The sun was setting as I arrived in Harar in eastern Ethiopia. A nine-hour drive from Addis Ababa, this ancient walled city was my first destination outside of the capital and one that I was anticipating the most. The city dates back to the 7th to 11th centuries (estimates vary) and grew to become both a commercial center and a center of Islamic culture and religion in the Horn of Africa. While one of my guidebooks and Wikipedia refer to Harar as one of the “four holy cities of Islam,” other sources claim that is just a local myth. Regardless, the city is home to 82 mosques for a population of just over 100,000.
It is also home to hyenas.
Nightly hyena feeding just outside of the city walls has become a bit of a tourist attraction. My trip was timed to arrive before nightfall so I could witness (and possibly take part in) this tradition. After a quick stop at the Ras Hotel near the main gate to Harar, my driver and a local guide picked me up to drive to the hyena feeding site. There, I found a local man with a basket full of meat sitting on the ground, calling out to several hyenas by name. Jorge seemed to be his favorite.
After watching for a few minutes and playing with my camera to get some decent photos in the low light, my guide encouraged me to try my hand at feeding the hyenas myself. I won’t lie, I was a bit nervous. I had read of other bloggers not only feeding these nasty-looking animals by hand, but by putting a stick of meat in their mouths and even on their heads, causing the hyenas to climb over their backs to snatch the meat. This did not appeal to me at all. But simply holding out a stick with meat at the end seemed relatively harmless. So I went for it.
And to be honest, it wasn’t scary at all. While hyenas are arguably fairly ugly animals with weird proportions, sharp teeth and rough-looking, spotted fur, they seemed completely ignorant of the half dozen tourists standing around them. They just wanted the meat on the stick – not our human meat.
The next morning, my local guide met me at 8:30 a.m. to head out for a tour of Harar’s old city. We started with a drive out to a spot that offered a nice view of the whole area and then went around the outside of the walls, stopping to check out several of the original city gates that still remain. Then, we set off on foot from the main square, stopping first at an unlikely site – the city’s only movie theater. As you can see below, this was by no means a modern, Western cinema, but my guide was quite proud of it!
From there, we visited two museums, one of which is housed in the building said to once be the home of French poet Arthur Rimbaud. I saw a variety of ancient coins, weapons, clothing and books, including centuries-old versions of the Koran and of the text of Sharia law. A museum guide provided great context and historical background on Harar and the Harari people and culture.
The most interesting stop, though, was the only Catholic church in the city. The parish priest gave a short tour and explained that, while the Catholic population in Harar is small (the parish has only about 600 people), the leaders of the Catholic, Orthodox Christian and Muslim churches/communities meet on a regular basis to discuss issues and prevent major problems from arising (I heard this again while hiking around Lalibela – that this happens on a national level as well). In light of the current atmosphere in the United States and elsewhere, I found this fascinating.
By midday, I was relaxing at a tourist restaurant on the main drag before a long drive to Awash National Park that afternoon. Of course, you never know how much time you really need to enjoy a place until you get there, but I was wishing that I had more time in Harar. The hundreds of narrow alleyways, colorful buildings and lively atmosphere left me wanting more – I think I could have wandered all afternoon.