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The walled city of Harar was founded in 1520 by Sultan Abu Bakr Muhammad. Its inhabitants speak their own unique language, Adaregna, a member of the Semitic language family, which includes Hebrew and Arabic as well as Amaregna , the official national language of Ethiopia, and which is spoken nowhere else in the world.

Shortly after its founding, the city was captured by the Muslim warlord Amhed Gragn (whose name means, “The Left-Handed”) who used it as a base of operations to launch an attempt to conquer all of Ethiopia. Tens of thousands of people were killed, priceless treasures were looted, and uncounted numbers of irreplaceable manuscripts were destroyed. It was a devastation from which Ethiopia was not to recover for centuries.

The Portuguese, who had a centuries-old interest in Ethiopia, offered their assistance. Suspicious that the Portuguese motives were something less than entirely altruistic, the Ethiopian emperor Lebna Dengel rejected their offer. Perhaps, as the author Graham Hancock suggests, he feared the Portuguese were there to get their hands on the Holy Ark of the Covenant. But, as the devastation continued, he apparently decided that the Portuguese were the lesser of two evils, and at last he accepted their help.

In 1541, a contingent of 450 Portuguese musketeers arrived under the command of Don Cristoforo de Gama, the son of Vasco de Gama, who like his father before him was a member of the Order of the Knights of Christ. Contemporary Ethiopian chroniclers described Don Cristoforo and his band of merry men as “Bold and courageous men who thirsted after battle like wolves and after slaughter like lions.”

A year later, while leading his men in battle, Don Cristoforo was shot in the right knee and the right arm, and was still fighting with his sword in his left hand when he was taken prisoner. After being tortured horribly, he was hauled before Gragn, and he shouted defiance at his captor until Gragn drew his sword and cut off Don Cristoforo’s head.


A year later, Gragn himself was killed in battle, by none other than Pedro Leon, Don Cristoforo’s manservant, and the Muslim leader’s reign of terror was put to an end. Historian Edward Gibbon was later to remark, “Ethiopia was saved by four hundred and fifty Portuguese.”

Today the city’s main claim to fame is its “Hyena-men.” The hyena is a large cursorial social carnivore which superficially resembles a dog or a wolf, and fills more or less the same ecological niche, but which in fact is closer related to cats than to dogs. At night, the hyenas come prowling around, and for a fee you can watch the Hyena Men feed them scraps of meat. You can even join in, if you care to do so.

My wife Yaa and my daughter Baaba and I visited Harar, accompanied by our friends Legese and Meaza, and their little boy Obama.



Obama and the neighbors’ little boy, also named Obama


Getting in some face time with Obama


The two Obamas hold a conference


Meaza and Obama share a quiet moment


Meaza prepares the traditional coffee ceremony


Our guide Hamdi, a bright young lad of about fifteen,  led us down the winding cobblestone back alleys of the city until we reached our appointed destination. As promised, the hyenas came around and we watched them take full advantage of a free meal.


My wife and daughter and Legese and Meaza and even Obama all joined in the fun, but I declined.





They are wild animals, after all. I prefer to watch at a respectful distance.


To continue the story:

In 1622, the Emperor Susneyos was converted by Portuguese Jesuit missionaries to Roman Catholicism. This conversion flew in the face of hundreds of years of Ethiopian tradition and sparked a bloody civil war. In 1632, Susneyos wisely abdicated in favor of his son, Fasilidas. Four years later, Fasilidas kicked the Portuguese out of Ethiopia. In the same year, he had the Ark of the Covenant returned to the city of Axum, and he also founded the city of Gondar in the Ethiopian highlands and made it his capital.

In 1636, Fasilidas expelled the Portuguese, and even entered into an agreement with the Ottoman Empire, which at the time controlled the port of entry of Massawa: any Portuguese travelers attempting to gain entry into Ethiopia were to be arrested and have their heads chopped off. The Ethiopians even agreed to pay a bounty for each Portuguese beheaded. That effectively put an end to Portuguese ambitions in Ethiopia – and, as far as we know, to any official foreign government interest in the Holy Ark of the Covenant.

This is the seventh of eight parts

All photos by author



  1. meliponula says:

    I didn’t say WHICH Obama now, did I?

  2. meliponula says:

    Coming up next: we wind up the grand tour with a visit to the village of Wolleka and view some of the last overt remnants of Jewish culture in Ethiopia.

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