Asmara: The Modernist African City

Asmara: The Modernist African City

Asmara is the capital and most populous city of Eritrea, a country in the Horn of Africa. It is located on a highland plateau at an elevation of 2,325 metres (7,628 ft), making it the sixth highest capital in the world by altitude and the second highest capital in Africa. Asmara is known for its well-preserved colonial architecture, which reflects the Italian influence during the colonial period from 1890 to 1941. Asmara was inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2017 as “an exceptional example of early modernist urbanism at the beginning of the 20th century and its application in an African context”.

Asmara was founded in the late 19th century as a military outpost for the Italian colonial power, which sought to expand its influence in the region. The city grew rapidly after 1935, when Italy launched a large-scale programme of construction that applied the rationalist idiom of the time to various types of buildings, such as governmental edifices, residential and commercial buildings, churches, mosques, synagogues, cinemas, hotels, etc. The city’s urban layout is based mainly on an orthogonal grid that later integrated elements of a radial system. Asmara preserves an unusually intact human scale, featuring eclectic and rationalist built forms, well-defined open spaces, and public and private buildings that convey the colonial planning principles based on functional and racial segregation.

Asmara also has a rich cultural heritage that reflects the diversity and history of its inhabitants. The city is home to various religious communities, such as Christians, Muslims, and Jews, who coexist peacefully and have contributed to the city’s architectural and artistic expression. Asmara also has a vibrant social life, with many cafes, bars, restaurants, and cinemas that offer entertainment and leisure opportunities for locals and visitors alike. Asmara’s urban character and strong urban form exhibit a human scale in the relationship between buildings, streets, open spaces, and related activities adapted to the local conditions. Asmara also embodies both colonial and post-colonial African life, with its public spaces, mixed-use fabric and place-based material culture.

Asmara has come to be associated with the struggle of the Eritrean people for self-determination, which was pursued while embracing the tangible evidence of their colonial past. Asmara’s urban fabric and identity played a role in building a collective identity that was later instrumental in motivating early efforts for its preservation. Asmara is today a living museum of modernist architecture and urbanism that showcases how colonial planning models were applied and adapted to an African context.

Tourist Attractions in Asmara

Asmara is not only a city of historical and architectural significance, but also a city of cultural and natural attractions. There are many places to visit and things to do in Asmara that will appeal to different types of travelers. Here are some of the most popular tourist attractions in Asmara:

  • Cathedral of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary: This is the most iconic landmark of Asmara, located on Harnet Avenue. It was built in 1922 in a Romanesque style with a distinctive bell tower and a dome. The interior is decorated with stained glass windows, frescoes, and marble altars. The cathedral is open to visitors and offers a panoramic view of the city from its tower.
  • Fiat Tagliero Building: This is one of the most remarkable examples of futurist architecture in Asmara, designed by Giuseppe Pettazzi in 1938 as a petrol station. The building has two symmetrical wings that resemble airplane wings, supported by thin pillars. The building is considered a masterpiece of engineering and a symbol of Asmara’s modernist heritage.
  • Liberation Avenue (also called Harnet Avenue): This is the main street of Asmara, lined with cafes, shops, banks, hotels, and public buildings. It is a lively and colorful place to stroll, shop, and enjoy the atmosphere of the city. Along the avenue, you can see various architectural styles, such as art deco, rationalist, neoclassical, and eclectic.
  • Medebar Market: This is a unique market where you can find all kinds of recycled and reused items, such as metal scraps, plastic bottles, tires, wood, and fabrics. The market is a testament to the creativity and resourcefulness of the local people, who transform waste into useful products. You can also buy souvenirs, handicrafts, and traditional clothes at the market.
  • Nda Mariam Orthodox Church: This is an ancient church that dates back to the 6th century AD. It is located on a hilltop overlooking the city and has a circular shape with a conical roof. The church is decorated with paintings and icons depicting biblical scenes and saints. The church is also a pilgrimage site for Orthodox Christians.
  • Asmara Theater and Opera House: This is one of the most elegant buildings in Asmara, completed in 1920 as a cultural center for the Italian community. It has a neoclassical facade with columns and statues, and an interior with marble staircases, chandeliers, and frescoes. The theater hosts various performances, such as operas, concerts, plays, and festivals.
  • Cimitero Italiano Di Asmara: This is a cemetery where many Italians who lived and died in Asmara are buried. It is located on a hillside surrounded by cypress trees and has a peaceful atmosphere. The cemetery has many tombstones and monuments that reflect the history and culture of the Italian community in Asmara.
  • Al Khulafa Al Rashiudin Mosque: This is the largest mosque in Asmara, built in 1938 in a rationalist style with Islamic elements. It has a square plan with four minarets at each corner and a large dome in the center. The mosque can accommodate up to 4,000 worshippers and has a library, a school, and a social hall.
  • Cinema Roma: This is one of the oldest cinemas in Asmara, built in 1937 in an art deco style with a curved facade and neon signs. The cinema has two halls that show local and international movies. The cinema also has a cafe where you can enjoy a macchiato or a gelato.
  • Enda Marian- Cattedrale Copta Di Asmara: This is the cathedral of the Coptic Orthodox Church in Asmara, built in 1938 in an Ethiopian style with a round shape and a conical roof. The cathedral has colorful paintings and icons inside and outside. The cathedral is also the seat of the Coptic Pope’s representative in Eritrea.

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