The fortified historic town of Harar is located in the eastern part of Ethiopia, 525 km from the capital of Addis Ababa, on a plateau with deep gorges surrounded by deserts and savannah. The walls surrounding this sacred city, considered “the fourth holy city” of Islam, were built between the 13th and 16th centuries and served as a protective barrier. There were five historic gates, which corresponded to the main roads to the town and also served to divide the city into five neighbourhoods, but this division is not functional anymore. The Harar gate, from where the main streets lead to the centre, is of recent construction.
Harar Jugol numbers 82 mosques, three of which date from the 10th century, 102 shrines and a number of traditional, Indian and combined townhouses with unique interior designs, which constitute a spectacular part of Harar's cultural heritage. The African and Islamic traditions influenced over a long period of time the development of the city and its typical urban planning and contributed to its particular character and uniqueness. The present urban layout follows the 16th century design for an Islamic town with its central core occupied with commercial and religious buildings and a maze of narrow alleyways with imposing facades.
The traditional Harari house has a typical, specific and original architectural form, different from the domestic layout usually known in Muslim countries, although reminiscent of the coastal Arab architecture, and with an exceptional interior design. At the end of the 19thcentury Indian merchants built new houses with wooden verandas that defined a different urban landscape and influenced the construction of the combined Indian/Harari houses. Their architectural and ornamental qualities are now part of the Harari cultural heritage. Harar functioned as the capital of the Harari Kingdom from 1520 to 1568, became an independent emirate in the 17th century and was integrated into Ethiopia in 1887. From the late 16th century to the 19th century Harar was an important trade centre between the coast and the interior highlands and a location for Islamic learning.