Embassy of The Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopa
in the Republic of South Africa

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As the Unesco-recognised Ethiopian city of Harar marks its 1,010th anniversary, the BBC's Emmanuel Igunza explores its unique heritage.

Night falls in the ancient city of Harar, and I'm witnessing a breathtaking, if not bizarre, exercise.

A young man skewers chunks of meat onto stick, holds the stick in his mouth, and then proceeds to feed a number of hyenas who emerge from the darkness, their eyes glowing as they step into the light.

The spectacle goes down a treat with the assembled tourists.

"I do this because I like animals," Biniam Ashenafi explains. The 32-year-old is one of several local volunteers who feed the scavengers on a daily basis.

"We don't call them hyenas. We call them young priests. Every new year in the Arabic calendar, we have a porridge feast for them in the four corners of the city.

"If they come and accept our offer, it means we will have a good future. If they refuse, it is a bad omen."

For centuries, people in Harar have lived side by side with hyenas - one of the world's deadliest land predators.

Harar - a long history:

  • 7th Century: Part of Coptic Christian Kingdom of Axum, area adopted Islam
  • 1007: Harar city founded
  • 16th Century: Capital of Harari Kingdom, major centre of regional trade and Islamic learning
  • Said by some to be Islam's fourth holiest site, after Mecca, Jerusalem and Medina
  • 1887: Becomes part of Ethiopia
  • 2006: Named Unesco World Heritage site

The city's fortified walls, built between the 13th and 16th Centuries, even have small holes in them to allow the hyenas to enter the city at night.

Thousands of people from across the country, as well as international tourists, have gathered here for the celebrations as Harar Jugol - the official name of the ancient walled city - enters its 1,010th year.

"Where do you want to begin your tour?" asks my eager guide, Dagnachew.

"The mosque definitely," I answer quickly.

"But which one?" he replies laughing. "There are hundreds of them."

Harar's other moniker is the African Mecca, and locals here claim that the area's inhabitants accepted Islam eight years before people in the holy Muslim city of Medina in the Arabian peninsula.

The daily hyena feeding spectacle is just one example of this city's unique heritage.

"This is one of the world's ancient civilisations," local historian Abdulswamad Idris tells me.

"Some of the mosques you see here were built in the 10th Century."

Early convert to Islam

Harar is a city that goes by many names, from the city of saints to a living museum, while some consider it to be Islam's fourth holiest city after Mecca, Jerusalem and Medina.

It has even been called the city of peace, a name I spot on a huge one huge neon sign as I enter the town.