Asmara: an urban utopia in East Africa

About Eritrea - History & Culture

A city which someone aptly put as the best kept secret in Africa. The city is simply frozen in time but ticks with reality. Its buildings resemble an era from Italian colonial times and the people who inhabit it dress immaculately-old men in dapper fedoras, young women in form fitting high waist denim, the fella’s in khaki pants -the city and its citizens are a perfect match wrapped in a time capsule.

I for one can never stop writing about the capital city. The peaceful streets, the clean air, the ever astonishing buildings and in particular each week as I go to the post office to check the mail, I just stand still for a moment and look around the building; for each design humbles me to the extent that no matter how frequently I visit the post office I just can’t seem to wrap my head around the fact that the building was built more than 80 years ago.

About two weeks ago, I was provided with the task to give three Ethiopian journalists a two-day tour of the capital. After I had a meeting with them and got a slight idea of what they wanted to see, I went on to plan a nonstop two day tour of the city. Over the next two days, as I embarked to show them how beautiful the city was, unsurprisingly I ended up falling in love with the city all over again. Even more when I saw our guests lost for words; I felt proud that this was my capital city.

Asmara’s architectural landscape and concentration of iconic buildings – cinemas, apartment buildings, petrol stations, factories, churches, and public buildings – reflect the exemplary and innovative approach to the challenges of modern urban requirements in a highland African setting that have retained their integrity and authenticity through a protracted struggle for national liberation and duty to protect its sovereignty in the years after.

When Italy’s colonial rule ended in Eritrea in 1941, it left behind an array of Rationalist, Futurist, Art Deco and other Modernist styles in Asmara, a city whose historic heart has changed little since the time when Italians lived and worked here.

Asmara’s most famous building - the Fiat Tagliero - now fully restored was built as a garage in 1938 by architect Giuseppe Pettazzi, and it once pumped petrol in the most dramatic of settings: beneath two vast concrete wings, each nearly 30 metres (96ft) long, jutting out from the garage’s central building. Legend has it that at the time no one believed they would stay up unsupported, Pettazzi put removable pillars under the wings and then used a gun to force one of his workers to knock them away. The wings are still standing on a building that looks more like a fighter plane than a petrol station. Visit the Tagliero at six in the evening as it turns a golden colour against the deep blue evening sky and, possibly, for the only time in your life, a garage will leave you breathless. Elegant avenues are flanked by the Art Deco Cinema Impero-built in 1937, with a facade that looks like a circuit board-, the imposing lines of the Education Ministry built in 1940 formerly known as Casa del Fascio which once housed the Fascist Party headquarters.

Cinema Dante building is by far one of my favorite cinemas in the city, partly because it was the first cinema I went to as a child. The big part that caught my eye as a child was the sea foam green typography written in the building, which remains intact to this very day. Dante’s sleekness and effortless style is whimsical to the senses. It also happens to be the oldest Italian cinema in the city.

One of the places I took the journalist to visit was Medeber. The building which is gorgeous bricks on bricks on bricks, is one of the oldest colonial buildings in the city, and remains in spectacular condition. Not to mention the fact that everything made in the market, from Eritrea’s famous sandals, to kitchen utensils, to oil drums, are made from recycled material. The site simply depicts a clear picture of Eritreans work ethic and ability to self-produce different materials from recycled resources.

The Central Market also is filled with customers throughout the day. However, what’s spectacular about the Central Market in Asmara is not necessarily the architecture of the place, but how the architecture and the people mix.

The buildings influence what you see, how you move and the character of the city. Many will say that Harnet Ave. is the heart of Asmara. I contend that it is actually the area surrounding the Central Market, starting across from the entrance to Enda Mariam Cathedral and running westbound (also bordered by the Grand Mosque), is the real hub of activity in Asmara.

Some buildings on the other hand such as the Orthodox cathedral built in 1938/1939, have a bold hybrid style, with African “monkey head” details of wooden dowels poking through the facade, originally used to bind horizontal layers of wood together between the blocks of stone. And Bar Zilli, with its curved walls and porthole windows.

Over those two days I realized the city has got to be unquestionably the most beautiful African capital city one can visit; it’s truly pleasant to stroll around on foot, with wide sidewalks, towering green trees, and minimal traffic. The streets are immaculate, roving gangs of street sweepers descend upon the city every morning at 5am and attack litter. Cafés dot the sidewalks; you simply are spoiled for choice. The gelato rivals that of Rome. Cappuccino is considered a national addiction and pastry that any chef in Florence would be proud of. The national cuisines are exquisite while foreign dishes are perfectly prepared.

Our citizens are the most humble guest receiving people in the globe. In Africa it is said you would expect people to crowd and hassle a person of foreign origins at each corner he turns but in Asmara People don’t bother you, they are merely friendly and gently welcoming. So you are free to soak up streets filled with Modernist buildings painted in soft peaches, blues and creams without any pestering at all.

When the Italians left in 1941, the British Ministry of Information was said to have described the city as a European City with wide boulevards, fantastic Cinemas, imposing fascist buildings, cafes, stores, two-lane streets and a first class hotel. All of which have been kept intact in perfect condition to this day albeit falling plaster unhinged shutters and falling paint. Rationalism, Novecento, neo-Classicism, neo-Baroque and monumentalism styles of architecture are all among the varied avant-garde on display in the capital. So much so, Asmara is the first modernist city in the world to be listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site in its entirety. Italians might have built most of the splendor in display around the city but this is my heritage, our heritage and Eritrea’s capital.