Harar

Philippa writes:

Harar is an amazing ancient, predominantly Muslim city in the east of Ethiopia, said to be the fourth holiest Muslim city in the world after Mecca, Modena and Jerusalem. It is definitely worth a visit. You can fly to Dire Dawa from Addis, and from there it is an hour to Harar by road.

We stayed in the old walled city, in a guesthouse called Rewda. It is a very special place, set in a courtyard, immaculately clean and beautifully maintained; it is one of the best examples of a traditional Harari house which is accessible to tourists. Its main feature is the large, multi-layered central room of the house, in which the walls are covered with brightly coloured traditional baskets, and the later tin and plastic replacements. The effect is beautiful.

Rewda costs 250 Birr per night for a double room; the bedroom was basic but clean, likewise the bathroom (shared with one other double room). Our visit was during Ramadan, and we were not offered breakfast as a result. It was a perfect base from which to roam the narrow alleyways of the old city. I booked by phone, from London, +251 256 662211 or +251 915 756439.

The guesthouse put us in touch with a local guide, Abdul, who was excellent (+251 915 740864). He charged us only 200 Birr for his guiding (one short evening walk and a much longer session the following morning). The first evening we went to watch the extraordinary activity of Harar’s Hyena Man – who feeds a hyena clan that live on the outskirts of the city. Up to 15 adults are called in every night for feeding. He gives them strips of meat, which he hangs on a stick, either in his hand, or, bizarrely, held between his teeth. He offers to let visitors do the same; and the hyenas are extraordinarily gentle in taking the meat; at least they were the night we watched. It is however, worth bearing in mind that hyenas have the strongest jaws of all of Africa’s large carnivores, and a mistimed bite could be extremely nasty.

Abdul also took us on a fascinating 3 hour walk the next morning, guiding us all over the old city to see a range of interesting places from the house where Rimbaud was rumoured to have lived, to the museum, to a coffee business, and through the markets. Harar is renowned as the national home of chat – the plant from which the green leaf is chewed for hours, which has the effect of an amphetamine-like stimulant. Chat is in evidence everywhere in the city, and Abdul told us that chat production was taking over from coffee in the entire region.

A 2 night visit was sufficient to get a flavour of the city, though it would be easy to stay longer. The novel “Sweetness in the Belly” by Camilla Gibb gives a wonderful sense of the dynamics of the city during the time of the Derg and is highly recommended reading.

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