Jean-Bernard Carillet in Africa travel blog

The Jamia mosque in Harar, in the heart of the walled city

Shaping tools at the recycling market in Harar

Dinner time for the hyena outside the walled city of Harar

(street view with the house): down Mekina Girgir, the main street in...


In Harar (Eastern Ethiopia) I just went mystical for a couple of days. How else could it be, with 90 mosques and innumerable shrines and tombs enclosed within the walled city covering an area of about 1 sq km? Add the scents (incense here, roasted coffee there), the sounds (the calls to prayer, the tailors working frantically on their sewing machines on Mekina Girgir) the colours, the buzz, the vitality, and you'll have a fair view of the picture. Admittedly, the effects of chewing chat (a mildly intoxicating stimulant) in the chat market created a certain level of empathy and euphoria, but fear not, it's perfectly legal in Ethiopia.

Wandering in the maze of alleyways and passages I came across an old sheikh who wanted to show me the tomb of one of his ancestors, Ali Said Ali Hamdogn. I had a look at the tomb, next to the main house. Then he showed me some old religious manuscripts, adorned with magnificent calligraphic work which, I reckon, would be worth thousands of dollars! Nearby, an old lady whose face could easily feature on the cover of the National Geographic invited me into her traditional Adare house (a rectangular, two-storey structure with a flat roof), chockfull with crafts - amber necklaces, silver jewelry, basketware, leatherware, woodcarvings... In Harar, every house is a treasure trove.

Afterwards, I headed to Rimbaud's House, also in the walled city. For any French person versed a bit in literature, this can't be more poignant a place. The great French poet was also a great explorer and adventurer and lived for several years in Harar. After this cultural stop I recharged the batteries at Ali Bal Cafeteria, right in the centre of the walled town - the perfect place to sip a sugar cane juice or a sweet macchiato and watch the world go by.

By early evening, I took a battered taxi to a place called the "Hyena Feeding", outside the city walls, off Fallana Gate. Every evening or so, it's an awesome show, where two men, Dejere and Bousite, hand-feed a dozen hyenas, calling them by name. It's not that touristy - hyenas are ubiquitous in the area, anyway - and there's a strange tradition of feeding these animals in Harar. It was quite surreal - at times the men fed the hyena from their own mouths. Dejere invited me to feed one hyena - the calmest of the lot. I was not really prepared for that kind of experience but I felt I just couldn't say no. I sat next to him, skewered a morsel of meat on a small wooden stick and handed the bait, shakingly, to one of the monsters - it ripped it off in a fraction of a second. I can tell you that such a close encounter - the powerful jaws of the beast were a mere 50 cm from my face - is absolutely unforgettable. I wanted to walk back to my hotel but took a taxi instead. Didn't want to bump into one of these scavengers in the dark streets.

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