Harar is one of the few and unquestionably the most impressive walled, medieval city in Sub-Saharan Africa. Encompassing a very large municipal area, the extremely long wall neatly separates the city’s white-washed buildings from the lush green surrounding countryside. Harar owe’s its excellent and world-famous fortification to its position on the eastern frontier between the Ethiopian highlands and the Arabian-dominated coastal areas. Due to its many expansions and renovations, the wall reflects many centuries of construction and archictectural styles. The Wall of Harar is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Since its earliest history, the civilization of Ethiopia had long been focused on what is now the northwestern corner of the country. Harar and other settlements in the east did not begin appearing until the arrival of Muslim refugees from Arabia in the 7th century. During the early Middle Ages, Harar became the largest inland center of Islamic civilization and culture in the Horn, and a primary point of contact between Muslims and Christians in East Africa.
By the 15th century Harar had become a thriving metropolis incorporated into growing the Sultanate of Adal. Adal was then a powerful Islamic realm alongside the large Christian realm of Aksum, and in 1520 Harar was established as the royal capital. To protect Harar from the threat of a Christian assault, the sultans constructed an enormous wall encompassing the entire city. Much of this original wall remains intact to the present day.
Thanks in part to its wall, the city of Harar became a nominally independent entity when the rest of the sultanate collapsed in the 17th century. It remained independent, both from Aksum as well as from rival Islamic states, for well over two hundred years. In 1875, Harar was conquered for the first time in its history. The daunting city wall, which was designed to withstand a conventional assault by local, lightly armed tribes, was no match for a well-equipped force from Egypt.
Although Egypt’s occupation was brief, it set the stage for Harar’s conquest by other foreign powers. Most notably was Harar’s conquest by a highly modern army from Italy, whose advanced artillery made short work of the city’s defenses. After the war, Harar was ultimately absorbed into the new state of Ethiopia. Its medieval wall was fortunately left intact, and is now one of the most important tourism sites in the country.
The Wall of Harar encompasses virtually the entire city, with the exception of a few outlying buildings in the surrounding countryside. Viewed from the nearby hilltops, the walled city is one of the best to visually take in anywhere on the continent. In many places the surrounding forest grows right up to the city walls. Although much of the structure dates from its original construction in the 1500s, the walls and gates evince a patchwork of styles that vary from section to section.
Not particularly thick, the walls are for the most part free of either battlements or towers. Lack of these basic structures, combined with its shear length, raises questions about the walls defensive capabilities, although in the modern era these questions are largely academic. Of most interest are the many, highly varied gates. Some are little more than openings cut into the wall, while others are more complex and probably constituted formidable checkpoints at the time of their construction.
The City of Harar and its wall is an open site. The only real restriction to the wall is the limited access points. However, the wall is probably best enjoyed when viewed from the nearby hills. There are otherwise no hours of operation or charge for admission. Web: www.tourismethiopia.org (official website).
Surviving, pre-colonial walled cities in Sub-Saharan Africa are virtually non-existent. One other one that may be worth seeing in Ethiopia is the Walled City of Jeggol.