Preservation of Urban and Architectural-Heritage of Harar,

A scene on the road to the market in Harar, da...

A scene on the road to the market in Harar, dating between 1900-1920 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

English: Wooden balconies on the streets of Ha...

English: Wooden balconies on the streets of Harar, Ogaden. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Nightly feeding of the hyenas, Harar, Ethiopia.

Nightly feeding of the hyenas, Harar, Ethiopia. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


Harar (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Preservation of Urban and Architectural

Heritage of Harar, Ethiopia

The evolution of Harar, Ethiopia, goes back to the seventh century, when some Muslims from Mecca migrated to al-Habasha (Ethiopia) before Medina. These men spread Islam from Harar to various parts of the African Horn, thus Harar took a religious fame as the fourth holiest Muslim city. Since then, the city was developed by its Muslim population and became rich in its Islamic urban, architectural and cultural heritage. This has encouraged the UNESCO to declare this city as a World Heritage site. Regardless of the national and international efforts to preserve the Islamic heritage of Hara, the city is still suffering from physical decay. As a result a team from KAU took the responsibly of setting up a master plan aiming to preserve the urban and architectural heritage of Harar. As discussed in this research, the project consists of two phases. The first is an investigation of the potentials of preservation of urban and architectural heritage of Harar. This covers studies of historic, geographic, environmental, socio-cultural, urban and architectural aspects of the city. The second proposes a mechanism of dealing with the heritage of Harar through several stages such as a selection of an action area and surveying it in terms of land uses, building highest, buildings of special historic value, building physical conditions, and construction materials. The project is culminated in a detailed proposal for preservation and development of the action area in a sustainable sense.

 The International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS) report has observed changes that threaten the architectural character of the Ethiopian city of Harar, where several homeowners had demolished their traditional homes and re-constructed them with modern materials. The report also showed the use of certain streets as open sewers. In 1974, the Ethiopian government has taken over all old closed houses and rented them in low-rent rents, which did not cover maintenance costs. This has led to the collapse of many of these dwellings. To overcome this problem, the government in collaboration with the World Bank and UNESCO, saved the amounts necessary to preserve the historic city, and thus was able to repair parts of the city wall. The Ethiopian government also has managed to restore one of the traditional dwellings. In addition, the International Council on Monuments and Sites has decided to include the city to the list of World Heritage Cities, which brought the city into the circle of global concern.

The aim of this research is to explore the architectural heritage of Harar and the importance of maintaining it. It is hoped that the study would contribute to shed light on the architectural heritage of Harar, and help the people of Harar to preserve it along with the rest of the city through the design and planning proposals the study proposes.


The heritage is the memory of nation, including its events, which have been historically affected by economic, social, cultural, spatial, and constructional conditions that form the cultural elements of the man and civilization including changes. It reflects human characteristics, and could be divided into two types:

A. Immaterial heritage: It is everything that is linked to community intellectual, spiritual and social life, and has no material base. Examples of this heritage are poetry, singing, music, dialects, names and terms of significance, and other codes of identity.

B. Material heritage: It is everything linked to community life and has details such as historical monuments, handcrafts, painting, etc


    The Concept of Heritage Preservation

The concept of preserving and restoring monuments is determined by the acts of protecting them as artistic works and historic witnesses. Monuments’ maintenance must be subject to the principles and standards set up by the UNESCO, either repair or employment within the surrounded urban fabric. And the maintenance of Islamic heritage leads to revival it, and stems from the revival of cultural components of Islam in the economic, social, and civil areas.

The concept of conservation in terms of urban scale, explains the process of rehabilitation of heritage areas as the process that aims to develop and protect these areas.

Urban and Architectural Characteristics of Historic Harar The city is characterized by authenticity, urban fabric and rich heritage of traditional Islamic culture. The section of the historic city (Jugol) is surrounded by a historical fence (Fig. 1). Most of the buildings, from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, still exist. Yet, some modern buildings affect the unity of this traditional architecture. During the occupation of Menelik II (1887) some of traditional buildings were substituted and the main rounded mosque has been replaced by a Church. During this era, the Indian traders living in the city constructed houses with large wooden balconies, which gave a new character to the city. Some of them were so special like “Rimbaud ” house which recently has been rehabilitated and used as a cultural center and library [6] (Fig. 2). Despite the relative newness of these houses, mostly built in the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century, and being qualitatively different from the traditional Harar houses, they are considered as a unique addition to the historic architecture of the city. And now they are part of the heritage of Harar.

Fig. 1. The location of the historic city (Jugol) within the city of Harar


As for the urban fabric of Harar, it has remained unchanged except for the addition of a street under the Italian occupation at the western gate till the main square in the city center. This street allowed cars to access its heart. This has contributed to the creation of new activities and added vitality to the city. Harar has retained about 90% of the urban fabric without change. The urban tissue is distinguished by a complex network of narrow streets and cul-de-sacs. The walls of the roads are made of bricks and free from any openings except the doors to provide privacy to residents [3]. Most of Harar’s buildings, and in particular mosques, are in good conditions except the main mosque whose façade was rebuilt poorly. Harar’s housing is one of the most important components of its heritage and its most wonderful and best visual value.

Almost each house is characterized by distinct features that distinguish it from other houses. First, the entrance door is the only house opening to the street, leading to a courtyard by the brick beds. The house is also characterized by the large quantity of so called “niche” and elements of decoration from the local dishes and wicker baskets, which give a distinct character to the house. In fact, the architecture, decoration, and handicrafts that together form the distinctive character that the people of Harar are proud of the city’s wall has six gates; five of them are historical and the sixth is new.

 The locations of these gates are determined according to the main streets linking the city with the surrounding. These five gates are opened to the streets that flow into the city center and faced by five neighborhoods. The historical city (Jugol) has a pattern of traditional Islamic urban layout surrounded by a fence, and the mosque and market are located in the center  Until 1887, all public buildings located in the center were delimited by triangle’s sides matching municipality building (west), the main mosque (east), which was built as a church instead, and the main market (south).

The center also connects to the Western Gate Road, which is the latest straight road across the city and surrounded by stores. The market area is linked with a road surrounded by traditional stores. The concentration of commercial activities around the main street has helped to leave the rest parts of the city for residential uses. The city includes a large number of mosques and shrines. Most mosques are small and have a single space for prayer and as well as a small courtyard. In general, it has been noticed that 85% of Harar traditional houses are in good


The wall has five gates closed at night and used to include watchtowers but only one still exists. Their locations have been determined according to defensive strategy as well as to the direction of trade routes, the location of lakes around the city, as well as the contribution of topography, rivers and springs. This has also determined the route of the fence, which in turn affected the pattern of the city planning. The locations of the gates are also in accordance with the directions of linking the city to the surroundings. There are historical traces connecting the number of gates, five, and the five pillars of Islam. They are opened on streets that lead to the city center and faced by five neighborhoods. A sixth gate was added by Menilik in 1887. The wall has been repaired in different eras, but the restoration made by the Egyptians, strengthened and increased the height of the fence to 5 meters in some parts and added 24 control towers. The Italians restored parts of the wall, rebuild the southern gateway, and added a decorated collar to the western gate. The rest of the gates are still intact with the same wooden doors with some additions of new larger openings to contain the vehicular traffic. The modifications and rebuilding parts of the wall at different times and materials have lead to lack of homogeneity of the wall appearance. The remains of the original wall are less than 10.16% (338.25 m)

 CONCEPT—Hisham Mortada, Dept. of Architecture, King Abdul Aziz University, Jeddah, Saudi Arabia

Harar enclosed within the city wall, Jugol

Harar enclosed within the city wall, Jugol (Photo credit: Wikipedia)




4 responses to “Preservation of Urban and Architectural-Heritage of Harar,

  1. Pingback: HARAR IN CARLOS TOUCH | archiabyssniya·

  2. Pingback: Our cultural and natural heritage | ARCHITAMENT·

  3. Pingback: oldest Islamic cities in Africa | ARCHITAMENT·

  4. Pingback: The fortified historic town of Harar | ARCHITAMENT·

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