Ethiopia: What Makes Harari Culture Unique?

The fortified historic town of Harar is located in the eastern part of Ethiopia, 525 km from the capital of Addis Ababa, on a plateau with deep gorges surrounded by deserts and savannah.

The walls surrounding this sacred city, considered "the fourth holy city" of Islam, were built between the 13th and 16th centuries and served as a protective barrier.

There were five historic gates, which corresponded to the main roads to the town and also served to divide the city into five neighborhoods, but this division is not functional anymore. The Harar gate, from where the main streets lead to the center, is of recent construction.

Registered in the UNESCO WORLD Heritage List in 2006, the old town of Harar has a traditionally functioning community, forming a complex social-environmental whole where each element has its symbolic and practical significance.

The Harari people are distinguished by the continued cultural traditions and quality of their handicrafts, including weaving, basket making and book binding.

The Harari People, also called Geyusu ("People of the City"), are an ethnic group traditionally reside in the city of Harar, situated in the Harari Region of eastern Ethiopia, one of the nine ethnically-based regional states (kililoch) of Ethiopia.

The Harari are the small remnants of a unique, pre-industrial urban culture that has existed since the 1500s. Until 1974, the Harari, lived exclusively inside the stone walls of Harar, an ancient Muslim city, where they specialized in trade.

Over the centuries, Harar, which is located on a highland ridge between the Red Sea and the Ethiopian highlands, has been the dominant center of Islam for northeast Africa. Although recent political and economic changes have dispersed the Harari, they have continued trading in the region.

The Harari are the only Ethiopians whose trade is based in a single, large urban center. Daily the Harari have contacts with four other competitive ethnic groups who frequent the markets of Harar. However, they have maintained their distinctive qualities.

To help preserve their unique culture they limit the use of their native language, Adare, to their own people. They also strongly discourage marriage to non-Harari. They speak Harari, a member of the Ethiosemitic within the Afroasiatic family. The 1994 Ethiopian census indicates that there were 21.757 Harari speakers.

About 20.000 of these individuals were concentrated outside Harar, in Ethiopia's capital Addis Ababa. Most Harari people are bilingual in Amharic and Afaan Oromo, both of which are also Afro-Asiatic languages. According to the 1994 Ethiopian census, about 2.351 are monolingual, speaking only Harari.

Women make up a solid force in Harari culture. Unlike the women of many other Muslims cultures, the Harari women lead vigorous and visible-although separate-social lives. They are not required to wear the traditional Muslim veil.

They contribute to their families' incomes by selling produce from their husbands' farms or raising and selling tobacco. One very important industry among the Harari women is basket weaving. In fact, Harar has become famous for its elaborate baskets. Most Harari live in rectangular-shaped houses.

The walls are made of twigs overlaid with clay and the roofs are made of thatch. The region surrounding Harar receives up to 40 inches of rain per year. This enables the farmers to produce enough grain to satisfy the city's needs. Various citrus fruits, mangoes, papayas, bananas, and other fruits are also raised.

The cash crops are coffee and qat, a mildly hallucinogenic stimulant. The staple dish of the Harari is a spicy stew made with meat, potatoes, and vegetables, and eaten with sourdough bread.

Harari society is characterized by a complex set of obligations and ties, which provides a strong sense of social solidarity and excludes outsiders. The core of Harari society is built around kinship, friendship, and afocha, or community organizations.

In regard to kinship, the Harari do not marry non-Harari. Friendship provides the Harari with a small group of trusted equals who remain friends throughout their lives. Characteristically, a boy forms a core of close friends from other neighborhood boys his own age. A girl becomes friends with the daughters of women who visit her mother.

The afocha provides the Harari with social, ceremonial, and economic support for such occasions as weddings and funerals. Community organizations range in size from 50 to 75 members, and usually include aunts, uncles, and cousins.

Because of their urban background, the Harari are known for their mercantile skills. They consider themselves superior to surrounding ethnic groups and their widespread property ownership gives them the economic means to sustain that social perspective.

The Harari are virtually all Sunni Muslims. Despite pressures to change, the Islamic religion is still strong among the Harari. The city of Harar is well known as a center of Islamic learning. The twin-towered Jami mosque is the focus of the community, although nearly every neighborhood has its own small mosque.

The people attend the mosques regularly. Because Harar has over 150 shrines of Muslim saints, it is referred to as the "city of saints." Almost all of the adults in Harar fast during Ramadan, the ninth month of the Islamic year. Very few people drink alcoholic beverages.

The earliest kabir or Islamic teacher in the community was Aw Sofi Yahya. He arrived in Harar in 1216 as part of Abadir's retinue. Yahya subsequently established the area's first Qur'an gey or madrasa around 10 kilometres to the south of the city center.

Source :

More From: Ethiopian Herald

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