Imagine our surprise when, as we approached the outer walls of this, one of the holiest cities in the Islamic world, we were greeted by a booming call to prayer — from an Orthodox church. Famously, there are more than 90 mosques and shrines in this walled city, which occupies an area less than a square mile. But there are churches, too.
The continent of Africa, racked by so much misery, is no stranger to religious conflict. Sectarian violence between Christians and Muslims continues to bloody Nigeria in West Africa and Sudan in East Africa. Relations between Egypt’s Sunni Muslims and Christian Copts are increasingly tenuous. And while Ethiopia’s recent invasion of Somalia has led that country’s ousted Muslim leaders to call for their coreligionists in Ethiopia to seek revenge, such pleas have gone unanswered. In recent years, Ethiopia — whose population of 77 million people is almost evenly split between Christians and Muslims — largely has been spared the shedding of blood in God’s name. And in Harar, whose 122,000 inhabitants are marking their city’s 1,000th birthday, such coexistence is taken for granted.
Which is not to say that there are no tensions in Ethiopian society, but today they are more often associated with clannish, ethnic and linguistic differences. (Clan violence mars even Catholic communities, which make up just 1 percent of the population.) Ethiopia is as multicultural as any nation; ethnologists count more than 100 distinct ethnic groups, while linguists have identified more than 80 languages.
For much of its history, Harar was a world center of commerce and Islamic culture. Though eclipsed on the world stage long ago, Harar remains a vibrant, multicultural city.
Christianity came to Ethiopia early: In the year 330 — 29 years after Armenia, and some 60 years before Rome — the Ethiopian king of Aksum declared Christianity the official religion of the state. Ethiopia’s distinctive form of Christianity, particularly its links with Judaism, has helped forge a unique culture that has survived intact for more than 1,800 years.
Islam, too, came to Ethiopia early: In the year 615, Muhammad’s wife and cousin fled Mecca and crossed the Red Sea for Ethiopia, whose Christian king offered refuge. According to tradition, Muhammad described Ethiopia as a sanctuary, “a land of righteousness where no one was wronged,” and instructed his followers to live in peace with Ethiopia‘s Christians.
Muhammad’s followers brought Islam to this “land of burnt faces” (the Greek root for Ethiopia) not with the sword, but with currency; Arab Muslim traders established commercial centers along the Red Sea coast of Ethiopia (modern Eritrea). But despite the prophet’s instructions, Muslim Arab regional expansionism forced the Ethiopian Christian kingdom of Aksum to move farther inland. “Encompassed on all sides by the enemies of their religion, the Ethiopians slept near a thousand years, forgetful of the world by whom they were forgotten,” wrote Edward Gibbon in “The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.”
Over the next few centuries, as its lucrative trading routes linking Africa and Asia were taken over by the expanding Muslim powers, Aksum reoriented itself southward. During what the Western world calls the Middle Ages, the Ethiopian Christian state was threatened not so much by Muslim incursions from the north and east, but from pagan tribes in the south and west. Still, the 10th to 12th centuries saw the first significant Muslim expansion into northeast Africa in pursuit of its commercial interests in gold, ivory and slaves.
The next few centuries were marked by battles between Christian Ethiopians and Muslims, who had established sultanates in the south. Though there were forced conversions on both sides, the fighting largely was over trade. The sultanates, which paid tribute to the Ethiopian emperors, were divided among themselves, which proved their undoing. One by one, they fell, and Islam in the region declined, at least until Imam Ahmad ibn Ibrahim al-Ghazi (1506-1543) emerged on the scene.
The ancient walled city of Harar boasts the world’s densest concentration of mosques.
From his headquarters in Harar, Imam Ahmad brought three-quarters of Ethiopia under Muslim control with a succession of battlefield victories and massacres. Nicknamed Gragn, or “left-handed,” Ahmad ravaged the country, forced conversions, pillaged monasteries and destroyed the hallowed Church of Mariam Zion in Aksum. Emperor Lebna Dengel had to look to Europe for help, and in 1541, 400 Portuguese musketeers arrived. The tide turned, and the following year Ahmad was killed in battle and his army collapsed. His successor, Emir Nur ibn Mujahid, encircled Harar with its famous wall and forbade non-Muslims entry.
Eclipsed militarily, Harar remained a center of Islamic culture and religion as well as the commercial nexus of Africa, India and the Middle East. The city had its own currency and was known for its coffee, weaving and bookbinding. In 1854, the British explorer Richard Burton became the first non-Muslim to enter the city (in disguise). Harar remained independent until 1875, when it succumbed to an expanding Egyptian empire. Ten years later it briefly regained its independence, but in 1887 it was permanently incorporated into the Ethiopian empire under Menelik II. A few years later, when the Addis Ababa-Djibouti railway was diverted to Dire Dawa, Harar’s economic fortunes began to decline. Meanwhile, a Christian presence took hold in the city, encouraged by the Orthodox emperors in Addis Ababa. (In the 1940’s, Emperor Haile Selassie altered a mosque, which lies just off the main square, and dedicated it to Christian worship. Today, Medhane Alem serves as a cathedral.)
Gradually, ethnic and clannish tensions superseded the religious tensions that had once sundered the land. Until the overthrow of Ethiopia’s Communist government, which lasted from 1974 to 1991, the state was dominated by the Amhara, the second largest ethnic group (the Oromo are the country’s largest ethnic group). Today, under Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, Tigrayans lead the country, though they account for only 7 percent of the population. Inside the ancient walled city of Harar, most of the residents are Harari. But in the Harari Region, with a population of about 200,000, there are large numbers of Amhara, Gurage, Oromo, Somali and Tigray peoples.
As a commercial center, Harar has always been a diverse city. Even when it was exclusively Muslim, it drew merchants from the corners of the Muslim world. Today, Christians fit amicably into all aspects of Harar’s life. Well, perhaps not all. The only tensions on display during our visit were at the marketplace, as customers jostled in line and haggled with merchants. Occasionally, strong words were exchanged. But happily they had nothing to do with religion, just price.