Harar, the ancient walled holy city that lies on a hilltop to the east of Ethiopia, enjoys a venerable reputation. It is a devout and holy place and reputedly one of east Africa’s oldest cities: within its maze-like streets, where a single square kilometre encloses 368 alleys characterised by colourful Harari houses and watchtowers and all manner of blind turns and cobbles, reside 83 mosques, some dating from the tenth century, that contribute, it is said, to the world’s largest concentration of such buildings, while 102 qubi (shrines or tombs of holy men) illustrate why Harar earned the nickname Gey Ada: City of Saints.
Such cultural heritage means that Harar–also known as Jugol–joined the UNESCO World Heritage List in 2006; the city’s piety means that Sunni Muslims consider it the fourth holiest site of Islam after Mecca, Medina and Jerusalem. So too did Harar act as a centre of trading: for centuries, it occupied a crucial spot on trade routes that linked Africa, India and the Middle East and drove the expansion of Islam across the region, bestowing upon the old town area a level of importance that far outstrips its cramped space.
Eventually, a markedly larger enclave sprung up around the weathered city, extending beyond the old site that has lain behind a thick, five-metre-high wall since 1551: this protective measure was created at the behest of a Harari king in response to the threat of the neighbouring Ethiopian Christian Empire. The 3.5km-diameter barrier held strong until 1887 when emperor Menelik of Ethiopia routed the forces of Harar before occupying and annexing the city and recalibrating it into a more open place that accepted Christian ingredients into a hitherto predominantly Islamic brew.
But the wall still acts as a barrier, through which five gates afford entrance into different quarters of Harar; the number is a symbolic one that supposedly denotes the Five Pillars of Islam.
This symbolism reveals itself most notably in the Shoa Gate, or Asmaddin Beri, an understated structure decorated with weathered golden motifs and the smooth crescents, peaks and calligraphy typical of its Islamic origins. Shoa’s location on the site of the Christian Market testifies to its uniqueness, for nowhere else in the city is there such a direct convergence of heritage and modernity. Within the boundaries can be found traditional horse-drawn carts, while without, a convoy of Harar’s ubiquitous blue and white tuk tuks chart a course through the busy marketplace with the precision of a seafaring navigator.
The market’s effect is predominantly a stimulating one. Beneath the bright awnings and umbrellas lie bags of spices, fruits and vegetables squat the marketplace’s denizens, including Oromo women in colourful dresses from villages outside Harar, the unmarried residents of which wear necklaces of tiny beads to signify their availability.
It is women such as these who oversee the marketplace during the mid-afternoon lull when men go off to indulge their khat habit and return energised and slightly benumbed by the plant’s narcotic effect. And it is women such as these who purvey the bark, roots and twigs used to prepare traditional medicine or throw crystalline etan incense from the Jijiga area into the coals during traditional coffee ceremonies, imbuing the surroundings with its distinct earthy tone.