Harar’s ancient walled city, home to 99 mosques, stands on the eastern side of the Rift Valley. Known as a forbidden city (closed to visitors) until 1887, it is known as the fourth most holy in Islam after Mecca and the oldest Muslim city in Africa. It has changed little from when Sir Richard Burton, a British officer in the Indian army, first visited it in the 19th century. With its winding alleys and vibrant markets, it offers glimpses of a lifestyle unchanged in centuries.
If Harar is the ancient trading crossroads of eastern Ethiopia, then Dire Dawa is its modern equivalent. Founded in 1902, it was established along the railway connecting Addis Ababa to Djibouti, the only access Ethiopia has to a seaport, and now numbers 265,000 people. This relaxed town is set in some of Ethiopia’s richest farmland, meaning the market place is filled with the camel herding Oromos, Somalis and Afars. Flanked by coffee crops where Ethiopia’s finest coffee is cultivated, it is a useful base from which to explore Harar and the journey up the escarpment provides sweeping views of farmland and the peaceful lakes of Adele and Alemaya.