The City of Harar is an ancient (1520) and holy city. Always an important trading center, the city is famous for its ancient buildings, its great city walls, and as a center of learning and Muslim scholarship (the town has 99 mosques). The city is well known for its superb handicrafts that include woven textiles, basketwork, silverware and handsomely bound books, and Harar has been a place of pilgrimage from all over the world for many years.
Fortunately, the city is now open to outsiders and tourists, yet has remained reasonably true to its historical and cultural roots. In Burton’s time, the city could not be reached without an arduous journey over the desert, and visitors would be bombarded by the city’s guards once they arrived. Visitors were rarely let in during the day, but were always forbidden at night. It was the Harar guard’s custom to search all trespassers and force them to leave all weapons at the gates.
Now, the city has lost a bit of its adventure, since visitors can take a bus ride right up to its gates. The gates, in fact, are one the city’s most breathtaking sights. The Jogal, as the gates are referred to, are about 3, 342 meters high and surround the entire city. These gates were erected in the 16th century by the ruler, Nur Ibn-Mujahid, in an effort to keep the city secluded and safe from enemies.
The Harari, once protective of their city, are now protective of their individual culture. Interestingly enough, the Harari have their own language called “a dare,” which is similar to the ancient Semitic language of Ethiopia, but with the root of Amharic, which is the official language of the Northern part of the country, Tigrinya. The men and women wear very similar clothing as they did at the time of Burton’s visit. The women remain mostly covered with the traditional garb.
Sir Richard Francis Burton’s description of the city is one-sided and obviously colonialist, to say the least. He openly admits his interest in the city is based not merely on curiosity, but on commerce as well:
I could not suppress my curiosity about this mysterious city. It had been described to me as the headquarters of slavery in Eastern Africa, and its territory as a land flowing with milk and honey, the birthplace of the coffee plant, and abounding in excellent cotton, tobacco, saffron, gums and other valuable products.
He seems much more interested in what kind of wealth and goods he can glean from the city, than in the idiosyncrasies of its culture. Burton is extremely judgmental of the people there as well when he says, “the men are unprepossessing in appearance…shaven heads, coarse features, and clumsy figures…who frowned upon us with mischievous brows and occasionally addressed us with their roughest of voices.” Burton had even less to say for the women when he writes that the women “chew tobacco with effrontery, drink beer and demean themselves accordingly.” Burton’s description of the city leaves much to the outsider’s imagination, leaving it still a mystery to most.
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