Steeped in history and rich in character, the hillside citadel of HARAR is the spiritual centre of Ethiopia’s Muslim community, its walled old town – Harar Jugol – regarded as the fourth-holiest city in the Islamic world and inscribed by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site since 2006. Harar Jugol’s Arabic name is Madina al-Awilya – “City of Saints” – an allusion to the 82 mosques and 102 qubi shrines (tombs of holy men) packed into its compact area.
From a tourist’s perspective, the city lacks the imposing landmarks associated with Aksum, Lalibela or Gondar, but its overall feel is far more traditional and architecturally cohesive. Furthermore, Harar ranks among the most welcoming of Ethiopia’s cities, and – contrary to Western stereotypes – the least staid. Both in the Islamic old town, whose almost exclusively Muslim population has roots going back for centuries, and predominantly Christian new town, public life is dominated by the compulsive consumption of khat, lending the city a slightly dissolute air, one reinforced by the liberal scattering of poky bars where the leaf’s foul taste can be washed away with a chilled Harar beer.
A knot of narrow roads and alleys, Harar is a most enjoyable city to explore on foot. It comprises two very distinct parts, with Harar Jugol to the east and the modern-looking new town to the east; the latter dates mostly back to the Italian occupation and has few landmarks of interest.
Harar was probably founded by Islamic settlers some time before the tenth century, and rose to prominence in the 1520s under Ahmed Gragn, a militant imam who launched a succession of destructive raids on the Christian empire to its west. The tall city walls were erected by Gragn’s nephew, Emir Nur, in the 1560s. Following a slump lasting several decades, Harar’s fortunes were resurrected in the 1640s by Emir Ali ibn Daud, under whom it became the region’s most populous and important trade centre. More than two centuries of autonomy came to an end with the ten-year Egyptian occupation of Harar from 1875. In 1887, Harar was captured by the future Emperor Menelik II, who included several members of the emir’s family in his administration. Menelik also appointed as governor Ras Mekonnen, the father of Ras Tefari (the future Emperor Haile Selassie), who was born in the vicinity of Harar and spent much of his childhood there.