Hidden far from the tourist and pilgrim paths that wind through eastern Ethiopia, Harar is a densely packed holy city that has retained its character and unbridled passion for all things coffee, despite centuries of struggle and conquest. Archaeologists claim the city was founded in the 10th century – legends say it existed far earlier – as a hub for Islamic traders and rapidly grew in importance. By the time European explorers were being turned away by the Sultan of Adal in the mid-1850s, the place was an independent city state hopped up on its own power and a lot of caffeine. The city fell to the Egyptians and was eventually incorporated into Ethiopia, but coffee bushes still thrive in almost every yard.
Harar is largely defined by the “Jugol,” the walled old city, which is so well preserved that it’s often referred to as a living museum. Within this 3.5-square-kilometer space sit 82 mosques and 102 shrines. They lean into 368 alleys, which serve as a warren for the city’s 40,000 inhabitants. UNESCO has declared every religious site and the one thousand traditional Adare homes within the walls a World Heritage Site.
In fact, Harar is so dizzyingly thick with history that it’s almost impossible to navigate. Fortunately a number of polite, reasonable guides shepherd travelers through the mews, broker entrance to shrines, and arrange trips out to the lush Erer Valley, a nearby elephant sanctuary, and the stone villages that dot the countryside. The city doesn’t have much nightlife, so visitors are often eager to join the nightly hyena feedings, where local families hand- and mouth-feed the quasi-domesticated beasts who’ve patrolled the city’s outskirts for centuries. Travelers are invited to join in, but most demure.
Come morning, coffee consumption begins again. There are countless cafés full of the local blends that Arthur Rimbaud sold when he was a trader here in the late 19th century. The best are dark and served outside, where a full cup is the perfect excuse to watch locals busy with their daily chores and the always pressing business of prayer.
More information: Harar is well serviced by regular private and state-run busses from Addis Ababa, and by regular flights to Dire Dawa, an hour’s drive away from the old city. The city once struggled with a lack of accommodations, rolling blackouts, and water shortages, but since UNESCO recognition these problems have largely been solved. A number of Adare families have opened their traditional homes as guesthouses for travelers, offering food, company, and help in finding guides.