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Harar - A view from our expert author
Harar is known for its colourful houses © Eric Lafforgue
Harar is the sort of easy-going, cosmopolitan town where you could settle in for a week and do nothing more exerting than just soak up the atmosphere.
The spiritual heart of Ethiopia’s large Islamic community, Harar is considered by some Muslims to be the fourth-holiest city in the world after Mecca, Medina and Jerusalem, while travel scribe John Graham rates it as ‘the most pleasant city to visit in Ethiopia’. Harar is indeed a lively, friendly and stimulating town, one whose aura of cultural integrity and lived-in antiquity is complemented by a moderate highland climate that comes as a positive relief after the festering claustrophobia of Dire Dawa.
Harar lies at the centre of a fertile agricultural area, renowned for its high-quality coffee, though this crop has been increasingly replaced by chat in recent years. But the main attraction of the region is Harar itself, or rather the walled city of Jugal that lies at its ancient heart. Old Harar remains strongly Muslim in character. It hosts a full 99 private and public mosques, the largest such concentration in the world, along with more than 100 qubi (tombs or shrines of important holy men) – hence the nickname Gey Ada (City of Saints). By contrast, the newer part of town, which runs along the Dire Dawa road, is predominantly Christian, though the frizzy-headed traditional Oromo are also much in evidence.
Considering the prominent role that Harar has played in Muslim–Christian–Galla conflicts, the modern town possesses a surprising mood of religious and cultural tolerance, one that is doubly refreshing in the present global political climate. Indeed, for a city of such devout pedigree, Harar has an undercurrent that is more than a little – dare I say it – hedonistic. The compulsive chewing of chat dominates every aspect of public life and, to paraphrase the sentiments of one (Muslim) resident, you really do need something liquid to chill you out after a good chew. Any preconceptions about fundamentalist Harar can be washed down at the bars which, I suspect, come close to matching public mosques one for one within the old city walls. Harar is the sort of easy-going, cosmopolitan town where you could settle in for a week and do nothing more exerting than just soak up the atmosphere.