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Harar, Ethiopia: One of Africa's most colorful cities
by John Graham
Africa Travel Magazine
Jubilee Edition


The most pleasant city to visit in Ethiopia is Harar. Bahit Dar and Melee are both very nice, and most places have their charm, but in my humble opinion Harar is the best. It has a wonderful history, lots to see, a pleasant climate, attractive countryside surroundings, and is relatively hassle free. There is an undefinable atmosphere about the place. The women are carefully and colorfully garbed. The architecture, including many government buildings, uses the characteristic Harar style of medieval Moorish castles. It's nice. The first place to see is the old town inside the walls. There are a couple of guides, one of whom will materialize at your elbow within moments of your walking into the old town (if you're a fearing!). My favorite guide is Abdu, a cheerful baseball cap wearing Adder (native of Harar).

For whatever price you want, which means 50 birr per person. he will walk you through old Harar on a customized tour. Tell him how long you've got and he'll give you a tour to fit. I think I've done Abdu's Harar tour 5 times (and the other guide once). Every time I go to Harar with someone new for myself on the tour. The tours range from a hurried 40 minutes to a leisurely 3 hours.

Within Harar are a bustling 33,000 or so Hararis or Adaris (other groups don't live within the walls) in a square km or two. Despite the numbers, most streets aren't crowded and it is quite relaxed. Just wandering through the narrow pathways bracketed by high whitewashed walls is worth the visit. The special sites in Harar are the House of Arthur Rimbaud, the French poet and arms dealer, the ancient mosque of Abul Bakir, and the gates of the city. There is unfortunately dilapidated mansion in which the Emperor Haile Selassie grew up as well. The House of Rimbaud is being renovated with the help of UNESCO, making slow but impressive progress until it was recently stopped by a shortage of funds. It is a great two storey affair with plenty of Indian woodwork and art deco wallpaper. It has a wonderful indoor balcony at the top. From the windows you can almost see all four directions over Harar. On the first floor through another entrance you can see the restoration underway on the old library. While this is styled as Rimbauds' House, the other story is that it was a French school at which Rimbaud taught. Regardless it is fantastic. It brings to mind the period of French ascendancy in Ethiopia, which is still highly visible. The French connection here is strong, the language is quite common and even the all pervasive 'Ferengi' for foreigner is an Amharic corruption of 'French'. French support for Ethiopia from the 1880s to World War I included the building of the railroad and the useful supply of arms. French arms, provided through intermediaries such as Rimbaud, helped the Ethiopians to defeat the Italian invasion in 1896.

The mosque of Sheikh Abul Bakir reminds you of the Moslem heritage of Harar (there are 87 mosques in Harar). Abul Bakirí's mosque is built on ancient remains which reputedly date back 1000 years. It is a holy site for the Moslem population, who visit in large numbers, attended by the current descendant Sheikh. There are seven gates to old Harar, and AABD will show you them all if you give him the time. The most famous is the one you drive through coming into the old town, which apart from anything else is depicted on the label of Harar beer. Many of the others have been bricked in or replaced by modern roads.

One gate AABD will show you is the one through which the explorer Richard Burton passed in 1855. He was reputedly the first European to come to Harar, which was a closed and holy city for the Moslems. Foreigners or infidels would be executed. In his lively but dated account he wrote about how he dressed as an Arab and through his fluent Arabic he managed to fool the Adaris during his several week stay. The Adaris politely infer that his identity as a foreigner and infidel was known all along, but they tolerated this interesting guest. No doubt the sense of danger and derring-do with which Burton wrote his text helped to sell the copies which helped finance his later explorations.

There are plenty of other sights in the city. The large church of Mikael - the largest Christian church, is reasonably impressive. There is also an old Roman Catholic church, run by an amiable Maltan priest, which dates from the turn of the century. Abdu's tour not only includes historical sites, it also includes the daily life of Adaris. It is a bit disconcerting when he leads you in through a gate, apparently randomly, into someone's house. They are always welcoming, and of course I now realize that AABD has a well trodden route prepared, with connections or finance involved.

Adaris are justifiably proud of their houses, which are all solid and square, behind walls in a small compound. They have a large sitting area for socializing over coffee or chat (more on this later). They have loads of colorful baskets and Chinese platters on the walls. They are focused on marriage - there is a rack over the front door which holds a valuable rug or rugs which are the dowry for the eligible young lady in the house. They have a room near the entrance which is kept for newlyweds, who are expected to get acquainted through being kept there for a week after their marriage. A small opening is used to pass in food and other necessities. I always wondered how they went to the toilet.

Apart from the regular houses, AABD will show you places which sell the famous Harar baskets and jewelry. The baskets are a bit pricey, but very nice. No foreign resident of Ethiopia should leave without them as souvenirs. There is an odd shaped tubular basket which they use for covering candles. I rudely call them a Harar condom. They also do nice silver bracelets and earrings. The Adder are amongst the most prosperous and educated of Ethiopian peoples. They are traders. They suffered under the Communist Dergue. They are prospering again. There are also a lot of Amhara people in Harar, but much of the town and all of the surrounding countryside is Oromo.

Outside of the old town, there is still a lot to see in Harar. There are the buildings of the Harar Military College. There are numerous public buildings and churches. My favorite stop, however, is the Harar beer factory. I had planned to go to the beer factory for a long time before I got around to it. Through AABD we arranged a tour of the Czech assisted plant finished in 1984 (months before the Ethiopian famine broke into the world headlines). Harar beer is my personal favorite in Ethiopia. Both it and the Hakim stout I adore are unfortunately not readily available outside of the East and South. After a surprisingly interesting tour of the plant we got down to the real business - tasting the new draft beer. We had a lively conversation with our hosts, who disconcertingly continued to refill the five liter beaker of draft beer for the five of us. I'd rather not reveal how many beakers were consumed, but during the time we were there a little counter showed that 40,000 bottles of beer were produced by the factory. We couldn't keep up.

We staggered out of there unable to fully enjoy the nightlife, which is lively. I am mystified that the predominantly Moslem cities of Harar and Jijiga seem to have the best bars in the country. I once spent 5 hours with a jovial English consultant moving from one drinking establishment to another. We were having a contest, where one of us would tell a joke, then the other. We kept it up for the 5 hours. I think I won because he was reduced to dirty limericks. I've traveled through the surroundings of Harar quite a lot for work, and I've visited some interesting but difficult to get to places. If you're not going on work, I'm not sure many of them are worth it.

Dire Dawa is a natural stop, as you fly there to go to Harar. Many people like Dire Dawa better than Harare There are a few places to see, like the old Chemin de Fer (Railway Station). Dire Dawa styles itself the little Paris, and it does have a few good cafes, and some outdoor markets where the variety and prices are amongst the best in Ethiopia. I was quite taken by the Christian graveyard, which includes recently renovated markers for the Commonwealth soldiers who died fighting the Italians in 1940-41. There was a big ceremony there when Princess Anne visited a few years ago. All of the graves are of Africans from present day Kenya, Malawi, Zimbabwe, Ghana and so on, except for three British airmen. It's fitting to remember that many of the 'British' troops who helped liberate Ethiopia were Africans.

The other direction from Harare is Jijiga, the capital of Somali Region. Unfortunately the road to Jijiga is frequently unsafe, so it is advisable to fly. When you do drive, you find fantastic rock formations in Babile, and an elephant reserve which has no apparent elephants, although the Director of National Parks assures me that there are over 50. Many foreigners have been based in Jijiga, especially a few years ago when there were large refugee camps, and many loved the place. It has a few nice bars and plenty of nice people but not to much to see. It is a bit fascinating to travel East to the frontier with Somaliland, and gaze across into an area which has no government recognized by any country. Under the circumstances, smuggling or informal trade thrives, and apparently satellite dishes and almost anything else you can name go for very reasonable prices. Don't be tempted - it is illegal to transport anything like that!

To the North of Harare is a terrible road which leads to the sightly and interesting birthplace of Haile Selassie. Given the subsequent illustriousness of the prominent son of Ejarso Goro village, the place itself remains very humble. I couldn't help but be struck by the neglect of the mud walled community by their Emperor. The only exception is the church, which is quite large and elaborate but very neglected. It was moved to this site by Haile Selassie in 1953 Ethiopian calendar (about 1960 European calendar), to put the place of his birth on holy ground. The head priest, Mamhere Mengiste Tagene, showed us the site. The church is fairly large and disconcertingly orange. There is a place on the front where the plaque commemorating the birth of Haile Selassie was unceremoniously ripped off by agents of the Dergue government.

Although the grounds are neglected and overgrown, the priests can show you the main points. A circle of rocks marks the place where Haile Selassiesí father, Ras Makonnen, built his country house. He picked a nice spot. The hills rise steeply from Harare, which is already at a respectable altitude. One can see how Makonnen, as a Shoan highlander, would want to find the highest and coolest place available to escape his town house in Harare. The other specialty of the grounds is a small tree stump which takes some effort to separate from the undergrowth. This, we are told, is a tree planted the day Haile Selassie was born, and which died the day he died.

The church does not suffer from an excess of foreign visitors. In the previous year they had three. The year before that was big, they had five. Most of them were Jamaicans, presumably Rastafarians keen on the birthplace of the revered Haile Selassie. The small local Christian congregation of about 150 lacks the resources to maintain the church. The mosque across town is well tended by comparison. The Mamhere told us that a fund raising committee had been set up to sponsor repairs. We weren't able to see the inside of the church to assess the need ourselves. As sometimes happens in Ethiopia, the elusive fellow with the key was not to be found.

One interesting side story occurred during my visit to the area during the World Cup of soccer. One enterprising fellow in Ejarso Goro had purchased a satellite dish, large television set and generator (there is no electricity in the area), and was showing World Cup games to large and appreciative audiences for two birr a person. Based on the cheaper prices on the black market in the East, we estimated that the entrepreneur was going to recover his investment in about 10 days of the World Cup, based on two sittings of 200-300 people per day.

South of Harare is a large expanse of lush highlands. The main road cuts south about 25 km West of Harare, to Kurfa Challe, Gurawa, and Gole Ode areas. This is the area of the awesome Garamuletu ridge. The rolling hills covered by the endemic chat of the area are attractive, but I was unprepared for the spectacular Garamuletu. It rises at first in the distance, then you find yourself skirting the edge of the steep rise until you turn a corner and are presented with the best view. The ridge rises rapidly, and on the day I was there disappeared fetchingly into clouds at the top. The sides were forested and graced with impressive rock formations. Horses wandered across the road from one patch of trees to another. It was nice.

Of historical interest is the jailhouse which was the final resting place for the deposed Emperor Iyassu at Gurawa. This can be found 10 kilometers down the road which branches off just as you reach the spectacular corner at Garamuletu. The prison is on a wonderful plateau overlooking the town. It is a very nice site. We were accompanied by a very helpful local official, as well as a number of soldiers stationed at the prison. Although Iyassu's prison is not in use and is predictably dilapidated, it adjoins an active prison. This mars the site somewhat, in particular because photographs were disallowed. Apart from that inconvenience, the site was marvelous and not so old that it has fallen apart. It is a solid stone structure with iron bar windows. Two tall walls, about 3 meters high (10 feet for the unconverted) surround a courtyard with a large prison house. The house was very comfortable. It has two large rooms, each with a fireplace. On the side is a smallish windowless cell, which apparently was the deposed Emperor's bedroom. Behind the main house are some other structures, including a building with a large cellar. It is said that Iyassu was locked there when he became too agitated. That would have been unpleasant.

The conditions under which Iyassu was kept are confusing. Servants quarters are on the compound and he apparently had his own attendants and cooks. A smooth section of the wall is said to have been used as a screen for movies. Servants are also said to have procured willing maidens from the town for Iyassu's entertainment. On the other hand, there is the small, cell-like bedroom with its little window and the cellar. There is also a tale that the cruel jailors would hire local maidens to parade naked out of reach of the understandably frustrated Iyassu behind his iron bars. One the complaints against Iyassu had been his inordinate sexual appetite.

The local interpreters were not very helpful with dates and historical specifics. They argued with each other. I had to look it up. According to Bahru Zewde in "A Modern History of Ethiopia", Iyassu effectively ruled from 1911-16, replacing his grandfather Menelik II. He was overthrown in a coup by Ras Teferi (later Haile Selassie) and his allies, but managed to flee. He was captured five years later and imprisoned in Fiche, near Debre Libanos northwest of Addis, until 1932. After an abortive, or perhaps alleged, prison escape he was transferred to Gurawa. He died around 1936, with the juiciest explanation that he was executed by Haile Selassie to prevent the possibility that he would become a puppet Emperor of the invading Italians. It is a nice place to visit - scenic and interesting and less than 2 hours from Harare.

One local custom in the Harar area which the somewhat adventurous may wish to try is the chewing of chat. It is a mild narcotic popular in Yemen, Saudi Arabia and an increasingly wider area. It is probably the biggest cash crop for Harar, which is renowned for the quality of its chat. Although it is popular as an acceptable stimulant for Moslems, its popularity increasingly crosses religious and ethnic lines.

Chat is a bush. You chew the small, tender leaves. They taste like a bush. Like many stimulants it is an acquired taste. The sophisticated chat chewer keeps the remnants of the leaves in a ball in his cheek. In my amateurish experiments, my leaves all dissolved. I didn't really swallow them, they just went down. The proper chat ceremony is a relaxed affair where you lean on couches and drink coffee or tea while chewing and chatting with your friends and family. It lasts several hours. I found that after a few attempts the chat loosened my tongue considerably. To the dismay of my friends, this made me even more talkative than usual. Rather than coffee, I prefer to sip on a beer between branches of chat. The bad side of chat can be seen on almost any roadside around Harar, where crazed older men with unattractive green teeth and balls of leaves in their cheeks exhibit their madness in various ways. I assume there is a causative relationship - too much chat over too long a period drives at least some people mad. Like all stimulants, chat should be taken moderately if at all.

John Graham: A Canadian serving in Ethiopia on relief services. e-mail...subscribex