Harär Town and its Neighbours in the Nineteenth Century


Author : R. A. Caulk

Year : 1977

The survival of the Semitic-speaking, Muslim townsmen of Harär in the midst of animist Oromo (Galla) who migrated into the eastern highlands of modern Ethiopia in the late sixteenth century and settled as pastoralists is something of an anomaly, at least in the eastern Rift. Other pre-migration settlements of Muslim farmer-traders, presumably also speaking a southern Semitic language, appear to have been submerged and displaced. The Haräri’s good fortune is not to be explained by their use of firearms and simple fortifications. Economic interdependence, the awe the newcomers felt for the town’s saints and the greater cohesion of the townspeople probably played a greater role than mere self-defence.
A balance of power was needed, however, if the town was not to be swamped. This equilibrium seems to have been upset at the very time that the trade of the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden was revived by Egypt in the second quarter of the nineteenth century. Neither the succession to the amirate of pacifist princes nor the betrayal of the town to outsiders by the half-Oromo ruler, Amir Muhammad ibn Ali (1856–75), can correctly be blamed for this reverse although these are the excuses given in Haräri tradition. Rather, the repeated appeal to sections of the Oromo by factions within the town in struggles for the throne from the 1820s led to the Haräri becoming clients to neighbours who were still overwhelmingly animist herders little concerned with the commerce on which the townsmen’s prosperity depended and little attracted to the titles and Muslim insignia with which the amirs rewarded those of the cultivating Oromo minority who paid taxes and rents in grain and supplied the town with other foodstuffs and its market with crops for …
Though denigrated in the town’s traditions, Amir Muhammad ibn Ali began the systematic proselytization of the surrounding Oromo and sought to induce more of them to cultivate crops for sale. Conversion and farming for the town’s market, along with the appointment from the town of officials to replace the Oromo’s elected officers, were the means by which, during the Turco-Egyptian occupation (1875–85), rulers with greater military resources obliged the confederation of the four great Oromo clans around the town (the Afran-Qallu) to adopt a way of life more in harmony with the interests of the townsmen. Despite the conquest of Harär and the surrounding Oromo and Somali by non-urban, Christian Ethiopians in the brief reign of Muhammad Ali’s son, Amir Abdallahi (1885–7), the Islamic and mercantile legacy of the town was deeply enough rooted by then to flourish among the Afran-Qallu and to distinguish them, like the Haräri themselves, from their conquerors.
1 An earlier version of this paper was presented to the International Congress of Africanists, Addis Abäba, Dec. 1973. In revising a seminar paper first given at a faculties’ seminar in 1968, I have been much indebted to Muhammad Hassan, ‘The Relations between Harar and the surrounding Oromo between 1800–1887’ (unpublished B.A. thesis, History Dept., Haile Sellassie I University, 1973) for guiding me in the study of Afran-Qallu traditions; I am also grateful to my former colleague, Professor S. Rubenson, for microfilms of the documents from the Egyptian archives cited below.