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Harar: The History of Ethiopia's Muslim City

By Stuart Munro-Hay / CPA 1995


The city of Harar is the only important Muslim city in the interior of Ethiopia, situated at about 526km from Addis Ababa, and lying some 1850m above sea level in hilly but fertile countryside. Its origins are obscure. Muslim shaykhs appear to have been known in the region before and during the time of the Ethiopian Emperor Amda Tseyon (1314-44), but the town is first actually mentioned in the chronicle of the emperor's victories over the Muslim kingdom of Adal in the east. According to an Arabic record, there were seven Muslim kingdoms in the region, all under the authority of the Ethiopians, Harar being in Dawaro. It was later included in the Sultanate of Adal, also called the Kingdom of Zeila.

Harar became the chief Muslim base in Ethiopia, and was to remain Ethiopia's great permanent centre for Islam. When the kingdom of Adal became the main Muslim state in the Ethiopian region, Harar came into its territory. Adal fought constantly with Ethiopia, and soon fanatical amirs or imams - at least from the Christian point of view - took over control in Harar region. Sultan Muhammad (1488-1518) of Adal attempted to remain at peace with Ethiopia. The Portuguese friar Francisco Alvares, who was in Ethiopia with a Portuguese embassy in the 1520s, recorded that he was unable to do so because Mahfuz, amir of Harar, caused trouble by his constant raids. For a while, sultan and negus maintained an uneasy peace, which continued when Lebna Dengel (1508-40) succeeded to the Ethiopian throne, with the Empress Eleni as regent. Nevertheless, prophetically, Eleni sent to Portugal for assistance. A mission was sent with an ambassador to Manuel I of Portugal. This resulted in the arrival in Ethiopia in 1520 of a Portuguese embassy under Dom Rodrigo da Lima.

Mahfuz had become by this time governor of Zayla, de facto ruler of Adal. There were renewed raids on Ethiopian territory. Emperor Lebna Dengel met an invasion attempt, killing Mahfuz and destroying one of the sultan's castles; at the same time Lope Suarez surprised Zayla from the sea and sacked it. Despite this very material demonstration of how useful Portugal could be, Lebna Dengel did not enter into alliance. He permitted the Portuguese embassy to leave in 1526, thus signing the death warrant of his kingdom.


City gate, Harar.
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City gate, Harar.

For a new leader arose unexpectedly in the Adali sultanate, Mahfuz' son-in-law Imam Ahmad b. Ibrahim al-Ghazi (1506-43), called Grañ, 'the left-handed'. The centre of his influence was Harar, where he built up his own powerful party, crushing the conservative resistance of the more cautious merchants. This extraordinary man was able to cut through the feeble struggles that animated the sultans' court, slaying Sultan Abu Bakr - who had transferred the sultanate to Harar in 1520 - and installing his brother Umar Din, a pliable puppet. Imam Ahmad directed policy towards an all-out struggle with Ethiopia. The die was cast in 1527, when payment of tribute to Abyssinia was refused.

After a failed invasion from Abyssinia in that year, Imam Ahmad launched his jihad. He defeated the Abyssinians on the Awash river in Shewa in 1529. His armies penetrated deep into the highland Christian kingdom, attacking Dawaro and Shewa in 1531, then Amhara, Lasta, Bali, Hadya, Sidama, and the Gurage region. With vast tracts of the former empire of Ethiopia under his control, in 1535 he invaded Tigray in the north. The sacred city of Aksum itself was sacked and its cathedral reduced to ruins. A Muslim chronicler, Arab-Faqih, recorded the progress of the imam and his forces in his book Futuh al-Habashat, or 'Conquest of Abyssinia'. There seems to have been no exaggeration, either of the conquests, the destruction, or the plunder; the royal chronicle of Lebna Dengel, and certain Portuguese records, confirm it all. It was one of the worst disasters ever to befall Christian Ethiopia.

Lebna Dengel, outmanoeuvred and out-musketed, could only flee. However, he sent in haste to Portugal in 1535 for help. He was not to see the result, dying in 1540, exhausted and miserable, to be succeeded by his son Galawdewos (1540-59). But Portugal did respond. In 1541 four hundred Portuguese musketeers arrived in Ethiopia, led by Christovao da Gama, son of the famous explorer Vasco da Gama. After many vicissitudes - not least the capture, torture and death of da Gama - they succeeded in joining Galawdewos. Imam Ahmad made the mistake of sending away 900 musketeers after da Gama's death. The last battle of this great soldier's career came in 1542 at Wayna Dega east of Lake Tana, where he was shot by Pedro Leon, a Portuguese soldier. The imam died shortly afterwards, and Christian Ethiopia was reprieved.

Now a woman stepped into the breach, Del Wambara, Mahfuz' daughter and Ahmad's wife. She stirred up Harar to launch another campaign. They were defeated, though their captured leaders were exchanged for the emperor's brother Minas, held captive in Zabid. Even though Harar was sacked in 1550, Del Wambara still did not give up, offering herself in marriage to Nur, Ahmad's nephew and amir of Harar, if he would avenge her husband. It was this Nur who built the walls of Harar that we see today. He is regarded as the town's local patron saint and hero, the 'second conqueror' after his uncle Imam Ahmad. He was proclaimed Commander of the Faithful, and invaded Ethiopia in 1559. The Ethiopian emperor sent his cousin to attack Harar, but, although Sultan Barakat b. Umar Din abandoned the city and suffered defeat in battle, disaster again struck the Ethiopians; Emperor Galawdewos was killed and his head sent to Harar. Imam Ahmad was indeed avenged.

But a fearsome peril arrived to preoccupy both sides. A new people, the Oromo (often referred to pejoratively as the Galla,) were flooding northwards, overwhelming Christians and Muslims alike. By 1567 they had almost taken over the Harari sultanate, devastating the region. Amir Nur tried to resist, but died of pestilence following a famine in 1567-8. Only the city, beleaguered, remained as the Oromo swept on northwards even as far as Tigray. Later, becoming semi-nomadic or settled, many Oromo were converted to Islam. Even so, they rendered Harar's position precarious. Inside their walls the Hararis maintained their own religion, language and commercial life, but outside they had lost all influence, the Oromo blocking the life-giving trade with Zeila. The walls built by amir Nur as a defence against the Ethiopians were now Harar's sole protection against the Oromo.

Nur's successors attempted to treat with the Oromo, so they would come to the markets. Internally, the city suffered from political instability, with coups and countercoups. Sultan Muhammad b. Nasir made the major mistake of joining the rebellion of Yetshaq, ruler of the northeastern provinces, and in 1577 went to war with Ethiopia. But Ethiopia was by now governed by Emperor Sartsa Dengel, a military commander of some stature. On the river Webi, Muhammad was captured (he was later executed) and the best of his army annihilated. This defeat marked the end of Harari military power.

Meanwhile the Oromo had seized the remaining Harari territory, and the sultanate itself was transferred to Aussa in 1577. Aussa too succumbed in 1672 to Oromo and Somali raids. Harar still survived. It had managed to wrest its independence from Aussa in 1647 under Ali b. Daud, and thus remained an independent city state until the late 19th century. It even produced its own coinage - unattractive pieces marked in Arabic with the sultans' names and titles, and the words 'Dharabat fi Harar' (struck in Harar) - in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Harar had one more adventure to undergo before it became an integral part of Ethiopia; the Egyptian occupation. When amir Muhammad b. Ali usurped the throne, the people appealed to Khedive Ismail of Egypt, who was very willing to spread his imperium in the south. Ra'uf Pasha, who had already taken Zayla, and Berbera in 1870, occupied Harar in 1874, remaining as Egyptian governor. Vigorous campaigns were mounted against the Oromo, who were defeated and islamised much more strongly than before. As a brief social comment at this time, it may be mentioned that an Egyptian officer of the occupation noted that the Hararis treated women much better than did most Muslims. The women of Harar in fact controlled their husbands. All but the amir had but one wife.


Rimbaud's house, Harar.
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Rimbaud's house, Harar.

Between 1883 and 1890 Menelik, king of Shewa, conquered the province of Harar. In 1884-5 Egyptians left, and Abdallah b. Muhammad was set on the throne of Harar city by the pasha and the British Consul. In 1886, after the new sultan's soldiers had massacred an Italian expedition, Menelik defeated Abdallah's forces, annexing the city in early 1887. He appointed his cousin ras Makonnen as governor. Aussa too was annexed in 1896. When ras Makonnen died 1906, his son ras Tafari succeeded to the governorate. His palace, a large building in a semi-ruinous state, still dominates the town not far from 'Rimbaud's house'

In 1913 the young Lij Iyasu became emperor. He often stayed in Harar,. He was reputed to be about to convert to Islam, and to have had his ancestory researched to prove descent from the Prophet Muhammad. For this, and for potential trespasses against certain Ethiopian and European interests in this time of war, he was deposed in 1917, in favour of Empress Zawditu, Menelik's daughter. Ras Tafari became regent of Ethiopia, and later emperor under the title Haile Sellassie I. To signalise the importance of the city to his family, and doubtless also as a gesture towards the Hararis in his efforts to keep his empire intact, this Harari emperor in due course gave one of his sons the title Duke of Harar. Harar today is the chief place in the eastern Ethiopian province named after it Hararge, the country of Harar.