Ethiopia’s walled city – a warm welcome in Harer
24th October 2016
The walled city of Harer lies on Ethiopia’s eastern fringes. Famed for its mosques and its trading culture, the city also speaks volumes about how Ethiopia embraces people from many different beliefs – and those with none. It’s also here that Tadele Travel Director Girma Mosges first understood what true religious tolerance looks like.
Harer’s old town is rightly called Jugol, an Arabic term meaning ‘the city of saints.’ With 110 mosques the city is considered to be Islam’s fourth most holy city; but the town has almost as many Christian shrines.
For its ancient religious practice and its tolerance of different religions, Ethiopia is a model nation to the rest of the world. Tensions exist – of course, they do. There’s scarcely a town in Ethiopia where you won’t find priests and imams competing for attention in their early morning chanting, while new churches and mosques scrap over every available bit of undeveloped land.
But I didn’t grow up in one of those towns. I grew up in Lalibela, 400 miles to the north of Ethiopia’s capital Addis Ababa.
My earliest contact with religious faith was through my own tight, conservative Christian community. I went to church every day and learned from local priests. I didn’t eat any halal food, and there were no Muslim children in my school. In fact, my only contact with Islam came in my Grade 1 textbook, which explained why every time we saw a Muslim trader at the local market, we referred to her as “Fatuma”.
But all this was to change with my first trip to Harer. Even before I went there, I’d heard lots about the Hareri culture. I knew they were great traders and that they had once had their own currency. I knew that their language was much closer to Arabic than the language spoken by most Ethiopians, and that they wore wonderfully colourful clothes. I also knew that Hareri people did not marry outside their tribe. But what I had not realised, and I think is impossible to understand fully unless you visit Harer, is how accepting the people of Harer are of people of different faiths and backgrounds.
The day after I arrived in the town, I saw two young girls walking ahead of me, with their arms over each other’s shoulders. Suddenly I noticed that they were heading off in different directions: one of them to a mosque and the other to an Orthodox church. I then caught sight of the town’s main Christian Church– Medhane Alem – which is situated right in the heart of the city, and surrounded by around a dozen mosques! At the market I saw Hareri folk doing business with buyers and sellers from a whole range of backgrounds – Somali, Tigray, Gurage, Oromo and Amhara.
It started to dawn on me that the people of this beautiful walled city – even if they come from a close-knit community like my own – were incredibly open to other people and it was an openness that extended into friendship.. This city made a great impression on me, and it’s an unsung aspect of Harer that I love and appreciate every time I return.
Strangely enough, Ethiopia’s last emperor Haile Selassie was born in Harer. Although, perhaps this should be no surprise, as one of the emperor’s great achievements was to unify the country and show respect to everyone, regardless of their race or background.
Girma Moges, one of the directors of Tadele Travel, first visited Harer 15 years ago. Since then he has introduced hundreds of other tourists to the city.