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Ethiopia’s Forbidden City

ONE Magazine staffers Paul Wachter and Cody Christopulos stroll through the ancient Muslim city of Harar.

by Paul Wachter

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Imagine our surprise when, as we approached the outer walls of this, one of the holiest cities in the Islamic world, we were greeted by a booming call to prayer — from an Orthodox church. Famously, there are more than 90 mosques and shrines in this walled city, which occupies an area less than a square mile. But there are churches, too.

The continent of Africa, racked by so much misery, is no stranger to religious conflict. Sectarian violence between Christians and Muslims continues to bloody Nigeria in West Africa and Sudan in East Africa. Relations between Egypt’s Sunni Muslims and Christian Copts are increasingly tenuous. And while Ethiopia’s recent invasion of Somalia has led that country’s ousted Muslim leaders to call for their coreligionists in Ethiopia to seek revenge, such pleas have gone unanswered. In recent years, Ethiopia — whose population of 77 million people is almost evenly split between Christians and Muslims — largely has been spared the shedding of blood in God’s name. And in Harar, whose 122,000 inhabitants are marking their city’s 1,000th birthday, such coexistence is taken for granted.

Which is not to say that there are no tensions in Ethiopian society, but today they are more often associated with clannish, ethnic and linguistic differences. (Clan violence mars even Catholic communities, which make up just 1 percent of the population.) Ethiopia is as multicultural as any nation; ethnologists count more than 100 distinct ethnic groups, while linguists have identified more than 80 languages.

For much of its history, Harar was a world center of commerce and Islamic culture. Though eclipsed on the world stage long ago, Harar remains a vibrant, multicultural city.

Christianity came to Ethiopia early: In the year 330 — 29 years after Armenia, and some 60 years before Rome — the Ethiopian king of Aksum declared Christianity the official religion of the state. Ethiopia’s distinctive form of Christianity, particularly its links with Judaism, has helped forge a unique culture that has survived intact for more than 1,800 years.

Islam, too, came to Ethiopia early: In the year 615, Muhammad’s wife and cousin fled Mecca and crossed the Red Sea for Ethiopia, whose Christian king offered refuge. According to tradition, Muhammad described Ethiopia as a sanctuary, “a land of righteousness where no one was wronged,” and instructed his followers to live in peace with Ethiopia‘s Christians.

Muhammad’s followers brought Islam to this “land of burnt faces” (the Greek root for Ethiopia) not with the sword, but with currency; Arab Muslim traders established commercial centers along the Red Sea coast of Ethiopia (modern Eritrea). But despite the prophet’s instructions, Muslim Arab regional expansionism forced the Ethiopian Christian kingdom of Aksum to move farther inland. “Encompassed on all sides by the enemies of their religion, the Ethiopians slept near a thousand years, forgetful of the world by whom they were forgotten,” wrote Edward Gibbon in “The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.”

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