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Original ATA News Release
2007 Congress Agenda

Exotic Harar, Ethiopia's Walled City

Within Harar are a bustling 33,000 or so Hararis or Adaris (other groups don't live within the walls) in a square km or two. Despite the numbers, most streets aren't crowded and it is quite relaxed. Just wandering through the narrow pathways bracketed by high whitewashed walls is worth the visit. The special sites in Harar are the House of Arthur Rimbaud, the French poet and arms dealer, the ancient mosque of Abul Bakir, and the gates of the city. There is unfortunately dilapidated mansion in which the Emperor Haile Selassie grew up as well.

The House of Rimbaud (right) is being renovated with the help of UNESCO, making slow but impressive progress until it was recently stopped by a shortage of funds. It is a great two storey affair with plenty of Indian woodwork and art deco wallpaper. It has a wonderful indoor balcony at the top. From the windows you can almost see all four directions over Harar. On the first floor through another entrance you can see the restoration underway on the old library. While this is styled as Rimbauds' House, the other story is that it was a French school at which Rimbaud taught. Regardless it is fantastic. It brings to mind the period of French ascendancy in Ethiopia, which is still highly visible. The French connection here is strong, the language is quite common and even the all pervasive 'Ferengi' for foreigner is an Amharic corruption of 'French'. French support for Ethiopia from the 1880s to World War I included the building of the railroad.

The mosque of Sheikh Abul Bakir reminds you of the Moslem heritage of Harar (there are 87 mosques in Harar). Abul Bakirí's mosque is built on ancient remains which reputedly date back 1000 years. It is a holy site for the Moslem population, who visit in large numbers, attended by the current descendant Sheikh. There are seven gates to old Harar, and AABD will show you them all if you give him the time. The most famous is the one you drive through coming into the old town. Many of the others have been bricked in or replaced by modern roads.

One gate our guide will show you is the one through which the explorer Richard Burton passed in 1855. He was reputedly the first European to come to Harar.


Adaris are justifiably proud of their houses, which are all solid and square, behind walls in a small compound. They have a large sitting area for socializing over coffee or chat (more on this later). They have loads of colorful baskets and Chinese platters on the walls. They are focused on marriage - there is a rack over the front door which holds a valuable rug or rugs which are the dowry for the eligible young lady in the house. They have a room near the entrance which is kept for newlyweds, who are expected to get acquainted through being kept there for a week after their marriage. A small opening is used to pass in food and other necessities. I always wondered how they went to the toilet.


Apart from the regular houses, AABD will show you places which sell the famous Harar baskets and jewelry. The baskets are a bit pricey, but very nice. No foreign resident of Ethiopia should leave without them as souvenirs. There is an odd shaped tubular basket which they use for covering candles. I rudely call them a Harar condom. They also do nice silver bracelets and earrings. The Adder are amongst the most prosperous and educated of Ethiopian peoples. They are traders. They suffered under the Communist Dergue. They are prospering again. There are also a lot of Amhara people in Harar, but much of the town and all of the surrounding countryside is Oromo.

Outside of the old town, there is still a lot to see in Harar. There are the buildings of the Harar Military College. There are numerous public buildings and churches. My favorite stop, however, is the Harar beer factory. I had planned to go to the beer factory for a long time before I got around to it.

Excerpt from a longer article supplied by John Graham. a Canadian living in Ethiopia. Photo by Karen Hoffman, ATA New York