Harar is a rare example of a well preserved historic town that has retained its traditions, urban fabric, and rich Harari Muslim cultural heritage to the present time. It is one of the holy towns of Islam in Africa, and the capital of a minority region within Christian Ethiopia. The historic city is physically limited and well defined by its surrounding wall. The walls were built between the 13th and 16th century.
The town of Harar is located in the north-eastern part of Ethiopia. It is said to be the fourth holiest city of Islam, with 82 mosques and 102 sanctuaries on an area of only one square kilometer – and all of it surrounded by a historic city wall!
The colorful Harari culture
Harar has been on the World Heritage List since 2006. The impact of African and Islamic traditions on the development of the town’s building types and urban layout make for its particular character and uniqueness. The Harari culture refers mainly to the typical Harari houses. They are very different from other Ethiopian houses. Their interior is colorful and the walls are decorated with all kinds of pots, pans and baskets. The red colour of the floor is a reminder of those who lost their lives in the battle for an independent Harar.
Harar’s story and why it’s considered the fourth holiest place of Islam
It is told that when some of the companions of the Prophet Muhammad escaped the prosecution in Arabia, they found refuge in the Christian Kingdom of Aksum, a territory covering present-day Ethiopia and Eritrea. One of the rulers of the then polytheistic Arabia contacted the Christian king to give them the companions, in exchange for money and gold. The king asked the companions who they were and why they were there. They explained that they were persecuted because they were following the word of God and His Messenger. The king afterwards believed their good intentions and told them that the Christians and Muslims have the same God and believe in the same source. He saw no danger in it and he decided to keep the companions safe from the rulers.
The king was a person that respected the religious rights and whose land was ruled with justice. The migration to the Kingdom, which is now a part of Ethiopia, that has laid down the foundations on which Islam was built, was the first migration in the history of Islam. Ethiopia is therefore a land that means freedom of expression and protection. In Harar, different people live there together in peace. The city has even been called “the city of peace”, a name you can spot on a huge neon sign as you will enter the town.
In 2003, Harar received the Unesco Peace Prize, as different ethnic and religious groups lived there peacefully side by side. In the old city center, a mosque, an orthodox church and a Catholic church almost stand side by side.
The city bears exceptional testimony to cultural traditions related to Islamic and African roots. Though a trading place and thus a melting pot of various influences, Harar has been in relative isolation in its region. Contributing to a cultural specificity, expressed in its characteristic community structure and traditions, which are still alive.
This is why, as the city marks yet another milestone in its proud and long history, locals believe that it still has much to offer the rest of the world as a beacon of peace.