Harar is a walled city of 123,000 people within the Oromiya Region, standing on the eastern wall of the Great Rift Valley, 526 km from Addis Ababa. A major trading centre with India and the Middle East, it was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2006. The city’s lofty situation gives wonderful views of the surrounding country – the vast Danakil desert to the north, the fertile mountains to the east and the cattle-rich Ogaden plains to the south. The whole town is surrounded by soaring mountains and fanned by cool, bracing air. Hara was a fiercely religious city from the early days of Islamic expansion into the Horn of Africa when it was a ‘forbidden city’ (closed to visitors), until 1887 when Menelik forced it into the Ethiopian Empire. The women of Hara are reputed to be the most beautiful in Africa, and Hara itself is famed for its silversmiths, with exquisite necklaces, bracelets and chains to be found in the market.
The setting is thrilling. The heart of the city is enclosed by a medieval wall and the ancient flat-roofed buildings and twisting alleyways within the wall are little changed for centuries. Even the occasional satellite dish sprouting skywards cannot lessen the medieval atmosphere. It is difficult to believe that such a labyrinth of streets can be crammed into an area of little more than 1 sq km.