x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

Beyond Jugol's walls

Much of what lured the British explorer Sir Richard Burton to Herar, Ethiopia's eastern region, remains intact: the scene is an explosion of colours, sounds and smells.

Our bus from Addis Ababa stops just outside the Jugol, the old citadel in Harar, and we sense this walled city in Ethiopia's eastern region stands apart. Across the street is the Choa Gate, one of the six entrances to the Jugol. An inscription reads "Gate of Victory" in Arabic. It seems not much has changed here since the British adventurer Sir Richard Burton visited this Muslim outpost in a mostly Christian country in 1855.

In front of the city walls battered yellow taxis idle, colourfully veiled women sell shining oranges neatly piled up in old tyres and goats chew indifferently on rubbish. Hawkers sleep on the verge of the road. The scene is an explosion of colours, sounds and smells. Yet, surprisingly, Harar is still almost devoid of foreign tourists. We will meet only five in as many days. Once inside the Jugol we become lost in a maze of narrow streets. Some are only as wide as a gutter. The lovely smell of fresh buna, the coffee for which Harar is famous, escapes from the white houses. Throngs of curious children, obviously not used to meeting strangers, follow us through the labyrinth while screaming "faranji". Foreigners.

We follow a cramped pathway leading to a square. It turns out to be the Gidir Magala, one of Harar's main markets. Women from the Oromo ethnic group, red spots painted on their foreheads and golden rings in their noses, haggle over onions and tomatoes. Teenage boys offer sunglasses made in China. An old man vends large, yellow cans of vegetable oil bearing the USAID logo. "From the American people", we read. "How much are those?" I ask. "Seventy birr," he answers with a grand smile. That's about US$7 (Dh26) - a tidy little profit for a product donated by the US to be distributed to the poor for free.

Trade is Harar's raison d'être. The city was founded in the 10th century by a missionary from the Arabian Peninsula. Built safely on a hilltop, Harar became a flourishing trade centre between the fertile highlands of Abyssinia, as Ethiopia used to be called, and the harbours along the Red Sea. Caravans of camels brought slaves, ivory, coffee and leather to the coast, while gold, musk and rubber made their way up to Harar, the gateway to the Christian highlands.

Meanwhile, the lowlands surrounding Harar were slowly colonised by Arabs. As the region became known as the Muslim Kingdom of Adal, Harar developed into an important Islamic learning centre. Today you see mosques wherever you look. The Jugol, the fourth holiest city of Islam, according to Hararis, covers only one square kilometre but houses no fewer than 82 mosques and 102 shrines, of which three date back to the 10th century.

The 900-year-old Jami mosque is the oldest. It was renovated in the 19th century, however, and looks quite new. The echoes of the muezzins continue to remind us of Harar's Islamic roots, which remain firmly in place, if intertwined with other religions today. The beautifully restored town houses with their characteristic wooden balconies contribute to a feeling of yesteryear. A proud Harari man, white turban above a set of piercing black eyes, shows us around one of these houses that his family has turned into a private museum. The interior is as spectacular as the exterior. High ceilings, colourfully painted wooden shutters and handcrafted decorations from Harar and beyond show the wealth of the city when it was an important stopover on trade routes.

When midday approaches, we start noticing a strange unrest among the people of this otherwise tranquil place. From the terrace of a coffee house where we are enjoying a buna break, we see more men striding by. Most of them head in the same direction. Curious to find out what is going on, we decide to follow. The destination, it turns out, is the northern Erer Gate. Right on the spot where Sir Richard entered the Jugol one and a half centuries ago, women are busy selling khat. The leaves of the plant which is harvested in this region are a light stimulant that has been popular here for centuries. For many Hararis, chewing khat leaves is a daily ritual that forms an inseparable part of their cultural identity.

Over time that identity has been shaped by a variety of different forces and influences as the make-up of Harar's population has changed because of trade, war, religious conversion and settlement. Indeed, Harar's history has been a complex one. Centuries of friendly relations between Adal and the Christian Ethiopian kings ended when the Ethiopian King Yeshaq I claimed the throne in the early 15th century. The new ruler wasted little time in launching a war against Adal that marked the beginning of an era of fighting. Initially, Yeshaq's efforts were successful. The Christian kings dominated the region for more than 100 years. But in 1530 the Muslim kingdom retaliated under the charismatic leadership of the Imam Ahmed Gragn, also known as Gragn the Left-Handed. Dedicated to spreading Islam, Gragn was able to march his army deep into the Ethiopian territory.

The Christian empire was on the brink of defeat when, in 1543, a Portuguese expedition arrived. Led by Pedro da Gama, the son of Vasco da Gama, the famous explorer, the Portuguese allied with their fellow Christians and crushed Gragn's army. Gragn himself was killed in the battle. Today, the Jami mosque hosts a memorial for the Muslim warrior king. Periods of migration throughout the Horn of Africa have brought an interesting mixture of people to Harar. The Somali, Amhara and Oromo - the peoples which currently populate the area - live in harmony with the descendants of those who settled within Harar's enclosed city generations ago.

The four-metre high wall that surrounds the Jugol was constructed during previous times of hostility and warfare. Although tensions have ceased, the six gates to the citadel are still locked every day from dusk till dawn. Only the hyenas that reside in the surrounding hills can enter the Jugol at night, making their way through drainage holes to feast on rubbish left on the streets. Luckily, we do not meet one of these fierce animals in those narrow streets, but we actually do see them. One evening a deaf boy, whom we encountered and who has pretty much never left our side, leads us to a feeding place just outside the citadel.

As we approach, slightly nervous, we hear a voice making strange howls. It is that of the locally famous "hyena man", who is able to lure the animals by calling them in this way. We do not have to wait long before the first beast becomes visible, as it casually emerges from the darkness and approaches us. The man, named Solomon, starts feeding it slabs of meat from a wooden basket. Within minutes the ritual is in full swing, with Solomon feeding five hyenas, sometimes by putting meat on one end of a small stick and clenching the other end between his teeth. "Want to try?" he asks with a grin. "Er, no thanks," I reply.

The following morning we enter the Jugol through the Harar Gate. This gate was built in the 20th century to connect the citadel with Harar's expanding residential area outside the Jugol's walls. We walk along the widest street to the central Feres Magal square. In the bars and terraces on Feres Magal, grey-haired men start their day by sipping buna. An old figure with a black hat and no teeth approaches us when we sit down for a macchiato.

"Italiano?" he asks, pleasantly. "No? Ah, that is unfortunate. The Italians were good people. They paved the roads in this town. It is a shame that they did not stay longer." Italy was the last foreign force that ruled Harar. It occupied Ethiopia in the 1930s, but had to give up the territory when it was defeated in the Second World War. I ask the man about the Orthodox church at the heart of the square. "The Medhane Alem church was built here after the destruction of the grand mosque at the end of the 19th century," the 85-year-old explains.

"It was Christian Emperor Menelik's way to tell us that Islamic Harar had become part of the Ethiopian empire." Today, however, a melting of cultures seems to overshadow a history of conquests.