An ancient walled city in eastern Ethiopia, Harar tickled my travel bug with promises of narrow, winding, cobbled alleyways, hand-fed hyenas and friendly people. I wasn’t disappointed.
Introduced to the inside of a traditional Harari house, decorated with baskets and plates, was the first stop on this mini adventure into an old world. With Clare, my travelling companion, we set out to explore the old world charms of this ancient Ethiopian city.
The ever-informative LP say that there are 368 alleyways within the 1 square kilometre of the old walled city. Exploring on my own in the early hours of the morning had me turning corner after corner with the feeling of going in circles. Only the main wide street through the centre of the city had me in familiar territory.
People watching seemed to be a popular past time for the local goat population, with many taking advantage of the numerous doorways to sit and watch the world go by. This particular goat seemed to find the ‘faranji’ (i.e. foreigner) with the big camera crouching on all fours in front of it quite amusing (i.e. yes, me)!
Instead of being pestered with a chorus of ‘money, money, money’ or variations of this, ‘photo, photo, photo’ was swung in my direction as I walked past children and adults alike, camera in hand.
Not only was the reward of seeing their image on the camera of a ‘faranji’ great, it induced fits of giggling.
The old also saw the opportunity of a ‘faranji’ with a camera as a chance to get a photo for a cigarette, unfortunately this man was disappointed to learn that this particular photographer was a non-smoker.
To get water, most Ethiopians use old gallon oil drums, placing the drums in a line until the key-holder deems it time to open the tap. The children are there to protect the line.
One stop not to be missed is the beer garden at the Harar Brewery. We stopped by for a cold lager, only to be ingratiated into a group of accounting graduates. Their laughter and enthusiasm for photos with the ‘faranji’s’ was infectious, ending in a need to extricate ourselves from their embraces.
Wandering the alleyways of the walled city brought us upon the meat market, watched over carefully by a flock of feathered friends. A popular pass time of the local butchers is to throw meat up, or at, visitors for the birds of prey to collect. Many scraps of meat later, the birds soon collected on the roof, to keep their vigil.
Cemetery’s are also interesting places to help understand a culture. This particular ground is home to muslim graves, all facing (or near enough to) the same direction – Mecca. I loved the colour and obvious care that went in to these head stones, standing amongst the tall grass spires.
Ok, so the one tourist trap, that is apparently not a tourist initiated tradition, is the hyena feeding. For a very large (comparatively) sum of money you can see men feeding wild hyenas outside the city walls. The spotted hyenas come to a loud series of calls, not dissimilar to a town crier, to take hunks of meat from a stick held in the man’s mouth. Surrounded by the mewling hyenas, the man appeared to have complete control of the animals. I however was not sure that I had complete control of my nerves, standing within a couple arms length of the frantic hyenas.
The story behind this tradition changes with its teller. I prefer the story that the hyenas were fed to keep them from feeding within the city, and that the walls of the city were not for protection from a human enemy, but from becoming a hyenas next meal. This story also includes the holes dug around and under the city walls so that offerings could be left for the hyenas.
The next day saw us head further east towards Somaliland, to the Valley of Marvels. Like the stories that abound about the hyena feeding, our guide gave a very different idea about the formation of these balancing rocks. According to our guide, the story goes that many many years ago there were volcanoes in the area which left these interestingly shaped rocks all over the landscape, and they have been standing unchanged since this time. I did not dare to ask how the animals we saw were created! I tried to be very diplomatic in my questioning, trying to point the poor fellow in the right direction, but fear that my initial hilarity might have overwhelmed him.
Not despite of, but because of the various wonderful stories about the earth’s creation and how traditions came about made this trip unique, interesting and unforgettable.