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  • Writer's pictureNatalie Dimmock

Hooray for Harar

Updated: Aug 18, 2021

On 9th January we took the 12.30pm flight from Lalibela to Addis Ababa. This time we didn't have to worry about rushing through Addis Ababa airport though as we had loads of time. The connecting flight to Dire Dawa was supposed to be leaving at 4pm but was put back to 5pm so that meant I had over 2 hours of Tiger running about in the Domestic Terminal departure lounge which is pretty empty of everything. They are actually building the airport and there are temping signs for shops and restaurants which lead nowhere! So instead we ran about up and down steps, up and down ramps, looking at the signs. I really should have a Fitbit watch as I really think I probably scored a record number of steps! It was such a relief when we boarded the flight to Dire Dawa which left at 5pm and arrived at 6pm. We had a driver meeting us from our hotel but it was ever so slightly confusing as we had to exit the airport, walk through the car park and then up the road about 150m (with bags on a trolley thankfully) to find the car and driver. By this time, it was starting to get a bit dark and Tiger got super cranky and eventually fell asleep during the around 2 hour trip (50km). It was quite interesting that there were lots of police/security checks for vehicles along the road and we were stopped maybe 5-6 times.

We got into our room, and Tiger into bed (in the bathroom again lucky thing!) for 8.45pm by which time she was walking like a zombie, bless her. We had booking on to stay at the Winta Hotel for £66 for two nights. On our travels we did discover the Wonderland Hotel which seemed in a really good location close to the Old City. Another option may be to stay in a traditional homestay in the Old City. Either way, the staff at the Winta Hotel couldn't do enough for us and were so friendly and helpful. The room was a bit garish with a (non child friendly) balcony facing out to the road, a fridge and the wifi worked! For the first day or so I thought I had no hot water until I discovered the boiler wasn't switched on - once I switched it on it was wonderful and I only had one rather painful cold shower!

We arranged with Solomon Worku to have a one day tour with a driver (Adu) who drove a seventy year old Peugot 404 and the next morning we left around 9am to visit the walled citadel of Harar (Harar Jugol). Harar Jugol is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the spiritual heart of Ethiopia's Islamic community and the fourth holiest Islamic city after Mecca, Medina and Jerusalem. The people in Harar just looked so different to everywhere else we had been in Ethiopia - a bit Turkish and it felt a little like the Wild Wild West, in a nice way.

Harar lies at the centre of a fertile agricultural area, one renowned for its high quality coffee and khat, a drug that comes in leaf form you chew. In fact on the drive back out to the airport the next day we passed through a khat market and my driver told me that the high quality export khat can go for as much as 5,000 Birr (£93) for a kilo - although my googling tells me its a bit less than that!

The walled city has innumerable winding alleys leading past 83 private and public mosques (the world's largest concentration) and the 102 qubi (shrines or tombs of important holy men) alluded to in the nickname Gey Ada (City of Saints). Solomon told me though that Harar was very tolerant of other religions (there are a large number of Orthodox Christians) and is quite hedonistic (maybe thanks to the khat and the beer?). Solomon really was an excellent guide and so knowledgeable.

The first European to visit Harar was Richard Burton who spent ten anxious days in what he referred to as the "forbidden city" in 1855, unsure if he was the emir's guest or prisoner!

Another famous 19th century visitor was the French poet Arthur Rimbaud who abandoned writing at age 19 and then, after seven footloose years in Europe, moved to Harar in 1880, where he set up as a trader until his death in 1891. Solomon took me to visit his house which was fascinating. We walked up the stairs to the top floor (no mean feat with Tiger on my back) and saw beautiful views of Harar.

Solomon also took me to see a traditional Harar house where the family were smoking and chewing khat outside, making chicken stew, and inside the Granny was chilling out in her bed in the living room which was decorated in the traditional style. It was beautiful, and I was told that it is possible to stay in these houses.

Five ancient gates are to be found around the 3.5km circumference of the old town's walls: Harar (or Duke's) Gate, Shewa Gate (Asmaddin Beri), Buda Gate (Bedri Beri), Sanga Gate (Sukutat Beri), Erer Gate (Argob Beri) and Fallana Gate (Assum Beri). As well as these main gates there are small openings in the old town walls to welcome hyenas who clean the streets up at night! In fact, Solomon told me that he had spent 10 days with David Attenborough filming the hyenas. Unfortunately with Tiger's bedtime, we didn't have time to actually see them but they are clearly very welcome in Harar.

After coffee in a cafe overlooking the main Harar Gate, we headed back to the Winn Hotel for Tiger's nap. After she woke up, we went for a very entertaining walk where we bought bananas and were followed by a huge crowd of kids. We then had dinner in a cafe where Tiger ran around like a mad thing and then got to ride a kid's motorbike back at the hotel (belonging to another guest)!

On Monday 11th January, we were driven back to Dire Dawa airport by a lovely, fatherly driver. We were a little early for the 1pm flight so we stopped at a restaurant where he helped me chase Tiger around and we had a lunch of tibs (fried meat) and injera (a sour, fermented flatbread which is the national dish of Ethiopia and Eritrea). I can't say I am a fan of either but actually Tiger really loved it, and this restaurant did it well!

We were supposed to be flying to Hawassa via Addis but the UK government had just announced that all international arrivals would need to provide a covid negative test result from 15th January. This ended up being extended to 4am on 18th January, however it threw the last few days of our trip into question as, in reality, I really needed to have a test 72 hours before our final departure and this pretty much had to be done in Addis Ababa, for any sense of urgency and professionalism! So I decided to ditch the Hawassa trip and instead headed to South Omo in Southern Ethiopia. Unfortunately the flights didn't match up so on Monday 11th January we flew just to Addis, staying one night in our previous Airbnb family home, and then on 12th January we flew to Jinka in South Omo.

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