proof of great french engineering (or maybe ethiopian repair ingenuity! lol)

  • hunterV's Profile Photo
    Dec 20, 2010 at 10:11 PM

    Hermann, thanks for introducing this nice place to us... I like your style and pictures! ><><><< Merci!

kokoryko

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