Harar is located south of the Chercher mountains in Eastern Ethiopia at an altitude of 1800 metres. The human population is around 200,000 and the number of hyenas around the old town is approximately 200, although it is unlikely there are more than 40 hyenas in the old town on any one night.
Harar’s origins are hazy. The official version holds that that the current location for the town was established around 1000 years ago and that there were six previous locations for the town of Harar prior to that, but there is apparently a book with mention of Harar that is 1300 years old. A signal time in the history of Harar was in the 10th century when 44 sufis came from Yemen and began teaching Islam in Harar. One of these sufis, Omer Al-Ridda, later known as Aw Abadir (Saint Abadir), made major structural and cultural reforms in Harar and is widely regarded as the father of Harar. In the religious songs that celebrate the saints of the towns one says ‘I am a son of Abadir’. To be Harari is to be Abadir.
There is an ancient story that tells how Abadir was sitting on a rock facing Mecca when he saw a hyena running from east to west. He took out his toothbrush and threw it at the hyena and injured one of its legs. This action resulted in the ‘domestication’ of hyenas in Harar and subsequently all hyenas have a limp. To this day hyenas are known as ‘Abadir hokolo’ which translates as Abadir with a limp.
Harar became a center of Islamic teaching in the Horn of Africa as well as a center of trade. The town was notable for its handicrafts and the quality of its bookbinding. At last count there were 121 shrines in and near to Harar, dedicated to the founding fathers as well as later saints, the total number listed by Camilla Gibb as 272. That’s a lot of saints in such a small area. There are also 88 mosques in the town dating to as early as the town’s founding.
It is said that early in the time of the town there was a widespread famine and the hyenas had taken to attacking people out of hunger. There are several versions as to what happened next. One is that a woman was making porridge (shure) and a group of hyenas came running towards her, apparently with the intention to attack. She got up to run, thinking that death was certainly upon her, but the hyenas instead began eating the porridge. The townspeople realised that the attacks could be stopped if they fed the hyenas porridge and since that day, at many shrines around Harar, during the Muslim festival of Ashura, hyenas are fed porridge laced with butter. The legend says that the hyena king, who is very handsome and entirely white, comes first to try the porridge. He tastes it and if it’s to his liking, the remainder of the hyenas come to eat. The Murid at the shrine then examines the leftovers and makes predictions about the coming year based on how much porridge the hyenas have eaten. This is actually as much reality as it is legend and I have seen it first hand. And while the hyena king is not exactly handsome and white, he does indeed test the porridge, and after the spectators have gone, the rest of the hyenas come to eat.
Harar’s apotheosis came in the 16th century when Harar’s Imam, Ahmed Ibn Ibrihim (Gragn, the left handed) launched a campaign from his base in Harar to unify Ethipioa under Islam. He was hugely successful and conquered much of Ethiopia, but his campaign completely collapsed after his death in the battle of Wayna Daga where the Highlanders with the help of the Portuguese put and end to the war.
Imam Ahmad’s successor, Amir Nur saw the potential for instability as a result of the war that had been waged and in 1557, built the wall around Harar, known as ‘Jugol’. The story goes that at the beginning of the wall’s construction, hyenas began attacking people around the town. Nur was implored by the people to fix the problem and he reasoned that as the hyenas were a group and that as every group had a leader, he should consult with the hyena leader.
Nur went to the shrine on Mt Hakim, where the town’s saints convene every Thursday to discuss the goings on in Harar, and asked the saints to arrange a meeting with the leader of the hyenas. This meeting was arranged for the following week and Amir Nur and the hyena king sat down to chew chat. Nur asked the hyena king why there had been a spate of attacks in the previous weeks. The leader responded, ‘we understand you are building a wall around Harar’. Nur responded that indeed that was the case; there was a lot of instability in the region and he had a responsibility to safeguard the town and its inhabitants. The hyena king said, ‘This wall will prevent us from accessing the town where we find the majority of our food; it will cause us a lot of hardship. What we ask is that you incorporate holes in the wall so that we can retain our access to the town and in return, we will pledge never to attack another person in the town’.
Nur readily agreed to this and since that time there has been peace between the people and hyenas.
But it is not simply a matter of hyenas refraining from attacking people and getting food scraps in return. The other service that hyenas perform is to clear the town of bad jinn. These unseen spirits enter the town through the same holes that the hyenas use and are a constant threat to the people of Harar. I myself have heard many stories of jinn possession and met with someone who was possessed by multiple jinn. Hyenas for their part, can see jinn and they attack them whenever they get the chance. The jinni runs in fear from the hyena and enters the ground but the hyena puts its nose to the ground at that place and sucks the jinni from the earth and into its stomach where it perishes. This is when the hyena makes an oowoop noise. Hararis tell me that after a hyena eats a jinni, it will vomit up hair, fingernails and even precious stones. If you manage to find a hyena cave you’ll find these precious stones.
The most profound changes to Harar came in 1887, when Abyssinian forces under Menelik II defeated a defending army from Harar at a place called Chelenko, about 70kms from Harar. The Hararis were hopelessly outnumbered and outgunned and seven hundred of the town’s bridegrooms were killed, in what was Harar’s worst defeat. To this day, the base of the seating in a traditional Harari house is painted red to symbolise the blood shed by those seven hundred. There is also a scarf, worn by the groom at his wedding, which is know as a ‘satti baqla’, which translates literally as ‘seven hundred’ and this also commemorates the sacrifice of these men.
Legend has it that a small boy, a member of the family who were traditionally responsible for feeding porridge to hyenas at Ashura, survived the battle and found refuge in a cave. There, he was cared for by hyenas and when he was strong enough, a hyena carried him on its back, returning him to Harar. He was the last in the line of this family and apparently had no offspring so that the feeding of porridge to hyenas within Harar itself ceased. It now only occurs in shrines outside of the town at such places as Aw Nugus, Aw Hakim, Aw Sofi and Aw Aboker.
After the defeat at Chelenko, Harar saw profound changes; the Amir was deposed and a governor installed, the Amir’s house was replaced by a governor’s palace, the mosque in front of the horse market was demolished and replaced by a church, the gates were renamed with Amhara names and a sixth gate was cut into the wall, linking Harar with a new settlement. While the occupation of Harar brought huge changes and the loss of ceremonies, books and traditions, Harari’s cultural heritage still retains a lot. This is most apparent in the traditional houses, the wedding ceremonies, the basketry, the songs and the shrines where the town’s saints are celebrated. Further changes, mostly to the new town outside the wall occurred after the Italian occupation so that Harar has now has many facets, both old and recent.
But far from being a centre of conflict, Harar hosts it various religions peacefully and I’ve actually had Hararis remark with pride, ‘Where else in the world will you find a Catholic church right next a mosque?’ In 2005, Harar was awarded a UNESCO prize as a City of peace and Tolerance and not without justification.
About 50 years ago the tradition of nightly hyena feeding began at the places where the hyenas congregate; near the garbage dump and near the slaughter yards. Nobody knows exactly why it started, but certainly it is a reflection of the affection that Hararis have for their hyenas. Since that time the tradition has been passed down and now tourists are encouraged to visit the hyena feeding. So if you happen to be in Eastern Ethiopia and have the chance to come to Harar, visit the holy shrine of Aw Ansar and sitting in front, you’ll find Harar’s hyena man, Yusuf Mumey and his son Abbas, dealing out food for the Suqutatberi clan. These hyenas, Bebe, Dibbey, Willi and others come every night from their home in the hills to the shrine of Aw Ansar to reaffirm the ancient truce that Hararis have with their spotted neighbours.