Harar is the city of 99 Mosques, although if you want to know a traveller’s secret, there are really only 82. Whether there were once 99 is not clear. But let’s forget all that and explore this rather unknown city.
The city is in the far eastern reaches of Ethiopia and is a truly magical place. Just getting there is fitting preparation for what you’ll find. I’m talking about a 15-hour ‘death mini-bus’ through the Ethiopian highlands and across desert. If the crazy bus ride had you fearing for your life, you’ll be ready to live it up a bit when you arrive.
I take one end of the wooden stick into my mouth, the meat goes on the end and the hyena walks right up to me… It is a scary thing to stare into his eyes.
In essence, Harar, when stripped to the bone, is an historic Muslim enclave in a country that has suffered a lot. Poverty, drought, famine, war and communism down the years have all come and thankfully gone, leaving this magic land ready to be rediscovered and loved.
The locals are friendly to the core. They love to see foreigners touring their city. They’ll be inspired and enchanted by your presence, but do be aware that a lot of them will follow you with the idea of getting money off you. What you can do is have a person as a local guide to show you around and just pay them a bit for their service. If you look up a local lad called Edom, he could do this for you.
The hotels are basic and often below average. You’re not here to stay in hotels though. Wear some insect repellent and spray your bed.
Make no mistake about it — Harar may be old and worn, but it’s pretty. Colourful walls in the old part of the city haven’t changed for generations and make a leisurely stroll through the streets very easy on the eye and the camera.
On your walk through the old town inside the gates, don’t miss visiting the ‘Rainbow House’, one of the Mosques and the Roweda Guest House.
While exploring, be sure to try some coffee and Qat (local leaves that people chew on) in the many market stalls.
The mosques are everywhere. They reckon that Harar is the fifth holiest city in the Islamic World and it’s easy to see why. When the sun sinks over this city, the call of prayer rings around town giving it a Middle Eastern feel in a land of mountains and grass.
Once you’ve had your fix of the city of Harar, night falls with the arrival of dusk it’s the time for hyena feeding. On the edge of town, down a winding road, you walk up to a small house on a corner and are told to sit on a bench by the tree. You pay $6 US Dollars (in local currency) and wait for night to fall and the hyenas to arrive. It’s a traditional nightly activity in Harar. Legend has it that the practice began after an infant princess was stolen from her cot by a hyena that had breached the city walls in search of food.
Soon, we see our first wild hyenas. They have one of the biggest bites out of all land mammals. They are meat eaters but they are not predators, they are scavengers. They look for food but they rarely kill for it. The hyena man whistles loudly into the night air and the hyenas know it’s feeding time. He has a bucket full of meat for them to eat.
He puts some meat on a stick and puts it on the end of his mouth. The hyena comes up and nonchalantly takes the meat, leaving the stick. It’s not as scary as it sounds. It’s an adrenalin rush. It’s my turn next.
I duck down and stand on my toes, I take one end of the wooden stick into my mouth, the meat goes on the end and the hyena walks right up to me, putting his jaw and teeth right by my face, but he only wants the meat. It is a scary thing to stare into his eyes.
I then hold the stick on my right hand and tease the hyena up to it, at this point there are about half a dozen hyenas around and they take it in turns to eat.
In a last moment of craziness, I crouch down and a hyena who is still after the food jumps on my back while grabbing the bit of meat that dangles by my ear. It is an adrenalin rush the whole way through and the hyena feeding in Harar is over. After they’ve been fed, we disperse into the night and my travel buddies and I head for some food and beers in this magical city.