Harar is steeped in history, though its origin is unknown. Evidence suggests it was founded by Arabian immigrants, including Sheikh Abadir, in the 10th century, though local legend declares the sheikh arrived in the 13th century. Other sources date the first settlement all the way back to the 7th century. Regardless, it grew into a crossroads for commerce between Africa, India and the Middle East and a place where great dynasties of rich and powerful merchants grew and the arts flourished. European merchants eventually joined the mix and though it did decline in importance over the years, it was still significant enough that the Egyptians came and conquered it in 1875 and held on for 10 years.
In the 17th and 18th centuries, Harar became known as an important centre of Islamic scholarship and spearheaded Islam’s penetration into the Horn. There’s an oft-repeated myth that Harar is the fourth holiest city in Islam (after Mecca, Medina and Jerusalem), but this is purely a local invention.
In 1854 British explorer Richard Burton, disguised as an Arab merchant, was the first non-Muslim to penetrate the city. French poet Arthur Rimbaud later spent many years here. In 1887 the city surrendered to Emperor Menelik, who sought to expand and unify his empire, but the Hararis retain their own ethnic identity, language and culture to this day.