Harar, the Fortified City ‘An Open Museum’

Located 532km east of Addis Ababa, the Harari Regional State (HRS) is the smallest member of the Ethiopian federation – both in population and area size. Uncommon elsewhere, 54.18Pct of the state’s population lives in urban areas. With a great number of historical sites, mosques, shrines, cultural attractions and relatively robust tourism, it is regarded as an open museum.
The city of Harar, the seat of the HRS was founded in the 7th Century as the seat of the Adal Muslim State and reached its peak during the 16th century whereby the Jegol Wall, one of the world’s heritages inscribed by UNESCO in 2006, was built in 1552 by Amir Nur bin Mujahid to defend the city from intruders. For centuries, the fortified city served as a trading hub due to its strategic location and metropolitan culture.
Since its founding, Harar’s 72 successive amirs established independent state and government until 1887, which marked its incorporation to Ethiopia by Emperor Menelik II.
Harar won the UNSECO Peace Prize in 2002 and 2003 for accommodating faith with love. In many places globally, where religious antagonism is increasing, Harar demonstrates an astonishing opportunity of peaceful coexistence of different religions. This could be easily witnessed by the physical proximity of Catholic and Orthodox churches in the city along with mosques in few hundred metres radius in Jegol Wall; but never in history have their differences caused major conflict. EBR’s Tamirat Astatkie visited the historical city, described often as the fourth holy city in the Islamic world after Mecca, Medina, and Jerusalem, to learn more about its development.

In Ethiopia, only nine historical sites made it to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation’s (UNESCO) World Heritage List. The fortified historical town of Harar is one of them.
Harar is home to ancient cultural, religious and artistic beauty, which has made the town a leading tourist destination. In fact, tourism is a major economic sector. According to the Harari Culture, Heritages and Tourism Bureau (HCHTB), the number of both foreign and domestic tourists as well as the income generated from the sector showed tremendous increase in the last decade.
The number of foreign tourists soared by more than threefold from 6,289 in 2007/08 to more than 20,000 in the 2015/16 fiscal year. The income also increased from ETB5 million to ETB65 million in the aforementioned periods.
Of course, the recent political instability in different parts of the country, which was followed by dissemination of travel advisory, alert and ban by a number of western countries as well as the declaration of the State of Emergency by the government have affected the flow of tourists into the city. This is noticeable in the number of tourists that visited the city in the first quarter of the current fiscal year, which stood at 3,834, a 30Pct decrease compared with the previous year. “The flow of inbound tourists decreased due to the fragile nature of the sector, even if unrest didn’t occur in our city,” Yasmin Zekaria, director of Tourisim Directorate at HCHTB, told EBR. The situation has been improving in recent weeks.
Certainly, the fact that Harar is a city with several cultural and historical heritages that are widely acclaimed both at national and international stages makes it among the best tourist attraction areas in Ethiopia. For instance, the remarkable Jegol wall, which still encircles a considerable part of the city, is one of the tourist attractions that were built by using indigenous knowledge witnessing the architectural beauty and civilisation of 16th Century Harar.
UNESCO listed the old walled city as a World Heritage Site in 2006 in recognition of its cultural heritage. According to UNESCO, the wall has a core zone of 48 hectare that takes in the whole city and contains all the characteristics that sustain the universal value of the site. The buffer zone extends 800 meter to the south and 1,700 meter to the east. On the other hand, in the west side, it is narrow and confined by the new town of Harar.
Besides, its defence against intruders, the five original gates – which used to be open in the day time and close at night – served religious, economic and social functions. Emperor Hailesilassie I, known by then as Ras Teferi Mekonnen, Prince Regent of Abyssinia, added the sixth gate, known as the Duke Ber, in 1924. The gate, which displays the picture of the Amir Abdulahi Ibh Mohammed – the last Amir of Harar, serves as the main entrance and exit of Jegol.
Administrators of the city branded Harar as ‘The Living Museum’ seeing such unique qualities of the city that differentiate it from other similar tourist sites around the nation.
“The traditional houses still serve both as residence and heritage despite their age,” says Furdosa Towfik, public relation head at the city’s tourism bureau. “What’s more, there is enough local skill and knowledge that helps to renovate the houses in case of any damage.”
The recently built tourist attraction sites such as museums are also popular among tourists. The city has several museums: Harar National Museum, Harari Cultural Museum (Ada Gar), Arthur Rimbaud Museum, Traditional Harari House (Gey Gar) and Sheriff Harar City Museum – the only private museum in the country – as well as the recently opened Harari’s Traditional Alela Hand-sewing Museum.
“The museums have their own distinct features in their collection of historical and cultural heritages,” Yassmin explains. “We are also renovating and organising Amir Abdulahi’s residence to display his household tools and utensils.”
The Arthur Rimbaud Museum comprises several photographs from early 20th century Harar, Rimbaud and others – all taken by Rimbaud who was a French poet that struck up close friendship with the then governor of Harar, Ras Mekonnen. The museum serves as an archive having documentations on the history of the Harari’s and literature of Rimbaud. Rimbaud escaped his home following the destruction of the Paris Commune and lived in Harar for ten years in the 1880’s.
Apart from handicrafts and architectural heritage, Harar is increasingly becoming attraction to tourists for its eagles and hyena feeding shows. Hyenas have huge respect among the Harari. During the evening, hyena feeding shows take place in two spots inside Jegol. One of such places is located in Sqtat-Bari a.k.a Aw Ansar. In the evening, the hyenas come out of the dark, and it is amazing to see the performer speaks with them and summons each by name and lines them up for hand feeding show to take place.
“An amphitheatre is already being built by the capital budget of the regional state at Aw Ansar to make the hyena feeding show more attractive and to make tourists more comfortable,” Yassmin told EBR. “The amphitheatre has different facilities and provides services to visitors. It will soon be operational.”
There is also porridge feeding of hyenas as one event in Ashura, cultural festival of the Harari, which takes place on the tenth of Muharem of Islamic calendar. “People come from all corners of the country and beyond to attend the Ashura cultural events,” says Yassmin.
The other astonishing event, that takes place at a big traditional butcher market for Muslims inside Jegol known as Gidir Megala, is eagle feeding show. This occurs during a day. Eagles line up on the rooftop edge of the butcher shop waiting to snatch a piece of meat from the hand and head of individuals, without causing any harm.
“The people of Harar not only live in peace and harmony among themselves but also with animals,” says one of the owners of a butcher house, citing feeding scenes of eagles and hyenas as evidence.
Moreover, Yassmin asserts that, the bi-annual pilgrimage to Qulebi Gabriel, a church dedicated to St. Gabriel, is attended by hundreds of thousands of Orthodox pilgrims in December and July. This has immensely increased the number of domestic tourist flow into Harar.
A prominent children’s book writer and an author of three biographies, Shibeshi Lemma attended the celebration at Qulebi Gabriel last December for the first time and on his way visited Harar. “Harar is awakening for the remarkable changes that are taking place in terms of infrastructure development and neatness,” he told EBR.
Despite Shibeshi’s observation, Harar’s present status, both in terms of infrastructure development and private sector engagement is paradoxical compared to its long history. The Head of the Harari Investment, Mine and Energy Bureau, Hassen Abdi, concedes that the economic and infrastructure development of the city do not much with its long history and civilisation. “However, the regional state is heavily involved in infrastructure development to encourage and ignite the interest of the private sector to invest in our city,” he explains.
The construction of Aw-Abadir International Development Centre and multipurpose Stadium, at the cost of ETB2 billion, is one major investment of the State. Rested in over 25 hectare of land in the southern hill of the city, the Olympic standard stadium has 56,000 seat capacity. “The recently held 11th Nations, Nationalities and Peoples’ Day was colourfully celebrated in the stadium,” recalls Hassen. “This, of course, boosts our confidence to host similar big national events.”
Another area of development of the city is the road construction. The regional state built a dual carriageway road from a neighbourhood in Arategna to Hamaressa with more than ETB300 million. The Federal government also constructed a Harar bypass road all the way to Jig Jiga, located 75 kilometres west of the city. “These developments pave a smooth flow of traffic, contributing for the expansion of the city and most importantly connect the different roads in the city,” Hassen explains.
As part of an expansion of the College of Health and Medical Sciences of Haramaya University in Harar, a referral hospital, which will serve as a hub to the whole eastern part of the country, is under construction in the city. “We hope the referral hospital would boost the health coverage of the regional state and beyond,” says Hassen. “When fully furnished, staffed and started operation, the referral hospital will have the capacity to give service for more than 1000 in-patients at a time.”
The other infrastructure investment in the city includes housing projects, industry zone and rehabilitation of the electricity infrastructure.
However, with all the positive attributes of Harar comes one lingering problem – a shortage of potable water. In fact the ceasing of Haramaya Lake in February 2004 has further made Harar to be a centre of attention of researchers working in the areas of water crisis and environmental care. The lake ceased due to erosion, population increases, irresponsible local farming practices and industrial overuse. Drought, climate change and government lack of interest to proactively take measure also contributed to the demise of the lake.
The city used to get water drawn from an underground pool beneath the lake. According to Ahmed Mohammed, head of the Engineering Core Process of Harari Water and Sewerage Authority and coordinator of Erere Water Project, there are two major water projects that are underway: upgrading the already existing Dire-Jara Water Development and Erer Water projects.
“The projects are scheduled to be completed before the coming rainy season,” Ahmed reveals. “The completion of these projects will give a short-term relief in meeting the water demand of the city.” Although tremendous changes have been registered so far in potable water development in the state; he admits that a lot remains to be done. “At an inception stage, there is a plan to build a grand dam on the Erer River, which is near the city of Harar and flows primarily in southern direction.”
Such publicly sponsored developmental projects, according to Hassen, will help Harar to catch the eyes of private investors. “The tourism potential of the city already attracts the private sector to engage in the hospitality industry, especially in the hotel businesses,” Hassen argues. He said the construction of seven star-rated hotels is underway. The city also inaugurated a modern hotel, Grand Gato few months ago. This four star aspiring hotel was built by Abdusamed Ibrahim Gato, owner of Glorious, a pioneer Harari businessman known for electronics trade since 1977.
Hotel owners and managers, however, are more concerned with the current business slow down than they are excited about the development of different infrastructures, which according to government officials will attract more private investment in to town. “We experienced slowdown in our business for months in a row towards the end of the last fiscal year and the beginning of the current fiscal year due to a decrease in the number of foreign tourists,” says Teshome Ayele, general manager of Harar Ras Hotel – one of the pioneer state-owned hotels privatised six years ago. “We withstood the difficult time on the shoulder of our local customers. Now the business is getting momentum.”
Belayneh Hotel, a sister company of Dire Dawa Ras Hotel, has been in the hotel industry for the last twenty-three years. Dejenu Shiferaw (Major), general manager of the Hotel, partly agrees with Teshome in that their business dried up due to the recent unrest. “There is a slow improvement” Dejenu argues. “Our rooms used to be booked months before, but that is not the case now.” EBR

5th Year • February 16 2017 – March 15 2017 • No. 48


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