A distinct architectural feature in Harar, the gegar (traditional Adare house) is a rectangular, two-storey structure with a flat roof. The house is carefully constructed to remain cool whatever the outside temperature: clay reinforced with wooden beams that is then whitewashed. Sometimes bright colours adorn the facades, but the old style of uncovered stone remains common. A small courtyard, usually facing east, is often shared by several families.
The upstairs room used to serve as a food storeroom; today it acts as a bedroom. The main living room consists of five raised platforms of different levels, which are covered in rugs and cushions. Guests and members of the household sit on the platform befitting their status. These platforms are usually painted bright red to symbolise the blood that every Harari was prepared to shed during the resistance against Menelik.
Hung on the walls are colourful baskets and black wooden bowls. Eleven niches are built into the wall for cups, pots, plates, Qurans and, these days sometimes, expensive electronics. One shelf always holds four aflala (tall clay containers) that are used to store money, gold, medicine and seeds. Every house also has a rack for spears.
A rolled carpet on the rack above the front door indicates an eligible daughter resides within. After marriage, newlyweds retire to a tiny room that lies to the left of the living quarters. They remain there for one whole week, during which time they are passed food and water through a hatch.
Harar’s old walled town (known as Jugal; በግንብ የታጠረ ከተማ) is a fascinating place that begs exploration. The thick, 5m-high walls running 3.5km around town were erected in the 16th century in defensive response to the migrations northwards of the Oromo, and little development occurred outside them until the early 20th century. There are six gates: five 16th-century originals and the car-friendly Harar Gate, also known as Duke’s Gate after Ras Makonnen, the first Duke of Harar, who added it in 1889. The photograph on this gate is of Emir Abdullahi, the last of Harar’s 72 emirs and the city’s last Muslim leader. The nearby Shoa Gate and the Buda Gate (Bedri Bari) are also attractive, though they no longer have their wooden doors. Erer Gate (Argob Bari), the one Richard Burton entered through, and the little-used Sanga Gate (Suqutat Bari) lie to the east. To the north is busy Fallana Gate (Assum Bari). Within the walls the city is a maze of narrow, twisting alleys replete with historic buildings, including 82 mostly tiny mosques (two dating back to the 10th century), more than 100 shrines and tombs, and about 2000 traditional Harari houses.
Fear not: you can’t get lost in the old town for too long. It is so compact that no matter how deep you get into the maze of alleyways you’ll eventually come to a wall or a larger street that will lead you to the bustling central square, Feres Magala (Horse Market).
What breathes life into these landmarks is the community that still lives within the city walls. Prepare to encounter the magnificent Adare (Harari) women, known for their colourful dress, and the sweat-soaked blacksmiths near Buda Gate who still labour over open fires.
You'll also find a number of shrines devoted to local religious leaders. They're peaceful, interesting and well-kept places, but they’re unsigned and so hard to find. Most are under large trees. The caretaker will expect a Birr20 tip for unlocking the door.
Everything outside the walls counts as the new town; most of it sits alongside the avenue heading west from Harar Gate.
Possibly Harar's greatest attraction is the ritual feeding of hyena by the 'hyena men' of Harar. As night falls (beginning around 6.30pm), two sets of ‘hyena men’ set themselves up outside the city walls: one east of Erer Gate and the other north of Fallana Gate. The ritual starts by calling the hyena by name. Up to 10 individuals may make appearance on busy nights, but note that sightings are not guaranteed.
The practice of feeding scraps of meat to hyenas began in the 1950s. The original hyena man started doing it to acquire good luck, but when some tourists started showing up he realised he could make money, too. The inspiration is an older tradition in which hyenas were given porridge to discourage them from attacking livestock during a drought. Following that, an annual feeding began during a festival called Ashura, in which hyenas were fed porridge as a foretelling of the city’s fortune for the upcoming year.
Many hyenas roam Harar’s streets at night and if you go for an after-hours stroll, especially in Old Harar, you might just meet them. It’s a frightening experience, but we’ve been assured multiple times that they pose no risk.
No visit to Harar would be complete without wading through its shambolic markets. They’re packed with Oromo people from the surrounding countryside coming to town to sell their goods (mostly firewood) and then spend their earnings on food and household goods. All the fresh markets are busiest after 3pm and are pretty quiet on Sundays.