Harar, in the lowlands and the desert East of the country, is a place apart in Ethiopia. This is probably the only city that you can fully discover on foot and that will invite you for long strolls. Plan a few days if you want to truly enjoy it and stay in the Old City!
- The Old City – A Maze Of Small Streets
The thick walls that surround Harar’s “Jugal” or Old Town were erected in the 16th Century. With no less than 368 streets squeezed into just 1 Square Kilometer, the Old Town of Harar is a maze of narrow, twisted cobble stone alleys bordered by 2.000 traditional Adare houses, plus 82 mosques (some dating back to the 10th Century) and countless shrines & tombs.
Unlike most other cities in Ethiopia and actually in Sub-Saharan Africa, Harar invites the visitors for long strolls, no matter at what time of the day… You will anyway get lost at one point or the other, and in the meantime you won’t: the city is so compact that you will return eventually to a place you know and find your way back easily. But this is part of the game: getting seemingly lost is maybe the best way to soak in the unique atmosphere of this place!
- Vibrant & Colorful Markets
There are many markets in these narrow alleys, and you should elbow your way through the masses of people from the countryside, who come here daily to sell their production. Those markets are as colorful and as vibrant as it gets in Africa!
Of course, the markets are organized in various sections: an odorous spice market, a colorful vegetable market, … And as usual in Africa, market sellers are mostly women, lad in traditional Adare dresses.
- Kite Feeding At The Meat Market
The meat market, with its distinctive smell and sight (large chunks of meat covered with flies hanging in the heat), might at first sight appear like any other meat markets in Africa… but for the Kites, targeting the inattentive buyer for an easy prey.
And local sellers (all men, at the meat market) are not mistaken: they have developed a “Kite Feeding” activity! Small piece of meat are sold to the random visitors to be hold in their hand for the Kites to grab it on low, quick and precise flights. Quite an impressive experience
- Traditional Adare Houses
The architecture of Adare houses, or “Gegar”, offers distinctive features. First, houses were built to remain cool, whatever the outside temperature can be, thanks to whitewashed clay reinforced with wooden beams. A courtyard is generally shared between several families or several houses belonging to a large family. The houses themselves are two-story structures with a flat roof.
The best way to experience one of these traditional houses is to stay at one of the families that turn their home into a guesthouse, often offering basic but clean accommodation.
- A Photographer’s Dream!
It is quite a technical challenge to catch the unique atmosphere of this maze of narrow alleys. But what makes a true difference and offers unique photo opportunities are Adare people… And especially women, with their colorful dresses! Unlike the rest of Ethiopia, a smile and a few words will more often than not get you the authorization of making some really nice portraits!
- On The Footsteps Of Arthur Rimbaud
Definitely one of the best and most famous poets in French literature, Arthur Rimbaud’s “Le Bateau Ivre” or “The Drunken Boat” is studied and marveled at by generations of French students preparing their Baccalauréat.
Maybe the most astonishing and intriguing part of Rimbaud’s “career” as a poet is that it ended when he was 20, when he decided to travel the world and finally settled in Abyssinia in Africa, in the very city of Harar, where he traded weapons and ivory.
A superb museum has been set up in his former house, a must-see for any French visitor and poetry lovers…
- Hyena Feeding
The interaction between Hyenas & people started in Harar long ago. On the one hand, people started feeding oatmeal to the Hyenas so that they would no longer attack the cattle. On the other hand, the city walls were opened at night, to let the Hyenas come into the city and “clean” what should be…
In the 1950s, men started Hyenas feeding at night, and soon discovered visitors wanted to partake in this ritual. And this is quite an experience! The “Hyena-Man” first puts a piece of meat on a stick (no longer than 20 cm), and holds it with hand or even his mouth, until the Hyenas come and catch the meat.
The evening I went, there were more than 10 of those actually beautiful animals, waiting, “laughing”, and in turns coming and catching pieces of meat. I joined the Hyena Man and after a few times holding the stick in my hand, I went for the mouth-to-mouth version of the feeding. This was quite scary experience, these huge and powerful jaws clapping 15 cm from my face!
- Awadey Khat Market
If Harar’s markets are colorful and vibrant, one of the most lively and actually pleasant markets was Awadey Khat Market. Yes, this market solely focuses on selling (wholesale) Khat, a plant that contains amphetamine-like stimulants. The World Health Organization associated it with drugs in 1980, but the use of Khat remains widespread in the Horn of Africa.
This wholesale market approx. 20 kilometers from Harar obviously sees no or extremely few foreigners, and definitely no one just wandering around with a camera… I seldom could take so easily pictures at a market in Africa! The challenge was actually that almost everyone wanted his picture taken, shown AND commented. A brilliant moment, one of these too rare experiences when being a photographer opens you new doors. Unique!
- Dire Dawa Market
Set on the edge of town, in a dusty, widely open spot, this market is not attractive at first sight. Merchants (both men & women, here) protect themselves and their product from the sun with old tarpaulin stretched on wooden sticks. The neighboring spare parts market is also quite a sight, small shelters of corrugated iron full of everything that can be used or reused (or not).
There again, as at the Awaday Khat Markets, tourists here are not the norm, and it was a rare moment when interaction was easy and unbiased.
- Harar Coffee
Said to be one of the best in the world (at least people in Harar tell you), Harar Coffee is worth a try, even for people who do not especially enjoy it. And of course, you can find “coffee ceremonies” at several restaurants…
- Dire Dawa’s Former Train Station
This would surely be a very interesting visit, if the lady in charge of taking visitors through the compound was not chewing Khat all day and hence too stone to do her job in the afternoon! TIA… Obviously, your best chances are in the morning!