Harar at the turn of the Century

By Richard Pankhurst

  For descriptions of Harar at the end of the 19th century, we are indebted among other sources to three widely different books, all published in 1901 : A. B. Wylde’s Modern Abyssinia ; Herbert Vivian’s Abyssinia, through the Lion-Land to the Court of the Lion of Judah ; and Captain M. S. Wellby’s ‘Twixt Sirdar and Menelik. Anyone who knows Harar will observe that many changes have taken place since that period also.

  It is amusing to set the careful accounts of Messrs. Wylde and Wellby against Vivian’s more melodramatic travelogue which found even the countryside ” uncanny ” and the cacti ” horrible looking” and suggestive of ” huge snake trees or vegetable devil fish.”

  A. B. Wylde compared the whole of Harar province with the Ethiopian provinces of Wag and Lasta, ” but not so broken as the latter.” ” The vegetation,” he added, ” is much the same, and in both the remains of very large forests are to be found. From Worabili, about twenty-five miles from the west of Harar, a large forest commences, which used to extend over a larger area ; there are now traces till Buoroma is reached, a distance of just one hundred miles, and the largest part left is around the Cunni district. This forest is gradually being destroyed by fire, and the very valuable trees, which consist chiefly of the Natal yellow pine, giant juniper and other coniferae, are set on fire to make clearings for growing dhurra and other grains. I believe the only places in Africa where the Natal yellow pine is found are in Nalal in the south and Harar province in the north, some 38″ of latitude apart.

  ” On two of the occasions that I was at Harar I have seen a good deal of the Abyssinian’s most enlightened representative, Ras Makonnen, who is a most courteous and polished man, far superior in every way perhaps to any of the other public men throughout the country. He is spoken of most highly by everyone, and I have to thank him for many kindnesses and for going out of his way to help me. He has the reputation of being a good diplomatist and a brave and courteous general, able to handle large numbers of troops and also of being a good and humane administrator. Being a near relation to King Menelik, he has been employed by him in every important undertaking and has now been made governor of the Tigre, in place of Ras Mangesha who is not in favour with the King, owing to his weak character and love of intrigue. Ras Makonnen has been to Italy and has therefore seen something of the outside world, and although he has had to fight the Italians, he seems to be on a most perfectly friendly footing with them.

   ” There can be no doubt that if Ras Makonnen succeeds to the Throne, which everyone hopes he will do, he will make a good king, and there will be more chance for Europeans to settle in his country as he fully under­stands that Abyssinia cannot any longer be kept closed to civilisation and foreign enterprise, and he is quite shrewd enough to know that pulling everything in the hands of one power can only end in disputes between the others, and it Is a great deal better to plan to be friendly and confer favours on all, which no doubt he will do as soon as he gets the opportunity.”

   Ras Makonnen’s estates, says Wylde, were well tended. ” He is a good sportsman besides, and a man who is that and also a good farmer and landlord cannot be a bad sort. He is always well and neatly dressed and dislikes the pomp and barbaric splendour with which the lower class officials love to surround themselves. I have seen him on several occasions out for a walk with a single attendant—a sure sign that he is liked by the people and has no enemies. He seems to be very friendly with the English, and being a well-informed person he knows the value of our friendship, and if he ever lives to be king there can be no doubt that he will do everything in his power to live in harmony and strengthen the bonds of friendship with us.”

   Discussing the Natal pine again in a later part of his book, Wylde adds :

” It grows into a veritable giant, only equalled in size of stem by the ancient sycamore fig-trees of the north. The Natal yellow pine has a Ted wood and smells some­thing like cedar.

It should be preserved and made use of, as some of the trees have huge straight stems of over sixty feet in length and would make excellent limber for rough bridges, or cut up in planks it would be very useful for building purposes.”

   ” The Harar province,” he explains, ” has no big bleak and bare uplands like Shoa, and consists of mountains fairly well covered with trees divided by enormous valleys of irregular shape.”


   There was no gainsaying, the immense economic value of the country. ” The fertility of the Harar province,” Wylde insisted, ” is well known and a big book might be written on the subject of its history and great natural resources ; among the districts of Abyssinia that I know, 1 place it third, the other two that are better are Yejju and the country round Abbi-Addi, in their order named. The late Sir Richard Burton described Harar in his book First Footsteps in Africa. Since that time it has wonderfully improved. During the Egyptian occupation of this district the conquerors built better houses than those formerly inhabited, but all their improvements were of an evanescent order, and all they did did not balance the blighting effect of their rule, and the horrible cruelties they committed on the peaceful agricultural Nola and Hargeta tribesmen.”

   Foreign travellers were uniformly impressed by Ras Makonnen’s enlightened views and love of justice. Captain M. S. Wellby, whose description of his visit to Harar was published in 1901 under the title Twixt Sirdar and Menelik, has this to say of his first meeting with him : ” As the Ethiopian general approached and saluted the escort, i was struck by his appearance. I saw him to be a well-made, clean-built horseman, with an intelligent, shrewd, kindly and thoughtful expression. During his somewhat lengthened stay with Captain Harrington the mass of followers standing without, a few yards distant from the tent, respectfully maintained a dead silence. As soon as the Ras prepared to move off, certain Gallas rushed forward, crying loudly, ‘ Abeit !’ Abeit ! ‘ which means ‘ Justice !’ ‘ Justice ! ‘ Ras Makonnen is always ready to listen to every complaint, but as these are sometimes numerous, certain aggrieved individuals have perforce to await their turn for several days, hence their impatience.”

   Wellby gives us the interesting information that Ras Makonnen had employed Indian and Arab workmen in the building of the palace at Harar. He began his examination of the town (he morning after his arrival by riding round the walls on muleback. “The town,” he observed, ” is oblong in shape, surrounded by walls ten or twelve feet high, varying in breadth. My mule which was but a slow walker, took three-quarters of an hour to carry me round. On the south side lay a rich valley of jowari, coffee, bananas and vines, with a profu­sion of flowers, among which the wild geranium was the most noticeable. Toward the north stretched green valleys and hills ; and on this side, close by the walls, one of the principal watering-places had been established, and to this spot numbers of women repaired. Ranges of hills on the north-west and south commanded the town, and where they were held by skilfully posted batteries ; with additional ones at Harar itself to protect the eastern side, Harar would be impregnable. As it is, there are some guns on the north side, where salutes are fired, and others close to the city on the west side, and more again further away in the hills ; but their powers of execution or of defence are probably not very formidable.”

   As a military man Wellby was naturally much inter­ested in the strategic position of the city. He could not, moreover, avoid a sigh that it was lost to the British Empire :

   ” Anybody who pays Harar a visit will wonder why the place was ever allowed to slip from our hands, for it is an important district, both commercially and strategi­cally ; and as soon as the Abyssinians come to a reason­able understanding, and have more direct dealings with Europeans, its value is bound to increase ten-fold.”

   Vivian, who apparently reached the city by more or less the same route as Burton had done a century and a half earlier, writes as follows of the last stages of the journey :

   ” Up precipitous torrent-beds, along the sides of wild valleys, I pushed forward in my frenzy for a town. After what I had passed through (the coastal desert) it was already something to behold human habitations of the summer-house pattern, woods, grass, flowers—and— wonder of wonders !—the ripple of running water. A tuft of maiden-hair fern seemed the first-fruit of a Promised Land. It began to grow cool upon the moun­tains of Gildessa. Heigho ! the relief.


   ” But the last stage, like the last straw, was the least endurable. The track grew even rougher. It was im­possible to ride. Walking grew painful. There seemed a greater solitude among the trees than in the boundless plain where solitude is more at home. The surroundings were uncanny. There were horrible-looking cacti, such as one meets in nightmares, and I could fancy they were huge snake-trees, or vegetable devil-fish.”

   After this melodramatic description of a harmless plant which still abounds in the region, Vivian tells of his first glimpse of the city, which was pointed out to him by his guide, Abdi :

” ‘ There is Harar,’ said Abdi. ” ‘ Where ? ‘

   ” I stared bravely for some seconds, but saw only the white building and the minaret upon the brown hill. Perhaps the surface of the hill was somewhat strange. No, that could not be the town of Harar, unless the Harari dwelt in ant-hills. Not ant-hills, perhaps, but very like ant-hills are these khaki edifices which only the expert eye can distinguish from the brown hill whereon they rest. Like the ramification of an ant-hill or a rabbit-warren are those serried walls and mazy streets and sunbaked buildings which are your first impression of this ancient and mysterious capital.”


   After recalling that ” less than fifty years ago, a Christian might only enter Harar with his life in his hands,” Vivian proceeds with his own impressions of the city :

” The walls appear of very great strength,” he ob­serves, “and the turreted gateway (one of five) may only be approached by a sharp ascent.”

   Of the three writers Vivian alone described the interior of the city in any detail. On passing through one of the gates, past the guard-house, he found himself in another world :

” I find myself amid a miniature market, and my retainers must force a way for my mule through a throng of listless peasants, who are there to sell the produce of the countryside. I scramble up a pathway which sug­gests the side of a ruined wall, and then the narrow streets of the human warren begin.

   ” The roads of Somaliland were bad enough, but the streets of Harar are even worse. My friend, the British Consular Agent, when he takes me out to see the sights, is never tired of jesting over these incomparable streets.

   ” Somewhat short of breath and temper,” Vivian continues, ” I reached the chief square which is flanked on one side by the round Abyssinian Cathedral, on the other side by Ras Makonnen’s Palace … I made my way to the French hotel … A number of Europeans were congregated round a billiard-table with absinthe at their elbows . . . The entrance was through a long, low shop, by no means badly stocked, and some steps led me down to a courtyard and the queerest bedroom I ever slept in. It suggested a temple of the Pharaohs, and was I learned, of Egyptian construction.”

   That night he slept soundly, refreshed by a most wel­come shower. Nevertheless, he records : ” Ever and anon the long chant of the watchmen broke the stillness of the night. ”

   Vivian was fully convinced that Europeans would find it profitable to settle in Harar in small numbers as they could bring useful skills :

” If I recommended anyone to go and settle in Harar, it would be the small man, the labourer or mechanic who finds it hard to make both ends meet at home. I talked to a young French carpenter who has set up there and finds more employment than he can cope with. Having no competitors, he can charge what he pleases, and must be putting by a pretty penny. If any one chose to go out and make bricks or pottery, or plaster, or cement, or glass, he would find an equally open field. I believe there is not a pane of glass in the whole town, though the European residents would be very glad to get it. Yet there is plenty of sand, which would make the manufacture possible, and the soil is admirably adapted for making pottery and even porcelain.

   ” Mining prospectors might also come and look round. So far no serious investigation has been made, though I am given to understand thai copper and iron certainly exist. As to coal, nobody knows …

   In Wylde’s day Harar itself was, he says, ” full to overflowing ” ; people from all parts of the east, to­gether with Levantines, were found in the bazaars. The city’s trade, he adds, ” is an important one and rapidly increasing, and no doubt, when the country settles down, will be the centre of a large coffee industry, as the !and is admirably suited for its cultivation and produces the coffee known in the English and foreign markets as the Mocha long-berry.”

   Harar by this time was already a city in transformation, Vivian refers to ” Menelik’s telephone-wire, standing out against a minaret or a mud cabin.” By now the tele­graph pole ” marked the way right through to Addis Ababa,” he continues.


   There is evidence to suppose that the population of Harar increased considerably during the period which followed its reunification to Ethiopia. Burton implies that in his time the Harari population was about six or seven thousand, as he declares the Arabs and Somalis together made up 2,500 souls, or nearly a third of the total population. There was also, he added, a floating population of 3,000 Bedouins from the surrounding area. Robert P. Skinner, the American diplomatist, who visited the city in 1903 gave the estimated population at that time as 39,000, made up as follows : ” 15,000 Ethiopians from the highlands, 17,500 Harari who spoke the local language, 6,500 Gallas and 1,000 Armenians, Greeks, Turks and Europeans.

   Robert P. Skinner, head of the United States mission to Ethiopia in 1903-4, has much to tell of Harar in his book Abyssinia of Today which appeared in 1906. He relates that his parly visited Harar by way of the ” excel­lent French road ” which was then being laid down by the engineers working on the Jibuti-Addis Ababa rail­way. As he proceeded along this road brilliantly coloured birds flew overhead and on several occasions his party passed ” whole villages ” of monkeys. His account continues as follows :

” It was noon when we emerged upon the plateau in the centre of which stands Harar . . . Sorgho, barley, teff, all the vast variety of Ethiopian crops, grew about us, and in the far distance lay a small lake by the shores of which we lunched sumptuously upon what the French call corned beef and hard bread. Tens of thousands of water fowl swam or flew about the lake, and the shores were black with sleek zebus. One hour’s rest was allowed, whereupon we put our weary forms once again into the saddle, determined to cover our thirty-eight miles and to meet the Ras (Ras Makonnen) at all hazards.

   ” Now the scenery again changed. The finished por-tion of the road we left behind, and with an equatorial sun in our faces we pressed on between rows of giant euphorbia, A foot-runner met us eight miles out, and, after a hasty inspection and salutation, darted on ahead to spread the news of our coming. Three miles further on we met the first escort, consisting of a hundred warriors on foot, commanded by a venerable gentleman with a patriarchal beard, mounted and wearing a long purple satin robe. He and I descended from our mules and shook hands.

   ” We finally descended a rocky path, coming out upon a beautiful plain surrounded by coffee plantations and with the ancient walled city of Harar in the foreground.

   ‘ In the distance approaching us we saw dimly a large body of troops, which proved to be a thousand men in the midst of whom rode the Governor, Ras of Harar. A man of middle age he proved to be, delicate in form and feature and quiet in manner. He wore a large felt hat, rich robes, white stockings, and patent leather slippers. His hands were delicate and small. When we me: we both descended, and I was again welcomed most cordially . . .

   ” Having exchanged salutations, the Governor’s troops led the cavalcade, the Ras himself riding with me, and my own escort following. As we passed under the brown city walls, a cannon upon the ramparts belched forth eleven additional welcomes, the first time, as we were told, that a mission had been thus received. We continued on through the gateway, and found ourselves in a compactly built city of low, flat-roofed houses of stone, with additional troops lining our progress through the rough and narrow streets.

   “During our ride the Ras explained that his new palace had been placed at our disposition. By this time we had reached the residence of the Ras himself, who invited the entire American party to enter.”

   After passing through a small courtyard, the officers found themselves before an unpretentious building of two storeys and then, climbing a flight of stairs, in a long reception-room, where ” a table laid in the French fashion indicated that something was to follow. Here, in a low musical voice, the Ras, who rules the province with an arm of iron, bade us be seated. White-robed servants immediately brought forth jars of mead or tedj, the native champagne, in which we drank to the health of President and Emperor. With the same thoughtful courtesy, the Ras sent down refreshments to our tired escort waiting below . . .

   ” The new palace so thoughtfully placed at our dis­position was not far from the residence of the Ras, and proved to be the most imposing structure we saw during our sojourn. It is of Arab-Indian design, and contains numerous rooms of enormous size, all carpeted with Oriental rugs, and to some extent furnished with French furniture. Across the courtyard was a small Italian hotel, organized and opened on the day of our arrival, and also wholly reserved for our use. We certainly had every reasonable accommodation during our stay.”

   Perhaps the last foreign account of the city to be penned before the Italian invasion was written by Sir Thomas Comyn-Platt in 1935 and is included in his book The Abyssinian Storm. He describes the city as ” the third largest town in the country ” and ” a flourishing agricultural centre.” ” Far more important,” he added, ” from the traveller’s point of view, it is ap­proached by a good road ” from Dire Dawa, thirty-five miles away. The two towns were therefore linked by a bus-service which gave ” constant service ” and appears to have charged 3 dollars per passenger. In addition to this ordinary public conveyance, there were, “he de­clared, ” private cars that could be hired for about 60 dollars.”

   ” The drive to Harar,” declares Sir Thomas, ” is an epitome of Abyssinian scenery ; a miniature production of all its geological features ; the mountains, rocks, chasms and valleys are all there, but on a scale that pleases, never appals ; interests, but never tires . . .

   ” On leaving the town (Dire Dawa) the road makes for what appears to be an impenetrable wall of hills, straight ahead . . .”


   At first the road led across a small plain for several miles ; on reaching the foothills, however, it ascends ” ever upward to the top of the range—a tortuous effort, a masterpiece of construction, though at times the car almost refuses the gradients.”

   Describing this part of the journey, Sir Thomas declares that the traveller might see lime trees in full blossom, or patches of coffee or cotton trees. Gazelles, hares and cattle often appeared on the way.

   ” After an hour’s climb one reaches the top of the pass, where, an official having been paid the toll and the car searched for dutiable goods,* the road leads across an extensive plateau, with a low hill-range for several miles on either side. There are groups of mud and thatched houses, too ; miles of cultivation, together with flocks and herds that occupy a scattered population to be seen on either side. They are Gallas, the best agriculturists in the land, and have lived and toiled in these parts, the cradle of their birth.

   Half-way across the plateau the road skirts two large shallow lakes, hollows, nothing more, in the surrounding plain, that catch the yearly rains and are never empty. The natives I spoke to seemed doubtful as to whether fish were to be caught or not. Though, judging from the cranes and other long-legged birds that lined the edge, it seemed very probable. It was a wonderful water centre—that was all anyone cared about . . .”

   ” By slightly more undulating country the road now carries on to Harar, which one comes across, quite un­expectedly, lying in a saucer, so to speak, made by the surrounding hills.”

   Sir Thomas was writing three-quarters of a century later than Sir Richard Burton, yet his first impression of the old walled city was basically the same. ” As one looks down on it from the far range,” he declares, ” it has the appearance of a dried-up lake. This is mainly due to the fact that the vast majority of the houses are flat-roofed, built or covered with mud and tanned by the sun. The distant effect is very curious. And the streets add to the delusion of being so many cracks on the surface.”

   The last half century since reunion to Ethiopia had been a period of peace and it would appear that the citizens had found little need for the high surrounding wall which Sir Thomas declares was now on average only about six feet high. ” It must have been,” he adds, considerably higher in the old days.” The main gateway, too, with its flimsy wooden door, posterns and look-out turrets, is a travesty of what it must have been.”

The Palace that Ras Makonnen Built

   Near to the Church of Medhane Alem is the Palace Ras Makonnen built for Menelik (King of Shoa, as he then was), anticipating that Menelik would early return to the city and province. This was rendered impossible by the events of the following years : the death of the Emperor Yohannes IV in 1899 and Menelik’s ascent to the Imperial Throne, with the cares of State thereby involved ; the burden of Italian aggression, the move­ment toward which commenced soon after Menelik became Emperor and continued till Italy’s defeat at Adowa in 1896 ; the death of Ras Makonnen himself at Kollumbi in the Chercher highlands of Harar province, on March 22, 1906, and subsequently Menelik’s own failing health.

   The palace the Emperor Menelik was never to visit was used as a guest-house for distinguished foreigners. One of the first to occupy it was M. Leonce Lagarde, Governor of French Somaliland and subsequently the first Minister appointed by France to the Court of Menelik II ; Lagarde arrived at Harar in 1898. Mr. Robert P. Skinner, the first United States envoy to Ethiopia, was a guest at the palace in 1904.


   The palace is a graceful stone edifice of two lofty storeys, topped by an ornamental cornice according well with the style of the structure. A square tower of three storeys occupies the centre of the front elevation and rises high above the main roof. The ground-floor of this tower forms a porch before the main entrance and may be entered by a wide archway in front or from either side. The interior walls of the porch are painted in fresco with highly stylised lions, antelopes and other animals native to Harar Province, which includes the Ogaden. The first upper storey of the tower has also three arched openings, in lieu of front and side walls. With a low balustrade as a protection to persons using it.

   The rear and particularly the left-hand side elevation are even more attractive than the front of the palace. They comprise on the ground floor a complex of arches, with balconies above overlooking the valley below the old city, the new city developing on the plateau and Mount Hakim beyond. Ras Makonnen is said to have employed Indian artisans to carry out his plan for the palace. Unfortunately during the hostilities of 1935-41 this charming structure was damaged. The upper floors being regarded consequently as unsafe, it was not used by the Italian invaders. Since the liberation of 1941, the structure has progressively decayed through injury to the roof. It is proposed to restore it to its original appear­ance and to use it for a museum of Harari antiquities. The main reception rooms of the palace are of vast proportions, aswas mentioned by Skinner* the American envoy who resided there in 1904.

   The house used by Ras Makonnen as his administra­tive headquarters was a much simpler structure of two storeys, with a balcony and outside staircase. The exterior walls were merely whitewashed but the house had a fine carved door. It faced toward Mount Hackim and there was a courtyard at the rear where the people assembled to bring their plaints to him and to obtain from him the justice he was always prepared to render.

   This historic building, around which many important events centred, with other Government offices of Ras Makonnen’s period, all unpretentious structures, are now in disuse.

   The court-house, another similar building of that time is, however, still employed.

   A street in the old city is named after the French poet, Arthur Rimbaud, who lived for a number of years in Harar striving in vain to amass a fortune which would enable him to return to France and there devote himself wholly to poetry, caring nought for the world. The house Rimbaud occupied still stands.


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