Far in the arid east of Ethiopia, close to the Red Sea, there is an ancient walled city where hyenas prowl by night - and the townsfolk are quite happy for them to do so. Considering the beasts magical beings that can rid the city of djinn , or evil spirits, the people have made holes in the ramparts, allowing the creatures to come and go easily. Each night, packs of hyenas gather outside the walls of Harar - timid despite their savage mien and 90kg bulk - waiting for the humans to go to bed before they roam the alleys, foraging for food scraps. One man makes a nice little earner out of the wild animals, sitting outside the city walls, putting on a terrifying show. With car headlights illuminating him, he calls out to the hyenas in the darkness beyond and puts in his mouth a stick with a chunk of raw meat on it. First their glowing eyes appear, then - as they sidle close - their mottled coats. One approaches warily, then lunges at the meat, snatching it and sloping off to swallow it. The man fishes more meat out of his bucket, hangs it from his mouth, another hyena bares its fangs and lunges, and so it continues. It's petrifying to watch - one slip and … But it's been going on for decades without mishap, the man's family passing the hat round after each performance. Even some tourists have a go. Ringed by ramparts, Harar's whitewashed houses huddle across a low hill, its minarets pointing to the sky. It is an Islamic city of ancient origins and, until the late 19th century, was the capital of an independent emirate so fiercely protective that non-Muslims were banned from entering, on pain of death. Long the centre of Muslim culture in the Horn of Africa, called "the fourth holiest city of Islam" by some, Harar's old town has scores of little mosques and saints' shrines, often painted in an appealing mixture of white and pastel green, with crescent moon motifs on top. Although now adjoined by a sprawling modern city, old Harar, with 32,000 inhabitants, holds all that is most intriguing. For 1,000 years Harar was a crossroads of cultures, where caravans from the Red Sea met East African merchants, where scholars and poets traded ideas. Minting its own money, Harar's influence spread wide - its coins have even been found in India and China - and the Hararis have their own language and literature. Once upon a time, only a very brave infidel would have dared to venture here. Enter Sir Richard Burton, adventurer, scholar, explorer, author and one of the great characters of the Victorian age, who camel-trekked to the holy city in disguise in 1855. He was found out, but was spared the sword. Kept under house arrest by the emir, Burton still managed to see enough to write about Harar in a book, First Footsteps in East Africa . Scotching any notions of extreme holiness, he noted that "both sexes are celebrated for laxity of morals. High and low indulge freely in intoxicating drinks, beer and mead". Today, it's a fair bet that there are as many little bars as there are tiny mosques dotted about the maze of narrow streets but more obvious is the buzz of commerce, wares laid out on the street in a riot of colour, sold in hole-in-the-wall shops or hawked in teeming markets, with porters and their donkeys toting goods here, there and everywhere. Remote from the mainstream of Ethiopian life, there's a strong sense of community and continuity in Harar, which now has designs on the tourist dollar. Power and water cuts are not helping, though; the city's few hotels struggle to offer comfortable accommodation and Harar remains a place for adventurers. After the Egyptians captured the city in 1875, the ban on non-Muslims was lifted, allowing foreign traders to move in. Shortly afterwards, another extraordinary European arrived, ex-poet Arthur Rimbaud. A writer of dazzling and shocking gifts, the Frenchman ended his literary career at the age of 19 and set off across the world, ending up in Harar as a trader in coffee, musk, skins and guns. Rimbaud wanted to disappear, and he pretty much did in his lifetime, but posterity has reclaimed him. Harar's finest old mansion has been turned into the Arthur Rimbaud Centre. An ornate wooden structure once home to a rich Indian merchant, it is a beautiful place to visit, with excellent exhibits, and contrasts sharply with the low adobe houses that typify the town. Inside those plain-walled houses, many of which are arranged around courtyards, the decor tends to be exuberant. In sitting rooms, where residents lounge on carpets and cushions, the walls are lavishly decorated with brightly painted Arabian glassware, colourful ceramics and floral-patterned enamel dishes from China, as well as the local multicoloured basketry. The biggest market sprawls outside the city walls, its muddy aisles offering everything from geese to gaskets, from radishes to radios. Enter through the Shoa Gate - the city has six, only three usable by motor vehicles - and the cobbled street is lined with brilliant displays of tomatoes, greens, okra, aubergine and carrots. Wind your way through the labyrinth of narrow alleys and down a hill to the eastern side, and you come to the firewood market, with brightly garbed country women balancing bundles of kindling on their heads. For traders who have yet to modernise, there's a donkey parking lot here. The aroma of freshly ground coffee wafts down from the hill towards Feres Megala Square - the town centre where a ramshackle collection of Peugeot 404 taxis, hand-me-downs from French colonial Djibouti, waits for hire. The coffee plant originated in Ethiopia, and Harar has its own sought-after variety. In a pokey facility, men fortified by chewing khat, another stimulant very profitably grown in nearby fields for worldwide export, roast, grind and pack the beans. Distant and so different from the central highlands, where Christians have ruled Ethiopia for almost two millennia, it may be, but Harar was the birthplace of the country's most celebrated ruler, Haile Selassie. In 1885, Emperor Menelik ousted the Egyptians and incorporated the ancient emirate into the Ethiopian empire. Menelik's first cousin, Ras Makonnen, became governor of the city and fathered here the diminutive future emperor, who would become known as Ras Tafari. The family home - similar in elegance to the Rimbaud house - is now the Sherif Harar City Museum, but any Rastafarians (who view the late Haile Selassie as their god and king) on a pilgrimage will be disappointed to find only local historical objects with no connection to the man who unwittingly inspired their religion. So much history, so rich a culture - and so many hungry hyenas. Getting there: Emirates, Lufthansa, Qatar Airways and Turkish Airlines all fly from Hong Kong through their respective hubs to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia's capital. Onward flights to Dire Dawa can be taken on Ethiopian Airlines. A taxi from Dire Dawa to Harar takes 90 minutes.