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This is the first in a series of three photo essays on the vernacular natural building styles of Ethiopia. This, the first, Hararchitecture, focuses on mainly clay binder houses in the East. The second, Axum Rock City & the Tigray Towns, focuses on mainly stone aggregate houses in the North. The third, Bamboolean Huts, focuses on mainly wood fibre houses in the South.|
The history of the city of Harar is an interesting one, it is unlike any other city in Ethiopia. It is considered to be the fourth-holiest city in Muslimdom, after Mecca, Medina, and Jerusalem, as it was the Southwestern-most outpost of the Islamic Empire for many years. About 1500 years ago Ethiopians crossed the Red Sea and conquered Yemen, so about 1000 years ago some Yemenis returned the favour.
Although they made inroads all over the country, their forces were concentrated in the East, where they founded the walled city of Harar. Consequently, walking through the city evokes a distinctly Middle Eastern feel. A couple of centuries ago, the French established a presence in East Africa, and since that time, full-fledged second floors with wooden balconies have become part of the Harari architectural landscape.
My excellent young guide Hailu had previously worked with a team from the United Nations to document the city's unique architecture, in order to ensure its status as a town of historical importance. As such, he was able to direct me to the city's oldest home. It's very rare to walk into a 1000-year old monumental building, but it's even rarer to stand in a 1000-year old family home that's been in continuous use throughout.
The town's largest mosque has since been expanded into a concrete courtyard, but its inner sanctum is still mounted on 800-year old massive earthen pillars, as the ancient plaque inside attests to. There are also a number of beautiful shrines to revered Harari imams that have passed on and been entombed in earth. These domed structures are made entirely of earth, except where they intertwine with natural rock formations and old baobab trees.
One of the very special things about Harari architecture is the way in which their culture has been encoded into the built form. There are elaborate niches for holding money and valuable medicines. There are protruding rafters meant to hold dowry carpets, to subtly signify guests to the presence of marriageable daughters. There hooks for holding spears at the ready position in the event of armed conflict.
The Harari people were especially hospitable, and allowed me to enter the homes and photograph them without any negotiation or expectation of renumeration. After exchanging only a few words, we were even invited into some people's private bedrooms quarters. We also had the good fortune to pass by a wedding party, and were promptly invited in to participate.
It was particularily inspiring to see the way in which Hararis use earth to build up sitting platforms in a very simple way. By using the walls of the house to hold their large dishes, they have almost completely eliminated the need for any furniture! That may explain why they harboured no suspicions towards me -- there was nothing for me to steal! Yet I felt that their lives were very rich with social and cultural capital.
Harar stands as an excellent example of how colourful and incredibly ornate old earthen houses can really be. Using only a minimum a wood for structural and ornamental purposes, they have build a beautiful little Muslim mud city. Harar may be surrounded by a stone wall, but its doors are flung wide open to visitors. If you get out to East Africa, take the time to walk its narrow alleys, and get lost and found. =)
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