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The gem of Eastern Ethiopia
A snapshot portrait of Harar – a mixture of modernity and tradition, color and diversity
Art

The gem of Eastern Ethiopia

There is something about the City of Peace.

Harar found some 500km outside of the capital, not far from Dire Dawa, is a mixture of color, diversity and history. Influenced by India and the Middle East and unique local culture, it’s known as one of the holiest Islamic cities, often referred as the City of Saints.

A road-trip organized by Tourism Ethiopia , the government agency in charge of promoting Ethiopian tourism to local and international tourists, The Reporter was given a rare visit of a city in transition, with beautiful scenery, ample infrastructures and historical sites with structures protected and nurtured – from more than 100 mosques, including those that date back to the 10th century and plenty of shrines of churches living side by side and in peace – Harar is something worth experiencing.

Touring the city, it’s easy to discover that, unlike most Ethiopian cities, Harar has not rushed to emulate the shinny and often offending skyscrapers of Dubai but has kept its unique attraction intact and that is a good thing. It’s these uniqueness that has made is as a tourist favorite.

In Harar, there are many treasures. Among them is the Enay A'bida center, located in the Jagol area, recognized by UNESCO for its historical importance was once home to Ras Teferi Mekonnen, (Emperor Haile-Selassie) when he served as governor of the city and now serves as a museum that has under its collection, historical documents and artifacts.

Designed and constructed by an Indian expat more than a century ago, with an eye to detail and almost to perfection, the museum now houses some of the treasures of the area. Most were donated and while others were bought from residents. Many were saved from exploitation to the auction arenas of the world.  

“This museum has an array of artifacts, including from those from the Turkish Ottoman Empire, when the Turks came to Ethiopia to defend Islam,” a tour guide tells American tourists. “This is the cultural dresses of women worn by an Oromo, by Harari women,” as a blur of prayers is being said on a loudspeaker from a distance coming from inside a nearby towering mosque.

The Enay A’bida center was founded by a private individual to preserve the historical heritage of the area. It charges 20 birr as an entrance and additional 30 birr for the use of cameras within its premises.

“We are not funded by anyone and we do this, because we love what we do and want to preserve our cultural heritage, not just for tourists from aboard, but also the locals who often need to be re-educated about our past, in order for them to move forward as fulfilled and proud citizens,” the operator added.

Not far from it, surrounded by walls built in the 13th to 16th century, is yet another museum dedicated to the controversial French Poet, Arthur Rimbaud. The walls inside it illustrate his life in Harer, in a mixture of art and photographs. Inside the property, an icon structure constructed by Indian merchants a century ago is where the man, as a 26 year old who was recently described by The New York Times as one “credited by many with reinventing modern European poetry” found refuge in 1880 and became a coffee exporter to Europe from what was then Abyssina and today’s Ethiopia and became celebrated author of the classics, “A Season in Hell” and “Illuminations”.

“The Harari society has spent plenty to protect this structure and we will continue to tell the story of Arthur and his connection to Harar. For good or bad, despite the shortcomings of the man, there are plenty, including accusations of racism, he was an important figure and he is our unique connection to France,” one of the residents from nearby said.

(The house of the poet was re-constructed with the support of the French Embassy in Ethiopia and a slew of French owned brand multinationals, including BGI Ethiopia, Air France, Alcatel, Yves Saint Laurent and others).

In an old and aging Peugeot taxis, his image is plastered proving his significance to Harar. The Reporter spoke to a few of these drivers and most seem to know little about the man but seem to be aware he was an important figure and are fascinated that such a powerful figure lived in Harar more than a century ago.

“I had the image when I bought my taxi and I kept it because the man seems important and I liked the fact he chose to live here,” Mohammed Mohammed, one of the taxi drivers said.

In the wee hours of the night, what has become a custom to tourists is the hyena feeding ceremony, preformed by Yosuf Mume, who has done it for the last decade.

“The idea is simple, it’s to place a small meat on a stick and hold it in the mouth and have the hyena snatch it from there,” he told The Reporter. “Many people come for the selfie and to take a memorable photo with the hyenas and it’s safe and these (wild) animals do not harm anyone,” he said.

There has been much rumor that his father, Abbas Yosuf was brutally killed and eaten by the hyenas, but Yosuf said, that is factually false. “My father retired as he was frail and old and he passed the job to me. Remember, he did this for almost fifty years and he was tired,” he told The Reporter.

Within Harar, Hyenas, as wild as they are, freely roam near the proximity of residents to celebrate the birth of the Prophet Mohammed. An annual ritual, residents feed them porridge with butter and goat meat on the mountain of Hakim, a place of ritual, where prominent Muslims are laid to rest and attract thousands of visitors.

For Harar, the next few years are to be an interesting time of growth.

It’s due to open the biggest public hospital in the area on the top of one of the mountains overshadowing the city and construct new and modern hotels, recognizing the importance of tourists that are interested in visiting and a mega stadium. There are more, including, inaugurations of cultural centers and museums and a new Diaspora neighborhood and the famous open market, that has plenty of offerings, despite some noted shortcomings of lack of garbage waste and left over khat in the midst of filth and animal waste is still something to experience – this despite suffering some damage to it this week on suspected arson.

“Harar is growing, we are not just growers and consumers of khat, we are a hidden gem of Ethiopia”, Mohamed, the taxi driver declared as he was waiting to transport Turkish tourists to a local mosque. “We are a diverse society and we have much to offer”.