The old medieval walled city of Harar – a city of mosques, minarets, and markets, a Center of Muslim learning, a city which once struck its own local currency, and still has its own unique language – has long been regarded by the outside world as a city of mystery and romance.
The walls of Harar were pierced in early times by five gates, a number supposed to symbolize the Five Pillars of the Islam. These gates, known to the Hararis as Bari, were situated respectively to the north, east, south-east, south, and west of the city. Each had its own distinctive name, and provided entry and egress to caravans traveling to and from different stretches of the surrounding country.
Each of these gates thus played a different role in the economy of the city and of neighboring lands. The northern gate, for example, was known as the Assum Bari, because it was used by traders importing assu, or pepper and salt, from the Gulf of Aden coast of Africa; while the eastern gate was called the Argob Bari because it served merchants handling the lucrative trade from Argobba, one of Ethiopia’s inland regions.
The gates of Harar in olden days were strongly guarded, and were strictly closed at night – for no one was allowed to enter or leave the city during the long hours of darkness. Strangers wishing to enter Harar in daytime had first to deposit their spears, guns and other arms with the city’s guards, who would look after them scrupulously, and return them when their owners were ready to leave. The walls had, however, a number of holes placed to allow the drainage of water and sewage and to enable hyenas to enter the town at night, clean up the garbage and leave before the break of dawn.
The subsequent integration of Harar into the greater Ethiopian realm led to the construction, in the twentieth century, of two additional gates. To the west, the Shewa gate, so called because it afforded access to the important Ethiopian province of that name; and also the Berbere Bari, called after Ethiopia’s hot peppery spice which seems to have been handled in the area. The first of these gates is today by far the most used, for it links the Old and New Towns, while the Berbere Bari has long since been closed.
Harar, which is not too large to be inspected on foot, is a place of unique and unforgettable charm, and has much to offer the discerning tourist. Walking down its narrow, cobble stoned and twisting lanes one can easily feel transported back in time to the days of Richard Burton – or even earlier when Amir Nur was constructing the city’s stout old walls.
The city is well known for its superb handicrafts that include woven textiles, basket ware, silverware and handsomely bound books, and Harar has been a place of pilgrimage from all over the world for many years. You can also visit the so-called Rimbaud House, the famous poet who became a merchant -he sold the guns to Emperor Menelik to help him defeat the Italians at the battle of Adwa. The Hyena Men performance is also quite an attraction; Youssouf learned from his father how to feed the wild animals and is now making a living of it, every evening tourists come and gather to see how he is feeding them.