Harar Jugol, the Fortified Historic Town


The fortified historic town of Harar is located in the eastern part of the country on a plateau with deep gorges surrounded by deserts and savannah. The walls surrounding this sacred Muslim city were built between the 13th and 16th centuries. Harar Jugol, said to be the fourth holiest city of Islam, numbers 82 mosques, three of which date from the 10th century, and 102 shrines, but the townhouses with their exceptional interior design constitute the most spectacular part of Harar’s cultural heritage. The impact of African and Islamic traditions on the development of the town’s building types and urban layout make for its particular character and uniqueness.Harar city wall

The fortified historic town of Harar is located in the eastern part of Ethiopia, 525 km from the capital of Addis Ababa, on a plateau with deep gorges surrounded by deserts and savannah. The walls surrounding this sacred city, considered “the fourth holy city” of Islam, were built between the 13th and 16th centuries and served as a protective barrier. There were five historic gates, which corresponded to the main roads to the town and also served to divide the city into five neighbourhoods, but this division is not functional anymore. The Harar gate, from where the main streets lead to the centre, is of recent construction.

Harar Jugol numbers 82 mosques, three of which date from the 10th century, 102 shrines and a number of traditional, Indian and combined townhouses with unique interior designs, which constitute a spectacular part of Harar’s cultural heritage. The African and Islamic traditions influenced over a long period of time the development of the city and its typical urban planning and contributed to its particular character and uniqueness. The present urban layout follows the 16th century design for an Islamic town with its central core occupied with commercial and religious buildings and a maze of narrow alleyways with imposing facades. The traditional Harari house has a typical, specific and original architectural form, different from the domestic layout usually known in Muslim countries, although reminiscent of the coastal Arab architecture, and with an exceptional interior design. At the end of the 19thcentury Indian merchants built new houses with wooden verandas that defined a different urban landscape and influenced the construction of the combined Indian/Harari houses. Their architectural and ornamental qualities are now part of the Harari cultural heritage.

Harar functioned as the capital of the Harari Kingdom from 1520 to 1568, became an independent emirate in the 17th century and was integrated into Ethiopia in 1887. From the late 16th century to the 19th century Harar was an important trade centre between the coast and the interior highlands and a location for Islamic learning.

Today Harar is the administrative capital of the Harari People National Regional State (HPNRS). The historic town has a traditionally functioning community, forming a complex social-environmental whole where each element has its symbolic and practical significance. The Harari people are distinguished by the continued cultural traditions and quality of their handicrafts, including weaving, basket making and book binding. The organization of the communities through traditional systems has preserved its social and physical inheritance and, significantly, the Harari language.



The origins of Harar are obscure, and the main source of information is oral tradition. There is a myth, according to which, in July 1256, there arrived from the Arab Peninsula 405 sheikhs who chose this site to found the city. Some sources indicate that Harar came into being around the 10th century or even earlier. Islam was introduced to Ethiopia in the 9th century. Three mosques of Harar have been dated to the 10th century (Aw Mansur and Garad Muhammad Abogh in Jugol, and Aw Machad Mosque outside). Between 1277 and 1285, a neighboring lord created a coalition of five Muslim principalities. From that time on, the trade was in the hands of the Muslims, and Harar became a principal trading post.

In the 16th century, Harar was established in its present urban form and from 1520 to 1568 it was the capital of the Harari Kingdom. From the second half of the 16th century until the 19th century, Harar was noted as a centre of trade and Islamic learning in the Horn of Africa. In the 17th century it became an independent emirate. Nevertheless, this was also a period of decline, and the population fell from some 50,000 to ca. 12,000.

harar 3Due to its fame, Harar attracted the interest of the Egyptians, who occupied it from 1875 to 1885. Following this, in 1887, Harar was conquered by Menelik, the king of Asmaadin and later Emperor of Ethiopia. At this time, the Great Mosque at Faras Magala was destroyed and replaced by an octagonal Orthodox church. Menelik also opened the sixth gate and cut through a new street in the east-west direction. At the end of the 19th century, there was immigration of Indian merchants, who introduced the Indian house type and the combined version.

From 1938 to 1942, Ethiopia was occupied by the Italians. In the subsequent period, due to various problems, Ethiopia and with it also Harar have been subject to famine, civil war, and economic decline, including for example land reform, which in reality decreased productivity of agriculture. After the end of the dictatorship in 1991, there was a slight improvement until the war with Eritrea. At the moment, Harar Jugol needs to rebuild its economy on the basis of sustainable development.