Harar: Journey to Ethiopia's holy Islamic walled city
“Faranjo! faranjo!” is the repeated shout in the backstreets of Harar, in the nearby hill villages and from the depths of the camel market. The word means quite simply “foreigner” – essentially, you’ve been spotted, usually by excited children. Otherwise Harar Jugol, a Unesco World Heritage city – said to be Islam’s fourth holiest city on account of 82 mosques – that was once a prosperous, independent kingdom, lives a strangely insular existence. This fortified desert city was built between 13th and 16th centuries and is also home to 102 shrines and townhouses that reveal exceptional interior design. During the sizzling afternoon heat, its male inhabitants seemingly disappear; I soon gather it is the khat habit that keeps them indoors in a beatific daze.
This staunchly Muslim enclave in the far east of Ethiopia, a country renowned for its Orthodox Christian beliefs, was founded in the 10th century and is one of the oldest Islamic cities in East Africa. In spite of the proliferation of mosques, the muezzin are discreet, and only the occasional dome and the main Jami mosque serve to remind of its cultural stature.
Meanwhile, the spaghetti-like maze of lanes and alleyways of the walled medieval town teem with industrious women, gossiping, bartering at the sprawling street market, buying grain at the teff mill to make spongey injera flatbread, choosing colourful fabrics or stocking up on aromatic spices. All are dressed in extravagant hues, although the flowing styles differ wildly according to each ethnic group: Oromo, Argobba, Somali or Adares. A few rare men are bent over treadle sewing machines on Makina Girgir street – makina being inherited from the short-lived Italian colonisation of the 1930s, and girgir from the whirring of the tailors’ antiquated Singers.
The nightly hyena feed (Shutterstock / Sarine Arslanian)