East to Harar

The walled city of Harar, the spiritual heart of Ethiopia’s large Muslim community, is considered by Muslims to be the fourth holiest city in the world. Harar is the provincial capital of Harerge, and it lies at the centre of a fertile agricultural area renowned for coffee and chat production.

The walled city remains largely Muslim in character – its ninety-odd mosques, many of them private, are said to form the largest concentration in the world.


Harar is thought to have been founded as early as the 12th century AD, but its rise to prominence started in 1520. For forty years, Harar was the base from which a series of raids were launched which came close to destabilising Ethiopia’s Christian empire. The five metre high city walls were built in the mid 16th century and only Muslims were allowed to enter them.

Harar was an important centre of Muslim trade and learning throughout the 17th and 18th centuries. In 1887 the city was captured by the future Emperor Menelik II. Harar continued to thrive as an important commercial centre until the turn of the century.

How to get there

Dire Dawa, which is about 50 km from Harar, can be reached by air, rail or road from Addis Ababa. From there a minibus can be taken to Harar which will take about one hour. If you travel by train between Addis and Dire Dawa, tickets can only be bought on the day of departure. Get to the ticket office early as they usually sell out in under 30 minutes.

Where to stay

The only genuinely upmarket hotel is the government Harar Ras Hotel on the Dire Dawa road, which has rooms at around Birr 113/163 single/double. Consistently popular is the Belayneh Hotel, located near the old town and bus station and easily picked out by the parasols on the roof. Large, self-contained singles with a double bed cost Birr 50/60 with cold water/hot water, while twins cost Birr 80.

Budget travellers might try the Lemlem Hotel on the Jijiga Road, which charges Birr 15 for a clean self-contained room with a double bed or Birr 10 for a room using common showers.

The dollar-a-night hotels dotted around the old town are mostly grotty and showerless, though the Academy Hotel has been recommended for those who want to soak up the atmosphere of being in the old town by night.

Where to eat

There is the usual government hotel food at the Ras Hotel but most people prefer to eat at the Beleyneh. The Tewodros Hotel does amazing roast chicken.

For bars, the Bar Cottage is as cosy as the name suggests and the tape-recorder blares out a remarkably eclectic music collection. The bar at the Tourist Hotel is very rowdy with a mix of reggae and Ethiopian cassettes and live music some nights.

In the walled city, the Cafeteria Ali Bal does good pastries.

What to see and do

The prime attraction of Harar is the old walled city that covers an area of about 1 km2. You can enter the city by road through Harar Gate and can follow a main road to Feres Magala Square where you’ll find a guide, which is essential if you want to see inside Harar’s more interesting buildings, but negotiate a fee in advance.

The road that runs east from the square next to the Church of Mehane Alem leads to Erer Gate which is the site of the chat market. Along this road is the 16th century domed tomb of Emir Nur, the Harar Museum and the Tourist Office, the former worth visiting for its complete Harari house.

If you are walking towards Erer Gate, the road to the right, opposite Misrak Arbegnoch Hospital, will take you to what is allegedly the house of Arthur Rimbaud, a French poet who moved to Harar in 1880. The house is worth a look for its unusual architecture, frescoed ceiling and great views over the town.

Ask your guide to show you the inside of a Harari house. These have a unique design with an open ground floor dominated by a carpet-draped raised area where social activity (ie chewing chat) takes place.

There is also the Hyena Man of Harar who feeds wild hyenas for the benefit of tourists. You gather on a raised rock and gaze out over a vast amphitheatre of open ground while the feedings, that average out at once a week, take place. Under normal circumstances, hyenas are far too timid for there to be any serious likelihood of them attacking people, but nevertheless they are Africa’s second largest predator.

Where to go from there

Dire Dawa, Awash National Park and Nazret are all accessible by bus from Harar.

There is not much for tourists to see in Dire Dawa and Nazaret except perhaps the markets.

Awash National Park lies in the dry acacia savannah of the Rift Valley and nearly 80 mammal species and 400 bird species have been recorded. The main geographical feature is the gorge carved by the Awash river which has a large waterfall at its head. Also of interest in the park is the dormant Fentale volcano and the Filwoha Hot Springs. Note however that travellers arriving without a vehicle may be forbidden from entering the park on foot.

Source: Ethiopia: The Bradt Travel Guide – third edition by Philip Briggs http://www.bradt-travelguides.com

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