Old monetary system of Harar and the city’s rich art of the silversmith

Ekkehard Doehring, Sabine Becker & John Otim
Ekkehard Doehring is Associate Editor of Nile Journal, Sabine Becker is Correspondent



The ancient city of Harar in the far north eastern corner of Ethiopia is a dreamland. Hanging on a hilltop 1800 meters above sea level the city presents a breathtaking panorama bursting with layers of history and influences, coalescing in a proud mixture of Islamic and indigenous culture dating back to the 7th century.

Because of its remoteness from much of mainstream Ethiopia history played differently here. While mainland Ethiopia whose Christianity is the oldest on record has a strong Christian tradition, Harar was embedded in the indigenous and colorful Oromo culture. Over the years Harar developed close trade links with Somalia, the Horn of Africa and the Arabian Peninsula, a fact that set it on the road towards Islam.

By the 7th century Harar had become a centre of Islamic learning, drawing scholars and students from all over the Islamic world. Hundreds of revered Islamic scholars lived here, worked here, died and were buried here. Today Harar is known as the city of saints. Many of those burial grounds have become a place of pilgrimage.  After Mecca, Medina and Jerusalem Harar is Islam’s 4th holiest site. But Harar has other offerings as well; unique among them is the city’s hyena cult, the only one of its kind in the world.

In the year 2004 and again in 2013 a group of us had the privilege to visit Harar and experience its many attractions. We headed for its museums, spent time in antique shops, at the silver smiths’ workshops and showrooms, watch the sun rise and set over the city, and had the privilege of conversations with a handful of the city’s cultural elite, including Kumal Badenga, the owner of the famous Lalibela antique shop where rich pickings of prized works can be had.

The documented history of Harar begins around 1500. The hyena cult emerged sometime later. It followed a period of severe drought and hunger in the land when the simple act of fetching water from beyond the city’s gates became a deadly errand. Many times many of the young women fetching water were ambushed and eaten by hungry hyenas.

As legend has it, this catastrophe led to a contract between man and beast. Hyenas would give up ambushing humans in exchange for a cup of honey. Thus was born the famous hyena cult of Harar and the feeding rituals still extent today.  At evenings by the main city gate just before sundown the hyena man who is familiar with all the hyenas feeds the hyenas with pieces of meat he has carefully prepared before end. By prior permission tourists and others may participate in the feeding act. Once the last hyena is fed the city gates are closed for the night. And till the next morning no one may leave or enter the city.

In contrast to other holy cities of Islam such as Ghardaia, el Gholeia or Shibam, in Harar non Muslims may reside within the city walls.

An artist’s expression of this cult is shown in Figure 1, where the claw of a hyena is worked in silver as part of patchwork work of necklace that may be worn to protect the wearer in the manner of an amulet.

Harar has a rich and turbulent history. In 1647 after a series of battles it became an Emirate under the dynasty of Ali ibn Dawad, which survived for two centuries. In the year ... the English explorer Richard Burton arrived in the city, the first European to do so (2). But was an acute observer and an excellent writer but his accounts of Harar published in 1860 sounded strange to many of his Victorian readers who would not believe him.

Between 1880 and 1897 the famous French poet Arthur Rimbaud spent more than five years in Harar and became a rich coffee trader. He got on well with the locals who called him endearingly the “man with souls of the wind”.

On account of his fame eccentricity and literary works we took an interest in Rimbaud and tracked down Fath Umar, an old woman whose grandmother saw Rimbaud enter the city.

Harar developed to become a great center of Islamic culture. By about 1780 the city was so prosperous that it issued its own money, the Mahalak, which remained in circulation till about 1890. For a city to issue its own coin was a sign of great success. The Krause Mishler World Catalogue (2006) of coins records 11 issues of the Mahalak coins (Figure 2). Evidence suggests that Harar may have in fact issued a considerably greater number of coins


A good deal of these coins was buried in the ground as the army of Menelik II approached the city and eventually destroyed Harar in 1896.

Following the conquest of Harar the Mahalak ceased to be in circulation and was replaced by the Menelik coins which remained in circulation till the time of Haile Selassie when the modernization of Ethiopia began in earnest.

At the core of the prosperity in Harar that led to the city’s issuing of its own coins was its great art of the silver smith that combined the silver smithing art of Southern Arabia, the Swahili coast, the Red Sea coast, and the Horn of Africa. The influence of the great Indian art of the silver is quite discernable. The result is an art of great ornamental splendor and beauty in the classical style.

The Harar cultural guide (1) lists only one silver work on page 35, but it includes various gold works of great splendor, among them an amazing gold wedding ornament; the Harar wedding rings Figure 3. By contrast Figure 4 show predominantly health rings in the foreground.

To underscore the importance of Harar in modern Ethiopia a new railway line was planned to run from Addis Ababa and go through Harar. At the last moment, due to the punishing terrain around Harar in 1917 the new railway went through Dira Dawa instead. Subsequently Dira Dawa became a major trading post as the influence of Harar declined.

In1981 after the overthrow of the Marxist regime of Haile Merriam, who himself had overthrown the great Emperor Haile Sellassie Harar was accorded partial autonomy as Harar Peoples National Regional State within the modern Ethiopian State.

Figure 5 and 6 show examples of a Harar’s trove of Osmanic coins (Akce coins) that was discovered in 2010. The collection comes mainly from the time of Suleiman II and consists of silver Akce coins from around 1560 to 1568. The coins seem to originate from Yemen, as the name of the Yemeni city of Zabid is often marked on the coins


It remains unclear whether the coins ever circulated in Harar or whether it was only a hoard buried in the ground. It is probable the collection were precisely those coins that had left Yemen because of their higher silver content, in comparison to those that remained behind. According to Gruishans law, bad money pushes out good money. This may have been the case.

Figure 7 displays another speciality of Harar, the colored amber shown in the upper left corner.

Harar represents the Islamic east of Ethiopia, marked out by its intricate silver works. Its geography and location exposed the city to diverse cultural currents. They included those from the Interior of Africa proper; those from the Horn of Africa, those from Arabia to the north; and to its south east those from India via the Swahili coast of East Africa. A combination of these influences among others brought the art of the silver and gold smithing of Harar to a very high mark. It is a worthy tribute to its achievement that for more than 150 years the city of Harar enjoyed the use of its own coins.

We indebted people of Harar and those of Addis whom we consulted extensively to produce this work; we must mention especially Adunga Nigussie and Kumal Badenga.

Literature cited

1. Harar, a cultural guide.

Van DV, Guleid MJ and collaborators.

Shana Books, Addis Abeba, 2007.

ISBN: 999 44 – 0 – 016 – 9.

2. Richard Burton, 1855.

First footsteps in East Africa, an exploration of Harar

3. Krause Mishler Catalogue of Wotld coiuns.  2006