The Hyena-Worshipping, Beer-Brewing, Rainbow-Colored City that Happens to Be Islam's 'City of Saints'
The kaleidoscopic city of Harar, Ethiopia is the fourth holiest city in Islam, but it's also famous for its beer, its moral laxity, and that you can have a hyena eat off your head.
Fifteen minutes outside the ancient walled city of Harar, Ethiopia, is a flaming garbage dump.
A man is lighting a wall of fire at the edge of the field to illuminate the cool night. The trash seems to stretch to the mountains in the distance, and the flames offer enough light to see the fragments of bone flattened into the dirt and shadowy figures slinking behind clumps of brush. As dusk settles in, the man lets out a series of long whistles. “Jalla? Dibbey!” he calls, and suddenly the howls of hyenas surround us.
Twenty-year-old Abbas is a third-generation hyena feeder. He learned the trade at age 7 from his father, who learned it from the hyena man before him. Now his father is sick, so he’s taken over this strange, symbolic job. Hyenas are predators who have been known to attack humans if threatened, but in Harar they’ve been semi-domesticated and are, in a way, revered. The tradition of hand feeding the town’s scavengers began in the 1960s, possibly by a farmer trying to keep them away from his livestock. Today, it’s an unusual tourist draw to this otherwise remote edge of Ethiopia.
Both the humans and animals approaching Abbas are waiting for the meat delivery, which comes by wheelbarrow from a nearby butcher. Abbas kneels by a reed basket and hooks a long, fatty scrap on a stick. He calls out names—he claims to know 80—and hurdles the meat into the darkness. A bus pulls up and a group of Japanese tourists climb off and hover near him. Abbas instructs one to lean over, hands and knees to the ground, and flops a chunk of raw meat on her head. “Ipsa,” he calls. “Ipsitu.” A spotted hyena approaches, climbs on the tourist’s back, and chews the meat nervously.
Few places are as contradictory as the eastern town of Harar, a Muslim city with a Catholic church dominating the main square in an Orthodox Christian country. “Even the hyenas are accepted here,” a local guide tells me after we move from their nightly feeding to our own, where a waitress dollops steaming lentils, and salads onto a platter of spongy injera bread. She fills the table’s few empty spaces with bottles of Harar’s famous beer, brewed just a few miles away from the mosques whose teachings forbid drinking alcohol.
It’s believed that Harar adopted Islam in the 7th century, at the same time as the Prophet Muhammad spread his teachings, and so Harar is considered by some to be Islam’s fourth holiest city, after Mecca, Medina and Jerusalem. The town’s representatives claim it was the first society to accept the prophet Muhammad. Harar is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site, sometimes compared to the ancient, alley-filled city of Fez in Morocco. The densely packed old quarter, the “Jugol,” holds 82 mosques, some more than 1,000 years old, and 102 shrines.
But the “City of Saints” has other, more sinful, claims to fame. Harar coffee is said to be the country’s finest, its beer the most popular, its khat (a natural amphetamine-like stimulant) the strongest, and its hyenas the friendliest.
Harar’s relationship with its scavenger occupants stretches back at least 500 years. The walls of the old town have holes so hyenas can sneak in and out and it’s thought that they can see and rid townsfolk of evil spirits called “jinn” that possess them. Each year, on the Muslim holiday of Ashura, thousands gather to honor the creatures in with a local tradition seemingly at odds with the town’s holy status. They invite the hyena pack leader to eat from the three stone bowls of buttery porridge placed outside the city’s wall. Then they measure how much was eaten to predict next year’s fortunes. If the hyena licks the bowl clean it will be a prosperous year, otherwise tradition mandates that the town must pray to avert famine and disease.
The relationship hasn’t always been smooth. In the 1880s, a visiting German geographer was told that hyenas had eaten “thousands” of Harar’s residents over the decades.
The creatures are still said to come through the old town’s gates at night to scavenge among the 5,000 preserved traditional houses painted in bright pink, purple, and blue and accented with geometric designs. There are no street addresses in Harar, but it’s impossible to get completely lost—each street flows back into a familiar central square where cafes serve up spongy flatbread called injera and fava bean dip, and tailors tap away on sewing machines.
To get to my guesthouse, a traditional home called Rewda, I memorize the turns by wall color (right at blue, left at yellow, right at purple). The four rooms surround a sparse courtyard and an enormous sitting room covered in Harar’s famous woven red, green and yellow dowry baskets. A spear is mounted on the wall closest to the door so the home’s patriarch could fight off enemies entering through the doors. Breakfast is a sweet, deep-fried flatbread with a selection of smoky honeys.
Citizens say they are Harari first, then Ethiopian. While the national language is Amharic, they speak Harari and have distinctive crafts, foods, and customs. In the 19th century, Harar was the region’s central trade hub, though non-Muslims were banned from entering the city until the late 1800s. The first European visitor was explorer Richard Burton, who snuck into what he called “the forbidden city” disguised as a Muslim merchant in 1855. In his account of the journey he wrote that Hararis “are celebrated for laxity of morals. High and low indulge freely in intoxicating drinks, beer, and mead.”
In 1880, a few years before Harar was incorporated into Ethiopia, French poet Arthur Rimbaud rode through Somalia, and settled in Harar, which was then annexed by Egypt. He soon abandoning writing for the coffee and arms trade. Today, a grand merchant house in the town center has been turned into a stylishly curated museum filled with Rimbaud’s photography, poetry, and local art.
In Ethiopia, producer of arguably the world’s best coffee, Harar’s local factory is said to produce the highest quality. In the book Coffee: A Dark History, industry veteran Antony Wild calls Harar “the cradle of coffee itself” and notes that “until the mid-sixteenth century, the [world] demand for coffee was met by Ethiopia entirely.”
But coffee pales in popularity to khat, a bitter leaf that gives its chewer a mild buzz. Citizens of all ages dig into bags of the plant throughout the day to add to the wad in their cheek. But the khat is not just for domestic consumption. Outside Harar is one of the world's largest khat markets, which shuttles tens of thousands of dollars of the stimulant to Somalia and Djibouti nightly.
Those roads headed out of town are littered with stops for prehistoric cave paintings and ancient stone villages, as well as an elephant reserve and markets where traders from Somalia haggle over camels. Fields of khat shrubs with glossy leaves stretch out next to the road and women in flowing headscarves balance bundles on their heads as they walk to the market.
The khat loses its pungency 24 hours after it’s cut. So, men stuff it in bags and race them to waiting flatbed trucks that speed toward the borders of Somalia and Djibouti. Traders know they can get rich here: Suhura Ismail, said to be Ethiopia’s richest woman, made her fortune selling khat—enough to launch a namesake airline that transports the crop across the region.
Most tourists who visit Ethiopia are drawn to the rock-hewn church in the country’s north, but residents of Harar say that more are coming their way each year—lured its holy and sinful offerings. Will an influx of visitors change the town’s unusual relationship with its animal demigods? The human-hyena relationship is, understandably, a delicate one.
“Soon, maybe they will attack people,” a local guide warns.