Asmara is the capital city of the state of Eritrea, Africa's youngest nation (independent in 1993 CE). A highly modernized urban center, Asmara is a city whose colonial past distinguishes it from most other areas of the country, which remain largely rural today. Asmara is located in the highlands of central Eritrea, approximately 80 kilometers west of the Red Sea, 250 kilometers west of Sudan, and 90 kilometers north of the official Eritrea - Ethiopia border. Due to its high altitude of 2,300 meters, Asmara enjoys a temperate steppe climate in a region that was formerly covered in dense tropical forests. In 2003, the citys population was close to 600,000 people in an urban area covering 12,160 square kilometers.
A testing ground for Italian Modernism and Rationalist urban planning in the 1930s, Asmara has long been one of the most westernized African capital cities. The city boasts a highly developed physical infrastructure, including strong road and service systems, low crime rates, and high education and literacy rates. Unfortunately, despite Asmaras many strengths, a long history of territorial disputes and a succession of violent and protracted civil wars have led to the contemporary endangerment of much of the city's architectural heritage.
Pre-Islamic Period (932 BCE-1875 CE / AH 1292):
While recent archaeological discoveries date human settlement on the site of present-day Asmara as early as the ninth millennium BCE, the villages that grew to become the contemporary city were founded during the twelfth century CE. The village of Kidisti Mariam was founded first in what is today northeast Asmara, and the three villages of Kirkos, Kidus Gebriel, and Kudus Giorgis were later established nearby. The four villages were independently governed for at least a century, but eventually security concerns due to the encroachment of animal predators and slave traders encouraged leading women in the villages to promote a military alliance. At a meeting organized by women from the four villages in 1319 CE, the towns elected to merge and center their future development around the Kidisti Mariam Orthodox Christian Church. In recognition of those responsible for the new citys creation, the name of the new blended city, Arbate Asmara, literally means the four women who made their brothers unite. Later the name of the city was officially shortened to Asmara.
Masonry building techniques developed in the Eritrean highlands fully independent of early European architectural influences, which were widespread across much of northern Africa. Instead of structuring buildings with a post and lintel system, as favored by the Greeks, or with a post and arch system, as popularized by the Romans and later Islamic dynasties, the early Eritreans developed a unique system of wall construction using "monkeyheads". According to this technique, masonry walls of coursed rubble filled with an earth mortar terminated in dressed stones at their ends and corners. After several courses of the wall were laid, a horizontal wooden member was placed along the perimeter of the masonry wall to create a level foundation for additional courses of stone above. Atop the horizontal beam, smaller wooden members were placed perpendicular to the length of the wall, acting as spacers between the stones of the first course of rubble above the beam. These smaller wooden elements projected from the exterior face of the wall, lending them a figural quality that inspired the name "monkeyhead". The notion of the monkeyhead was later adapted to brick construction in Italian architect Gallos design of St. Marys Orthodox Cathedral (1920 CE), in which the horizontal wooden beams were replaced with header bricks in relief from the exterior wall surface, while the wooden monkeyheads were employed as per tradition. The conscious incorporation of the local Eritrean architectural language into buildings by Italian Modernists was unique to Asmara, and signals a very unusual instance of cultural exchange within the city under the Italian colonial authority.
Ottoman Period (1875-1887 CE / AH 1292-1304):
Asmara remained under the control of local tribes throughout the medieval period, successfully rebuffing an attempted invasion by Islamic militias from the north during the sixteenth century. Though it often served as a political base within its region, Asmara remained a relatively small town of less than 4000 people prior to its conquest by the Egyptians in 1875 CE (AH 1292). At that time, Egypt was part of the Ottoman empire under Emperor Mahmud II (reg. 18611876 CE / AH 12771293), though the territory was administrated somewhat independently by Governor Ismail Pasha bin Ibrahim (reg. 1863-1879 CE / AH 1280-1296). Egyptian control of Asmara was short-lived and uneventful architecturally, as the city was captured by Tigrayan Governor Ras Alula only nine years later in 1884 CE (AH 1301). Ras Alula moved his base of operations from nearby Adi Tekay in the Eritrean highlands to the Asmara plateau. Growth of the city under Ras Alula was not centrally planned and consisted primarily of military encampments and their supporting facilities constructed among the scattered villages that collectively composed the urban zone. Alula and his forces maintained control of the city for only three years, as Italian colonial forces - headquartered at Massawa after 1885 - invaded Asmara on August 3, 1887.
Italian Colonization (1887-1941 CE):
Under the administration of Governor Ferdinando Martini, the capital of Italian East Africa was relocated from Massawa to Asmara in 1899. The Italian colonists approached the development of the city, then comprising approximately 10,000 people, as an opportunity to test Modern urban planning ideas on a large scale. While initially developed evenly, the city was formally segregated into African and Italian zones in 1913, with the Italian zones receiving the bulk of the citys land area and economic investment. The Italian city plans drafted between 1913 and 1914 featured landscaped boulevards, grand piazzas, and public parksbut only in Italian quarters. The African quarters were densely developed with almost no public spaces, leading to the frequent occupation of roadways within those neighborhoods to accommodate informal economies and social gatherings.
Many of the most architecturally significant buildings in Asmara today date from the years of the Italian occupation. In the late 1920s, Rationalism developed as an architectural movement in Italy and was soon translated to rapidly-growing Asmara with the support of Italian Prime Minister Benito Mussolini (reg. 1922-1945). The 1930s saw the construction of the Agricultural Office of Eritrea (1935) the Selam Hotel (1937), the Shell Service station (1937), and the renowned Cinema Impero (1937), an excellent extant example of Italian Art Deco architecture. The year 1938 alone marked the construction of the Great Mosque, the covered market, the Nda Mariam Cathedral, and the Fiat Tagliero Service Station.
It was due to the Italian planning initiatives and extensive building program that Asmara gained the nickname "Piccola Roma," or "Little Rome". The 1939 census estimated that of the 90,000 residents of Asmara, 53,000 were Italian. In that year, the colonial administration approved a plan for further expansion of the Italian areas of the city, but its implementation was put on hold when the Second World War captured Italys attention in 1940.
British Military Administration (1941-1952 CE):
In 1941, Allied forces invaded Eritrea and the British Military Administration took control over Asmara for the remainder of the Second World War (1939-1945). During the war and the years immediately following, little investment was made by the British administrators in the physical development of Asmara. Two key buildings serve as exceptions, however; the Municipality building (early 1950s) and the Palazzo Mutton (1944) were both constructed during this period with nostalgic reference to the Italian Modernism of the late 1920s.
Ethiopian Federation (1952-1991 CE):
The United Nations ordered the federation of the state of Eritrea under Ethiopian governance in 1952, a political designation that was unacceptable to Eritreans from its inception. Only a decade after the organization of the Ethiopian sub-state by the UN, a civil war erupted in 1961 that ultimately became a three-decade-long struggle for Eritrean independence. Despite the fighting that persisted during the later half of the twentieth century, building activity slowly recovered in Asmara with the erection of scattered high-rise concrete structures between the 1950s and 1970s. Notable concrete structures include the Municipality of Asmara building (1971) and the Ambassador Hotel (1972).
Following a period of famine and economic crisis in 1974, combined Eritrean and Ethiopian military forces originating in Asmara overthrew Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie (reg. 1916-1974), ushering in two decades of rule by a communist military junta known as the Derg (reg. 1974-1991). The only major building project completed in Asmara under the oppressive Derg regime was a monumental stadium at Bahti Meskerem Square (late 1970s), later dedicated to commemorate the initiation of the Eritrean struggle for independence on September 1, 1961. The unabated violence of popular revolts under the Derg and the subsequent oppression throughout the region prevented development of the city, its industries, and its infrastructure during most of the late twentieth century.
Post-Independence (1991 CE-2011 CE):
Eritreans ultimately gained independence from Ethiopia after the collapse of the USSR-supported Derg government in 1991. Asmara was one of the last cities to be occupied by the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front, a rebel organization that had fought Ethiopian rule of present-day Eritrea since 1970. The state gained international recognition of its independent government in 1993, although disputes with Ethiopia over its borders have persisted until the present day, notably resulting in the Eritrean - Ethiopian War (1997-2000).
Once Asmara became the capital of an independent Eritrea, debate over the city’s colonial architectural heritage began. In the mid-1990s, citizens strongly opposed an urban master plan that called for the destruction of a 1960s-built prison at the heart of the city. This episode reveals the attitude that many Eritreans exhibited towards the built legacy of their Italian and Ethiopian colonizers; though the Modernist buildings are signals of an imposition on the Eritrean culture, they have become an integral part of the Asmara’s history, a reminder of the country’s tumultuous past, and a rich architectural legacy in their own right. Citizens advocated for the preservation of mid-century Modern structures such as the prison in order to retain monuments to the struggles of those Eritreans who lived through the prior regimes, rather than seeking the erasure of their colonial past through demolition and reconstruction. The persistence of this attitude has led to the maintenance of most of the Modern-era city, leaving Asmara as one of the most concentrated urban collections of Italian Rationalist and Futurist architecture anywhere in the world, and one of few preserved Modern cities in Africa.
The challenge facing Asmara today is the escalating need for conservation of the colonial-era buildings. Many buildings dating from the 1930s onward are in desperate need of repair. In response to this situation, in 1999 the Municipality of Asmara commissioned an urban survey of the city known as the Cultural Assets Rehabilitation Project (CARP), leading to a guide to the city’s architecture and urban boroughs published in 2003. The goal of the CARP is to define a historical district within Asmara and to obtain UNESCO World Heritage Site status for that zone. The Historic Perimeter of Asmara and its Modernist Architecture was named a tentative Cultural World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 2005, pending further research and documentation. Historians of the city have called for greater recognition and publication of Asmara’s unique Modern heritage, especially now, at a time when a lack of awareness of the city’s architectural treasures places them at risk for further deterioration. To promote interest in architectural restoration within the city, in 2006 the World Monuments Fund named the Historic Perimeter of Asmara one of the world’s 100 Most Endangered Sites.
Boness, Stefan. Asmara: The Frozen City. Berlin: Jovis, 2006.
Denison, Edward and Guang Yu Ren.“Eritrea: Refining Africa’s Modernist Experience.” ArchiAfrika Conference Proceedings: Modern Architecture in East Africa around Independence, 71-79. Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, July 27-29, 2005.