Eritrea – An African slice of Italy

Early modern architecture representing one of the most concentrated and intact assemblages of Modernist architecture found only in Asmara
Early modern architecture representing one of the most concentrated and intact assemblages of Modernist architecture found only in Asmara

By D.D. Nambudiri,

Asmara, 2,347 m above sea level, sits atop the Eritrean highlands and is the capital of Eritrea, a small, young, independent nation in Northeast Africa. It is in this region, legend has it, that the queen of Sheba gave birth to the son of Solomon, Menelik I. Asmara means ‘the forest of flowers’.

Constructed almost entirely between 1936 and 1941, Asmara was effectively a blank canvas on which its Italian rulers were able to design and build their own urban utopia in East Africa. Eritrea came under Italian rule in 1890. For many years since, Asmara remained a small town with political and military importance in the region. 

The history of the modern city began when Ras Alula, Governor of Hamasien Province, developed it as an administrative centre. Once Asmara was made the capital city, much of it began to develop. Various commercial and public buildings were constructed such as the residence of the Governor of Eritrea, banks, the Central post office, shops and hotels. The original village is now contained in the northeast part of the city.

Asmara contains perhaps the highest concentration of modern architecture. The city provided a perfect environment for innovation and experimentation by the colonial rulers. The buildings in Asmara witnessed several design movements such as art noveau, the movements of futurism, simplified classical forms and ornamentation and the modern movement in architecture and design, rationalism. Many of the government offices, theatres, cinema and hospitals reflect this. The city has been nominated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The city of Asmara reflects its religious side too with Catholic and Orthodox churches aplenty. Important sites include the Catholic Cathedral, the Al Khulafa Rashiudin Mosque and the Nda Mariam Coptic Cathedral. In 1895 the Catholic mission in Asmara built a small church. The present cathedral, one of the land marks of Asmara, was finished in 1925 and replaced the smaller church. It is built in the Lombard-Romanesque style. Its tall Gothic bell tower is visible from everywhere in the city. Asmara witnessed an unprecedented period of growth and development during Mussolini’s time. He envisioned an Italian empire in east Africa and wanted Asmara to be like Italy’s Rome.

The railway from Massawa to Asmara was initially designed by the Italians to assist trade and export to the Middle East. The railway extends from the low land to the high land and took more than 20 years to complete. Between Nefasit and Asmara labourers had constructed over 20 tunnels and 65 bridges and viaducts. With ill maintenance, the railway is now only a tourist attraction with short trips. The world’s longest cable car that linked over 75 kms was also constructed at this period. It too has been now abandoned and dismantled.

Visitors to Asmara receive a warm welcome by the inhabitants. Indigenous Eritrean tribes live by farming and herding sheep and goats. The village of Tselot is located about 20 kms from the city centre. Visitors can experience there traditional Eritrean lifestyle. It has fascinating old stone houses and ancient temples. Sembel Archaeological site, located within a short bus ride from the city, is a well preserved large Eritrean village built between 800 BC and 400 BC.

The public transportation in Asmara consists of buses and minibuses, which are the cheapest way to get around in the city. They are often crowded and no schedules exist.

The numerous pastry shops in Asmara serve a selection of freshly baked, ice-inged or plain cakes or donuts for 15 Nakfa or less, along with coffee, tea or soft drinks. Most traditional Eritrean food is quite spicy, and consists generally of hot meat and/or vegetable stews, eaten over the staple called “injera” a kind of sour-dough flatbread.

The main street, Independence Avenue, is fringed with palm trees, shops and restaurants serving both Eritrean specialties and Italian-style delicacies.

It is in the Independence Avenue that the entire population of this small city throngs on every June 20 evening to participate in the candle light march that pays respect to the thousands of people who sacrificed their lives to win independence for this young nation.

City Hall of Asmara
Arial view of the Capital Asmara
Asmara Theater: A superlative examples of the various styles of the preserved modern architecture