Harar in the Old Days

  Harar was almost unknown to Europe until the famous visit of Sir Richard Burton in the middle of the 19th century ; it is therefore to Sir Richard that we must turn for our first glimpse of the old-time city. His being the first description, one may tarry a while with the story of how he came to visit Harar and what he saw there.

  Burton’s account is not a sympathetic one, nor highly discerning. He had only a very superficial experience of the city ; he was there only ten days. He was received at the Court of the Emir and heard some of the talk in and around it. Of the people of Harar he could learn but little.

  Nevertheless some gleams, at least, of reality shine through his report. There is enough of truth or even half-truth in it to reveal to us that the Harar of today is utterly different from the Harar of Burton’s time. In scanning his report the reader must always bear in mind, this is not Harar of the 1950s ; this is the old city of a vanished period.

  It had long been closed to strangers from abroad ; Burton succeeded in peeping in.

T  he story begins in May, 1849, when the Superin­tendent of the British Indian Navy, Vice-Admiral Sir Charles Malcolm, joined the President of the Royal Geographical Society of Great Britain, William J. Hamilton, in requesting the permission of the British East India Company to explore the productive resources of the then unknown Somali region of East Africa. They received the following reply :

  " If a fit and proper person volunteer to travel in the Somali country, he goes as a private traveller, the Government giving no more protection to him than they would to an individual totally unconnected with the service. They will allow the officer who obtains per­mission to go, during his absence on the expedition, to retain all the pay and allowances he may be enjoying when leave was granted ; they will supply him with all the instruments required, afford him a passage going and returning, and pay the actual expenses of the journey."

  In the following year the Vice-Admiral offered charge of the expedition to Dr. Carter, of Bombay, who pro­posed to base his operations on a cruiser which would take him from place to place along the shore, whence he would penetrate here and there into the interior to a distance of 60 to 80 miles in quest of geological and botanical specimens. Dr. Carter’s proposals were accepted by the Navy though the Geographical Society expressed the view that they failed to fulfil the primary object of exploring the interior. Sir Charles Malcolm died, however, in May, 1851, thus putting an end to the original plan.

  Three years later, however, Captain Sir Richard F. Burton, then in the British India service, conceived the idea of reviving the Somali Expedition. His proposals were more far-reaching than those of Dr. Carter, for instead of contenting himself with the mere exploration of the coastal regions, he proposed to penetrate the interior and to reach the famous walled city of Harar, which, as far as was known, had never been visited by any European. In October, 1854, Burton received permission from the East India Company to march from Berbera to Harar, and thence in a south-westerly direction toward Zanzi­bar. Burton, who assumed the guise of an Arab mer­chant, as Europeans were not then allowed into Harar city, espoused the adventure with enthusiasm. " Harar," he afterwards wrote, " had never been visited, and few are the cities of the world which in the present age, when men hurry about the earth, have not opened their gates to European adventure. The ancient metropolis of a once mighty race, the only permanent settlement in Eastern Africa, the reported seat of Moslem learning, a walled city of stone houses, possessing its independent chief, its peculiar population, its unknown language, and its own coinage, the emporium of the coffee trade, the headquarters of slavery, the birth-place of the Kat plant, and the great manufacture of cotton-cloth, amply, it appeared, deserved the trouble of exploration." *

  Burton’s account of his journey appeared in 1856 un­der the title First Footsteps in East Africa. After devoting seven chapters to the 202 mile journey from the coast, the author relates that in the afternoon of January 3rd, 1855, having crossed the Erer river at noon, his party began the ascent to Harar. His first intimation that he was in the vicinity of the city was the sight of " a multitude of Galla peasants coming from the city market with new pot-lids and the empty gourds which had contained their butter, ghi, and milk ; all wondered aloud at the Turk, concerning whom they had heard many horrors. As we commenced another ascent, appeared a Harar grandee mounted upon a handsomely caparisoned mule and attended by seven servants who carried gourds and skins of grain. He was a pale-faced senior with a white beard, dressed in a fine Tobe and a snowy turban with scarlet edges : he carried no shield, but an Abyssinian broadsword was slung over his left shoulder. We exchanged courteous salutations, and as I was thirsty he ordered a footman to fill a cup with water . . .

  " At 2 p.m. we fell into a narrow-fenced lane, and halted for a few minutes near a spreading tree, under which sat women selling ghi and unspun cotton. About two miles distant on the crest of a hill, stood the city— the end of my present travel—a long sombre line, strik­ingly contrasting with the white-washed towns of the East. The spectacle, materially speaking, was a dis­appointment : nothing conspicuous appeared but two grey minarets of rude shape . . . But of all that have attempted, none ever succeeded in entering that pile of stones : the thoroughbred traveller will understand my exultation, although my two companions exchanged glances of wonder."

  Burton and his party spurred their mules and proceeded at a trot. " The soil on both sides of the path," he tells us, " was rich and red ; masses of plantains, limes and pomegranates denoted the gardens which were defended by a bleached cow’s skull stuck upon a short stick and between them were plantations of coffee, bastard saffron and the graceful Kat."

  Finally, at 3 p.m. the travellers reached the open plain which was their journey’s end. Burton proceeds :

" On the right lie the holcus fields which reach to the town wall : the left is a heap of rude cemetery, and in front the dark defences of Harar, with groups of citizens loitering about the large gateway, and sitting in chat near the ruined tomb of Ao Abdal. . .

  " Advancing to the gate, Mad Sa’id accosted a warder, known by his long wand of office, and sent our salams to the Emir, saying that we came from Aden, and requested the honour of audience. Whilst he sped upon his errand we sat at the foot of a round bastion, and were scrutinized, derided, and catechized by the curious of both sexes, especially by that conventionally termed the fair."

  The gate by which Burton waited has long since dis­appeared, but what it looked like may be judged from the sketch in Dr. Philipp Panlitschke’s Harar, published in Leipzig in 1888.

  After waiting half and hour, Burton and his party were told they might enter, whereupon they at once made their way along the main street, a narrow up-hill lane, to the Emir’s palace. Burton describes this edifice as " a mere shed, a long, single-storeyed, windowless barn of rough stone and reddish clay, with no other insignia than a thin coat of whitewash over the door . . . The courtyard was about eighty yards long by thirty in breadth, irregularly shaped, and surrounded by low buildings ; in the centre, opposite the outer entrance, were propped divers doors."*

  After a further wait of some thirty minutes Burton was called to the presence of the Emir who styled himself Sultan Ahmad bin Sultan Abu Bakr. The prince, he states, " sat in a dark-room with whitewashed walls, to which hung "significant decorations" rusty matchlocks and polished fetters. His appearance was that of a little Indian Rajah, an etiolated youth twenty-four or twenty-five years old, plain and thin-bearded, with a yellow complexion, wrinkled brows and protruding eyes. His dress was a flowing cloth, edged with snowy fur and a narrow white turban tightly twisted round a tall conical cap of red velvet, like the old Turkish headgear of our painters. His Throne was a common Indian Kursi, or raised cot, about five feet long, with back and sides supported by a dwarf railing ; being an invalid he rested his elbow upon a pillow, under which appeared the hilt of a Cutch sabre. Ranged in double line, perpendicular to the Emir, stood the court ; his cousins and nearest relations with right arms bared after the fashion of Abyssinia."

  Turning to describe the city and its inhabitants Burton continues :

  "The ancient capital of Hadiyah, called by the citi­zens ‘ Harar Gay,’ by the Somalis ‘ Adari,’ by the Gallas ‘ Adaray,’ and by the Arabs and ourselves ‘ Harar,’ lies, according to my dead reckoning, 220° S.W. of, and 175 statute miles from, Zayla—257° W. of, and 219 miles distant from Berbera. This would place it in 9° 20′ N. lat, and 42° 7′ E. long. The bar­ometer showed an altitude of about 5,500 feet above the level of the sea. Its site is the slope of a hill which falls gently from west to east. On the eastern side are cultivated fields : westwards a terraced ridge is laid out in orchards ; northwards is a detached eminence covered with tombs ; and to the south, the city declines into a low valley bisected by a mountain burn. This irregular position is well sheltered from high winds, especially on the northern side, by the range of which Kondudo is the lofty apex ; hence, as the Persian poet sings of a heaven-favoured city—-

  "’ Its heat is not hot, nor its cold, cold.’

  " During my short residence the air reminded me of Tuscany. On the afternoon of the 11th January there was thunder accompanied by rain : frequent showers fell on the 12th, and the morning of the 13th was clear ; but as we crossed the mountains, black clouds obscured the heavens. The monsoon is heavy during the summer months ; before it begins the crops are planted, and they are reaped in December and January. At other seasons the air is dry, mild, and equable.

  " The present city of Harar is about one mile long by half that breadth. An irregular wall, lately repaired but ignorant of cannon, is pierced with five large gates, and supported by oval towers of artless construction. The material of the houses and defences is rough stones, the granites and sandstones of the hills, cemented, like the ancient Galla cities, with clay. The only large build­ing is the Jami or Cathedral, a long barn of poverty-stricken appearance, with broken-down gates, and two white-washed minarets of truncated conoid shape. They were built by Turkish architects from Mocha and Hodaydah : one of them lately fell, and has been re-placed by an inferior effort of Harari art. There are a few trees in the city, but it contains none of those gardens which give to Eastern settlements that pleasant view of town and country combined. The streets are narrow lanes, up hill and down dale, strewed with gigantic rubbish heaps, upon which repose packs of mangy or one-eyed dogs, and even the best are encumbered with rocks and stones. The habitations are mostly long, flat-roofed sheds, double storeyed, with doors composed of a single plank, and holes for windows pierced high above the ground, and decorated with miserable woodwork ; the principal houses have separ­ate apartments for the women, and stand at the bottom of large courtyards closed by gates of holcus stalks. The poorest classes inhabit’ Gambisa,’ the thatched cottages of the hill-cultivators. The city abounds in Mosques, plain buildings without minarets, and in the grave­yards stuffed with tombs are oblong troughs formed by long slabs planted edgeways in the ground. I need scarcely say that Harar is proud of her learning, sanctity, and holy dead. The principal saint buried in the city is Shaykh Umar Abadir al-Bakri, originally from Jeddah, and now the patron of Harar ; he lies under a little dome in the southern quarter of the city, near the Bisidimo Gate."

  Bar, he explains, is the Amharic for gate and is found in such a place name as Ankobar. " At all times," he adds, " these gates are carefully guarded ; in the evening the keys are taken to the Emir, after which no one can leave the city till dawn."

  Harar, he continues, " shares with Zabid in Al-Yaman, the reputation of being an Alma Mater, and inundates the surrounding districts with poor scholars and crazy ‘ Widads.’ "

  "’ Where knowledge leads to nothing,’ says philosophic Volney, nothing is done to acquire it, and the mind remains in a state of barbarism. There are no establishments for learning, no endowments, as generally in the East, and apparently no encouragement to stu­dents : books are rare and costly. None but the religious sciences are cultivated. The chief Ulema are the Kabir Khalil, the Kabir Yunis, and the Shaykh Jami : the two former scarcely ever quit their houses, devoting all their time to study and tuition : the latter is a Somali who takes an active part in politics.

  " These professors teach Moslem literature through the medium of Harari, a peculiar dialect confined within the walls . . . Harar has not only its own tongue, un­intelligible to any save the citizens ; even its little population of about 8,000 souls is a distinct race . . . The dress is a mixture of Arab and Abyssinian. They shave the head and clip the mustachioes and imperial close . . . Many are bareheaded ; some wear a cap, generally the embroidered Indian work, or the common cotton Tukiyah of Egypt : a few affect white turbans of the fine Harar work, loosly twisted over the ears. The body-garment is the Tobe, worn flowing as in the Somali country or girt with the dagger-strap round the waist ; the richer classes bind under it a Futah or loin-cloth, and the dignitaries have wide Arab drawers of white calico : coarse leathern sandals, a rosary and a tooth-stick rendered perpetually necessary by the habit of chewing tobacco, complete the costume : and arms being for­bidden in the streets, the citizens carry wands five or six feet long.

  " The women, who, owing probably to the number of female slaves, are much more numerous, appear beautiful by contrast to their lords. They have small heads, regular profiles, straight noses, large eyes, mouths approaching the Caucasian type, and light yellow com­plexions. Dress, however, here is a disguise to charms. A long, wide, cotton shirt, with short arms, as in the Arab’s Aba, indigo-dyed or chocolate-coloured, and ornamented with a triangle of scarlet before and behind— the base on the shoulder and the apex at the waist—is girt round the middle with a sash of white cotton, crimson-edged. Women of the upper class, when leaving the house, throw a blue sheet over the head, which, however, is rarely veiled. The front and back hair parted in the centre is gathered into two large bunches below the ears, and covered with dark blue muslin or network, whose ends meet under the chin. This coiffure is bound round the head at the junction of scalp and skin by a black satin ribbon which varies in breadth according to the wearer’s means : some adorn the gear with gilt pins, others twine in it a Taj or thin wreath of sweet-smelling creeper. The virgins collect their locks, which are generally wavy not wiry, and grow long as well as thick, into a knot tied a la Diane behind the head : a curtain of short close plaits escaping from the bunch, falls upon the shoulders, not ungracefully. Silver orna­ments are worn only by persons of rank. The ear is decorated with Somali rings or red coral beads, the neck with necklaces of the same material, and the forearms with six or seven of the broad circles of buffalo and other dark horn prepared in Western India*. Finally, stars are tattooed upon the bosom, the eyebrows are lengthened with dyes, the eyes fringed with Kohl, and the hands and feet stained with henna.

  " The fair sex is occupied at home in spinning cotton thread for weaving Tobes, sashes and turbans ; carrying their progeny perched upon their backs, they bring water from the wells in large gourds borne on the head ; work in the gardens, and—the men considering such work a disgrace—sit and sell in the long street which here represents the Eastern bazar . . .

  " The Government of Harar is the Emir. These petty princes have a habit of killing and imprisoning all who are suspected of aspiring to the Throne. Ahmad’s great grandfather died in jail, and his father narrowly escaped the same fate. When the present Emir ascended the throne he was ordered, it is said, by the Makad or chief of the Nole Gallas, to release his prisoners, or to mount his horse and leave the city. Three of his cousins, however, were, when I visited Harar in confinement, one of them since that time has died, and has been buried in his fetters. The Somal declare that the state-dungeon of Harar is beneath the palace, and that he who once enters it, lives with unkempt beard and untrimmed nails until the day when death sets him free . . .

  " The Emir Ahmad succeeded his father about three years ago. His rule is severe if not just, and it has all the prestige of secrecy . . . Ahmad’s principal occupations

  * These bracelets were actually made in Ethiopia—ed are spying on his many stalwart cousins, indulging in vain fears of the English, the Turks, and the Hajj Shar-markay, and amassing treasure by commerce and escheats. He judges civil and religious causes in person, but he allows them with little interference to be settled by the Kazi, Abd al-Rahman bin Umar al-Harari . . . The punishments, when money forms no part of them, are mostly according to the Koranic code. The murderer is placed in the market street, blindfolded, and bound hand and foot ; the nearest of kin to the deceased then strikes his neck with a sharp and heavy butcher’s knife, and the corpse is given over to the relations for Moslem burial. If the blow prove ineffectual a pardon is generally granted. When a citizen draws a dagger upon another or commits any petty offence, he is bastinadoed in a peculiar manner ; two men ply their horsewhips upon his back and breast, and the prince, in whose presence the punish­ment is carried out, gives the order to stop. Theft is visited with amputation of the hand. The prison is the award of state offenders : it is terrible, because the captive is heavily ironed, lies in a filthy dungeon, and receives no food but what he can obtain from his own family—seldom liberal under such circumstances—or buy or beg from his guards. Fines and confiscations, as usual in the East, are favourite punishments with the ruler.

  " The Emir is said to have large hoards of silver, coffee and ivory ; my attendant, the Hammal, was once admitted into the inner palace, where he saw huge boxes of ancient fashion supposed to contain dollars. The only specie current in Harar is a diminutive brass piece called Mahallak—hand-worked and almost as artless a medium as a modern Italian coin. It bears on one side the words : Zaribet al-Harar, The coinage of Harar.

  On the reverse is the date, a.h. 1248. The Emir pitilessly punishes all those who pass in the city any other coin.

  "The Emir Ahmad is alive to the fact that some state should hedge in a prince. He rides to mosque escorted by a dozen horsemen, and a score of footmen with guns and whips precede him : by his side walks an officer shading him with a huge and heavily fringed red satin umbrella—from India to Abyssinia the sign of princely dignity. Even at his prayers two or three chosen match-lockmen stand over him with lighted fuses. When he rides forth in public, he is escorted by a party of fifty men : the running footmen crack their whips and shout ‘ Let ! Let ! ‘ (Go ! Go !) and the citizens avoid stripes by retreating into the nearest house, or running into another street.

  " The army of Harar is not imposing. There are between forty and fifty matchlockmen of Arab origin, long settled in the place, and commanded by a veteran Maghrabi. They receive for pay sufficient holcus to afford five or six loaves a day : luxuries must be provided by the exercise of some peaceful craft. Including slaves, the total of armed men may be two hundred ; of these one carries a Somali or Galla spear, another a dagger, and a third a sword, which is generally the old German cavalry blade. Cannon of small calibre is supposed to be concealed in the palace, but none probably knows their use. The city may contain thirty horses, of which a dozen are royal property : they are miserable ponies, but well trained to the rocks and hills. The Galla Bedowins would oppose an invader with a strong force of spearmen ; the approaches of the city are difficult and dangerous, but it is commanded from the north and west, and the walls would crumble at the touch of a six-pounder. Three hundred Arabs and two galloper guns would take Harar in an hour.

  " Harar is essentially a commercial town ; its citizens live, like those of Zayla, by systematically defrauding the Galla Bedowins, and the Emir has made it a penal offence to buy by weight and scale. He receives, as octroi, from eight to fifteen cubits of cutch canvas for every donkey-load passing the gates ; consequently the beast is so burdened that it must be supported by the drivers. Cultivators are taxed ten per cent, the general and easy rate of this part of Africa, but they pay in kind, which considerably increases the Government share. The greatest merchant may bring to Harar £50 worth of goods, and he who has £20 of capital is considered a wealthy man . . .

  " The principal exports from Harar are slaves, ivory, coffee, tobacco, wars (safflower or bastard saffron), Tobes and woven cottons, mules, holcus, wheat, ‘ Karanji,’ a kind of bread used by travellers, ghi, honey, gums (principally mastic and myrrh), and finally sheep’s fat and tallows of all sorts.

  " The imports are American sheeting, and other cottons, white and dyed, muslins, red shawls, silks, brass, sheet copper, cutlery (generally cheap German), Birmingham trinkets and beads, coral, dates, rice, and loaf sugar, gunpowder, paper and the various other wants of a city in the wild.

  " Harar is still, as of old, the great ‘ half-way house ‘ for slaves from Zangaro, Gurague, and the Galla tribes, Alo and others : Abyssinians and Amharas, the most valued, have become rare since the King of Shoa pro­hibited the exportation. Women vary from 100 to 400 Ashrafis,* boys from 9 to 150 : the worst are kept for domestic purposes, the best are driven and exported by the Western Arabs, or by the subjects of H.H. the Imam of Maskat, in exchange for rice and dates. I need scarcely say that commerce would thrive on the decline of slavery. Whilst the Felateas or man-razzias are allowed to continue, it is vain to expect industry in the land.

  " Ivory at Harar amongst the Kafirs is a royal mono­poly, and the Emir carries on the one-sided system of trade, common to African monarchs. Elephants abound in Jarjar, the Erer forest and in the Harirah and other valleys, where they resort during the hot season, in the cold descending to the lower regions. The Gallas hunt the animals and receive for the spoil a little cloth : the Emir sends his ivory to Berbera, and sells it by means of a wakil or agent. The smallest kind is called ‘ Ruba Aj’ (Quarter Ivory), the better description ‘ Nus Aj’ (Half Ivory), whilst ‘ Aj,’ the best, fetches from thirty-two to forty dollars per Farasilah of 27 Arab pounds.

  " The coffee of Harar is too well-known in the markets of Europe to require description : it grows in the gardens about the town, in greater quantities amongst the Western Gallas, and in perfection at Jarjar, a district of about seven days’ journey from Harar on the Ifat road. It is said the Emir withholds this valuable article, fearing to glut the Berberah market : he has also forbidden the Harash, or coffee cultivators, to travel lest the art of tending the tree be lost. When I visited Harar, the price per parcel of twenty-seven pounds was a quarter of a dollar, and the hire of a camel carrying twelve parcels to Berbera was five dollars : the profit did not repay labour and risk.

  " The tobacco of Harar is of a light yellow colour, with good flavour, and might be advantageously mixed with Syrian and other growths. The Alo, or Western Gallas, the principal cultivators, plant it with holcus, and reap it about five months afterwards. It is cooked for a fortnight, the woody part is removed, and the leaf is packed in sacks for transportation to Berbera. At Harar, men prefer it for chewing, as well as smoking ; women generally use Surat tobacco. It is bought, like all similar articles, by the eye, and about seventy pounds are to be had for a dollar.

   Ashrafi was a third of a dollar.

  " The Wars or Safflower is cultivated in considerable quantities around the city ; an abundance is grown in the lands of the Gallas. It is sown when the heavy rains have ceased, and is gathered about two months after­wards. This article, together with slaves, forms the staple commerce with Berbera and Muskat.

  Three caravans leave Harar every year for the Berbera market. The first starts early in January, laden with coffee, Tobes, Wars, ghi, gums and other articles to be bartered for cottons, silks, shawls and Surat tobacco. The second sets out in February. The principal cara­vans, conveying slaves mules and other valuable articles, enters Berbera a few days before the close of the season : it numbers about 3,000 souls, and is commanded by one of the Emir’s principal officers, who enjoys the title of Ebi or leader. Any or all of these kafilahs might be stopped by spending four or five hundred dollars amongst the Jebril Abokr tribe, or even by a sloop of war at the emporium. ‘ He who commands at Berbera, holds the beard of Harar in his hand,’ is a saying which I heard even within the city walls.

  " The furniture of a house at Harar is simple—a few skins, and in rare cases a Persian rug, stools, coarse mats, and Somali pillows, wooden spoons and porringers shaped with a hatchet, finished with a knife, stained red, and brightly polished. The gourd is a conspicuous article, smoked inside and fitted with a cover of the same material, it serves as cup, bottle, pipe and water skin ; a coarse and heavy kind of pottery, of black or brown clay, is used by some of the citizens.

  The inhabitants of Harar live well. The best meat is beef ; it rather resembled, however, in the dry season, when I ate it, the lean and stringy sirloins of Old England in Hogarth’s days. A hundred and twenty chickens, or sixty-six full-grown fowls may be purchased for a dollar, and the citizens do not, like the Somali, consider them carrion. Goat’s flesh is good, and the black-faced Berbera sheep, after the rains, is, here as elsewhere, delicious. The staff of life is holcus. Fruit grows almost wild, but it is not prized as an article of food : the plantains are course and bad, grapes seldom come to maturity ; although the crab flourishes in every ravine, and the palm becomes a lofty tree, it has not been taught to fructify, and the citizens do not know how to dress, preserve or pickle their limes and citrons. No vegetables but gourds are known. From the cane, which thrives upon these hills, a little sugar is made, the honey of which, as the Abyssinians say, ‘ the land stinks,’ is the general sweetener. The condiment of East Africa is red pepper."

  The slave-trade so often mentioned in Burton’s account has of course long since been abolished.

  Burton’s account was written not without bias in an archaic time of East African geopolitics. Ahmad Ibn Abi Bakr, the Amir, whom Burton visited in 1855 died in 1866 and was succeeded by a usurper Mohamed Ibn Ali who had allied himself with the Gallas outside the gates of the city against the Harari population.


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