Central Hargeisa is an agreeable and intriguing place to wander around, with a friendly easy-going atmosphere and no shortage of hustle and bustle around the market area.
Architectural landmarks, however, are few and far between, so exploring the town center is more a case of following your nose than sticking to a trail of prescribed sights.
Nevertheless, a good starting point, standing prominently on the north side of Independence Avenue, is the Hargeisa Civil War Memorial, which consists of a MiG fighter jet – which crashed close by during one of the regular aerial bombardments of the town – on a stand decorated with murals depicting the hardships of the civil war.
Immediately east of the war memorial is the main town center and central market, the latter a labyrinthine sprawl of covered and open stalls, laden with fresh fruit and vegetables, meat, packaged foods, local cloths and imported clothes, electronic goods, bricks of banknotes, and pretty much anything else you care to mention.
The grid of roads north of Independence Avenue can come across like one large market and are where you will find most of the town’s famous goldsmiths, but the real market is actually south of the main road and is most easily entered along the small road next to the City Center Hotel.
The largest and most important of an estimated 350 scattered around town, stands prominently on the north side of Independence Avenue east of the market. It is unclear what war damage the mosque suffered, but it is in pristine shape today, with its whitewashed exterior, domed roof, and tall twin balconied minarets.
Next to it is the stone Municipal Building, constructed in 1953 in anticipation of a planned visit to British Somaliland by Queen Elizabeth II (the visit was subsequently canceled, but there’s a plaque on the wall dedicated to her name).
At the traffic circle 100m or so past the mosque, the left turn leads you to two of the town’s best-known landmarks. First up is the National Theatre Building, a bright orange state-of-the-art medium-rise built on the site of the theatre that once formed the hub of the capital’s cultural life prior to being bombed in 1988.
Opposite this, the former Hargeisa Provincial Museum, constructed with reinforced concrete in the form of four concentric circles in the 1970s, once housed an excellent ethnographic collection, but it too was bombed in 1988 and is now a crumbling ruin.
Another 200m uphill of this is an attractive whitewashed shrine and mosque centred on the Tomb of Sheikh Madar, a celebrated religious leader who moved here from Berbera in 1899. In 1903, Swayne described Sheikh Madar as “the chief of Hargeisa”, adding that he was ‘a pleasant-mannered man affecting Arab dress [who] reads and writes Arabic, and is a steady supporter of British interests’
He is regarded as the founder of modern Hargeisa by his many followers. Non- Muslims are usually permitted to peek through the compound entrance, but they may not cross the threshold, and photography may be forbidden.
Opened in 2017, this private museum is housed in two custom-built Arabic- style buildings opposite the Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs (a well-known landmark).
It incorporates around 2,500 historic artifacts spread across halls dedicated respectively to the history of Somaliland and to the country’s archaeology and ethnography.
Displays include some recent photographs of several remote archaeological sites, newspaper clippings and photographs covering the colonial era and civil war that led to Somaliland’s secession from Somalia, a collection of Stone Age hand-axes and other such artefacts, a life-size traditional plough, and traditional clothes, weapons and silver and beaded jewellery.
Overall, the museum still feels like something of a work in progress, but with Hargeisa being so lacking in bespoke tourist attractions, it deserves support, especially if new displays are added.
Conveniently situated next to the Saryan Museum, this center is run by the Red Sea Cultural Foundation (redsea-online.com), an organization dedicated to the preservation of traditional Somali literature, song, science, games, language, and other forms of art and human expression.
The center is best known perhaps as the driving force behind the annual Hargeisa Book Fair (hargeysabookfair.com), which celebrated its tenth anniversary in July 2017.
The foundation also holds the world’s largest cassette collection of Somali music (around 10,000 items in all, mostly from the 1970s and 1980s), and is in the process of digitalizing it all, with the first fruits of this ambitious project now commercially available on the Grammy-nominated 2017 compilation called Sweet As Broken Dates: Lost Somali Tapes from the Horn of Africa (available on vinyl, CD or mp3/FLAC download at (ostinatorecords.bandcamp.com).
Visitors are welcome to browse around the small gallery, which includes contemporary paintings and photography by local Somali artists, and to visit the well-stocked two-story library.
Situated above the south bank of the Maroodi Jeex watercourse just west of the new bridge and defunct colonial-era Hargeisa Club, this well-tended cemetery contains 115 Commonwealth war graves from World War II, most of them of British, East African or southern African servicemen who died in battle against the Italians between 1940 and 1944.
There are also two Commonwealth war graves from World War I, and 11 graves that date to after the war, the most recent being one Clara Dualeh, who died in 1948.
The unsignposted compound is locked but the key can normally be obtained from the caretaker, who lives in the green-gated stone compound opposite. A second more overgrown and untended cemetery opposite reputedly contains the graves of Muslim soldiers who died in World War II.
Traditionally popular with expats thanks partly to the presence of the landmark Maan-Soor Hotel, the northwestern suburb of Jijiga Yar has also emerged in recent years as a focal point for Hargeisa’s nascent culinary scene, and an enjoyable place to explore on foot. The suburb’s name means ‘Little Jijiga’ and it dates to the late 1970s when large numbers of ethnic Somali from the vicinity of Jijiga in eastern Ethiopia settled there to support the anti-Ethiopian government led by President Mohamed Siad Barre.
Most of these Ethiopian Somalis settled in Hargeisa fled back across the border following the secession of Somaliland in 1991, fearing that their affiliation with Siad Barre might earn reprisals, but the suburb’s name has stuck ever since.
Also known as the camel market, this bustling market, 30 minutes’ walk south of the town centre, is well worth a visit, ideally between 08.00 and 11.00 when it is busiest.
Multitudes of camels, goats, and ‘fat- tailed’ sheep are all on sale here, and visitors are welcome to take photographs or to sit with the traders and sip a Somali tea in the shade.
If you are thinking of buying, bargaining is definitely the order of the day, and word is that a camel might cost anything from US$1,000 for a strong fully grown stud to around US$300 for a punier three to four-year-old. By contrast, you can pick up a sheep or goat for a mere US$60–80.
To get here, follow the airport road south from the town centre, crossing the ‘old bridge’ over Maroodi Jeex, then continue for another 500m or so to a traffic circle and T-junction where you need to turn left .
Continue along this road for another 1km, passing the Hargeisa Hilton on your left and the Al Jasiira Restaurant and junction for the airport on your right, until you reach the Dahabshiil Bank on your right and 50m further a small market on the left.
Walkthrough the market for about 100m and the alley opens out into the large clearing where the livestock market is held. If in doubt ask for the Soukha Geel or Soukha Seylada (respectively ‘camel market’ and ‘livestock market’).
Tucked away down a residential side road that runs south from the Berbera Road opposite the Bandare Hotel, this private menagerie – the Somali name literally means ‘Lion Garden’ – contains about half-a-dozen caged (mostly male) lions, the second-generation progeny of a quartet that was originally imported from Ethiopia by the government minister that owns it.
It’s other inhabitant’s amount to one solitary cheetah, and a transient flock of vultures and other raptors that get to clear up the meat scraps left by the lions. It is a truly depressing place, and impressions don’t improve when you learn that one of the lions escaped and killed a local woman in 2008 (the offending lion was subsequently shot by its owner). A popular garden restaurant is attached.
The pair of near-identical pyramidal hills known as Naaso Hablood (literally, ‘Girl’s Breasts’) are a striking and aptly named Hargeisa landmark, rising to an altitude of 1,420m from a base of around 1,030m, some 5km northeast of the town center.
Local legend has it that the hills, with their step- like upper slopes, are manmade pyramids, the result of a cultural interchange with the ancient Egyptians when they visited the land of Punt 3,500 years ago.
In fact, they are natural hills, made of granite and sand, though stone tools uncovered at a natural overhang on one of the peaks suggest it was settled by hunter-gatherers in prehistoric times.
To get here, follow the Berbera road out of town for precisely 2km past the Kaah fuel station (on the right side of the road), then turn left on to a rough dirt road which you need to follow for 3.5km to the base of the nearest hill (N 9°35.538, E 44°07.518).
There’s quite a bit of wildlife around, most visibly pairs of dik-dik, and the birdlife includes what appears to be a breeding colony of white-backed vultures in the gorge to the right of the track.