Asmara in Eritrea

Wednesday, 12 October 2016 - 11:00 am (CET/MEZ) Berlin | Author/Destination:
Category/Kategorie: General

St. Joseph's Cathedral © flickr.com - David Stanley/cc-by-2.0

St. Joseph’s Cathedral © flickr.com – David Stanley/cc-by-2.0

Asmara is the capital city and largest settlement in Eritrea. Home to a population of around 804,000 inhabitants, it sits at an elevation of 2,325 metres (7,628 ft). The city is located at the tip of an escarpment that is both the northwestern edge of the Eritrean highlands and the Great Rift Valley in neighbouring Ethiopia. Asmara is situated in Eritrea’s central Maekel Region. It is known for its well-preserved colonial Italian modernist architecture. The city is divided into thirteen districts or administrative areas: Acria, Abbashaul, Edaga Hamus, Arbaete Asmara, Mai Temenai, Paradizo, Sembel, Godaif, Maekel Ketema or Downtown, Tiravolo, Gejeret, Tsetserat and Gheza Banda.

Asmara has perhaps one of the most concentrated and intact assemblage of Modernist architecture anywhere in the world. The urban design within the Historic Perimeter has remained untouched since its original implementation and subsequent evolution throughout the 1930s, and the architectural elements exemplify a superlative example of Modernist architecture in a complete urban setting. The city’s architecture is heavily influenced by Italian architecture. Asmara is the site of an ancient highland village called ‘Arbate Asmara’. In 1885, the Italians invaded Eritrea and by 1900, Asmara had become the capital city. The site was chosen for its salubrious highland climate, reliable water supply and ideal geographic location in the centre of Eritrea. In the early twentieth century, Asmara represented little more than a tiny highland village, which grew incrementally to become a well-established town by the 1920s. However, by the 1930s, it was clear that Italy, under the rule of Mussolini, was intent on invading neighbouring Ethiopia and would use Eritrea as the launch pad for this long-held ambition. In preparation for this substantial military escapade, an unprecedented quantity of materials and labour flowed into Eritrea throughout the 1930s. In a matter of months, Asmara became a vast building site, as over 70,000 Italians arrived to established new lives for themselves. The rapid transformation of Asmara from a relatively minor town into Africa’s most modern and sophisticated city at that time overlapped with equally momentous events in the world of design and architecture, which involved the global proliferation of Modernism and its various forms, including Futurism, Rationalism, Novecento, and Art Deco. The spirit of this new age of travel and adventure was embodied in these new architectural forms. Asmara was an ideal blank canvas on which Italian architects could practice and realise these modern ideals. From 1935 to 1941, thousands of buildings were constructed in the city, most of which reflect various Modernist styles and some of which represent inimitable architectural forms, such as petrol stations mimicking aeroplanes and boats, commercial buildings designed as trains, cavernous cinemas with fine period plasterwork and Art Dem interiors, fine ultra-modern hotels and offices, and government buildings with highly politicised monumental designs.

Asmara © Reinhard Dietrich Asmara's Opera - Theater Asmara © Sailko/cc-by-sa-3.0 Beirut Street © Sailko/cc-by-3.0 Central Market or Shuq © flickr.com - David Stanley/cc-by-2.0 © Sailko/cc-by-3.0 St. Joseph's Cathedral © flickr.com - David Stanley/cc-by-2.0
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Central Market or Shuq © flickr.com - David Stanley/cc-by-2.0
The city is home to the Eritrean National Museum and is known for its early 20th-century buildings, including the Art Deco Cinema Impero (opened in 1937 and considered by the experts one of the world’s finest examples of Art Déco style building, Cubist Africa Pension, eclectic Orthodox Cathedral and former Opera House, the futurist Fiat Tagliero Building, neo-Romanesque Roman Catholic Cathedral, and the neoclassical Governor’s Palace. The city is adorned by Italian colonial villas and mansions, one prominent example being the World Bank Building. Most of central Asmara was built between 1935 and 1941, so effectively the Italians managed to build almost an entire city, in just six years. At this time, the dictator Benito Mussolini had great plans for a second Roman Empire in Africa. War cut this short, but his injection of funds created the Asmara of today, which supposedly was to be a symbol that Fascism worked and is an ideal system of government. The city shows off most early 20th-century architectural styles. Some buildings are neo-Romanesque, such as the Roman Catholic Cathedral, some villas are built in a late Victorian style. Art Deco influences are found throughout the city; essentially Asmara was then what Dubai is now. Architects were restricted by nothing more than the bounds of their imaginations and were given the funds to create masterpieces which we can see today. Essences of Cubism can be found on the Africa Pension Building, and on a small collection of buildings. The Fiat Tagliero Building shows almost the height of futurism, just as it was coming into big fashion in Italy. In recent times, some buildings have been functionally built which sometimes can spoil the atmosphere of some cities, but they fit into Asmara as it is such a modern city.

Asmara is also the episcopal see of the archbishop of the Eritrean Orthodox Tewahedo Church, which became autocephalous in 1993. The archbishop was elevated in 1998 to the rank of Patriarchate of Eritrea, on a par with the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church.

Asmara was known to be an exceptionally modern city, not only because of its architecture, but Asmara also had more traffic lights than Rome did when the city was being built. The city incorporates many features of a planned city. Indeed, Asmara was an early example of an ideal modern city created by architects, an idea which was introduced into many cities across the world, such as Brasilia, but which was not altogether popular. Features include designated city zoning and planning, wide treed boulevards, political areas and districts and space and scope for development. Asmara was not built for the Eritreans however; the Italians built it primarily for themselves. One unfortunate aspect of the city’s planning was separate areas designated for Italians and Eritreans, each disproportionately sized. The city has more than 400 examples of Italian-style architecture, wide streets, piazzas and coffee bars. While the boulevards are lined with palms and local shiba’kha trees, there are numerable pizzerias and coffee bars, serving cappucinos and lattes, as well as ice cream parlours and restaurants with Italian eritrean cuisine. People in Asmara dress in a unique, yet Eritrean style. Asmara is also highly praised for its peaceful, crime-free environment. It is one of the cleanest cities on the continent.

Read more on Wikivoyage Asmara and Wikipedia Asmara (Smart Traveler App by U.S. Department of State). Photos by Wikimedia Commons. If you have a suggestion, critique, review or comment to this blog entry, we are looking forward to receive your e-mail at comment@wingsch.net. Please name the headline of the blog post to which your e-mail refers to in the subject line.




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