Saturday, December 10, 2016

A medieval Islamic city in Ethiopia

Ethiopia is a predominantly Christian
country, but in its far east lies a city
that was long the principal stronghold
of Islam in East Africa. Closed to
non-believers for centuries, Harar is
like a vision from The Arabian Nights,
says Fiona Dunlop in The Independent
– a perfectly preserved, “spaghettilike”
maze of alleyways lined with
colourfully painted houses and
mosques, and ringed by medieval
walls. A historically important trading
hub, the city lies in cool, fertile country
famed for its high-quality coffee and,
increasingly, its khat. Most local men
chew this stimulant leaf and, together
with the excellent local beer, it makes
for a laid-back atmosphere at odds
with the city’s pious reputation.
The first Westerner to visit was the explorer Sir Richard
Burton, who entered in disguise in 1855 but soon left in disgust
at the city’s poverty and “laxity of morals”. More than two
decades later, it found a European admirer in the French poet
Arthur Rimbaud. Having arrived as
a coffee trader in 1880, he stayed for
ten years, graduating to arms dealing.
An old merchant’s mansion now
houses a Rimbaud museum: its
treasures include a letter from the
poet, complaining he hasn’t been paid
for 900 guns he supplied to Emperor
Menelik II. The streets beyond have
changed little since those days, with
sprawling markets where women in
vibrant dresses (differing according to
their tribe – Oromo, Argobba, Somali)
barter over fabrics and spices. In
one alley, tailors bend over antique
treadle sewing machines; their
whirring lending the street its
onomatopoeic name, “Girgir”.
However, the city’s most curious sight unfolds nightly just
beyond its walls, where hyenas gather to feed on scraps that local
men offer them by hand – a tradition whose origins are a mystery.
Journeys by Design (01273-623790, www.journeysbydesign.com)
has a 7-night tour taking in Harar, from £2,400pp excl. flights.

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