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Ethiopia's Harar casts spell

Ancient walled city bewitches with mix of Arab, African cultures, riot of colors, scents and spices.

HARAR, Ethiopia — In his teens, Arthur Rimbaud wrote a hundred pages of perfect poems and fascinated Paris with his talent and debauchery. In 1874, aged 20, he stopped writing.

Wanderlust took him to East Africa, where he became a coffee trader, an arms dealer, a photographer and an explorer. For the last 10 years of his life, home was in the walled city of Harar, in eastern Ethiopia.

The only portraits of Rimbaud in Harar — three self-portraits taken with a self-timer — show a gaunt man in loose local clothes, gazing stonily into the camera.

The haunting images are displayed at the Arthur Rimbaud Cultural Center, the exquisitely renovated 100-year-old mansion of an Indian merchant in the midst of Harar’s maze of alleys, along a collection of wonderful 19th century photographs of the town where, perhaps, the poet found peace.

"His was a tormented soul and Harar, a drug for his pain,” says museum curator Shekib Ahmed.

Harar must have blown Rimbaud’s senses away. It still bewitches travelers with a riot of color, scents and unique lifestyles, where Islam meets Christianity, Arabia and Asia join Africa, and trade between regions and cultures flourished over 1,000 years of uninterrupted urban life.

Around 1550, Harar's ruler, Emir Nur ibn al-Mujahid, built the ramparts, known as Jegol, with five gates that are still standing today. The Jegol has kept Harar intact and authentic while the modern city grew north and west. Some 20,000 Hadaris live in the 118 acres within the Jegol.

Trade and religion shape Harar’s life. Ethiopian Muslims consider it the fourth most sacred Islamic city, with 80 mosques and 200 holy graves of saints.

It was closed to non-Muslims until, in 1855, the British explorer Richard Burton, a fluent Arabic speaker, donned Arab dress and snuck into the city for 10 days. He left a lively account of his trip.

For centuries, trade in incense, livestock, Arabica coffee, basil and baskets fed the bustling markets at each of the five gates.

Harar’s trading power declined after the French built the Addis Ababa-Djibouti railway bypassing Harar’s mountain range. The military regime of Mengistu Haile Mariam (1974-1991) repressed Harari culture, language and trade. The democratic regime returned autonomy to Harar, and it is thriving again.

Four of the gate markets still trade briskly. Oromo peasants trek daily into town, their donkey taxis laden with firewood, sugar cane, potatoes and all kinds of goods smuggled from neighboring lawless Somalia.