Asmara: A Modernist African City is an Italian planned colonial city based on early modernist architecture.
The urban ensemble was designed during several stages of development on an orthogonal grid plan with diagonal axes. The city was divided into quarters following the principles of racial segregation. During the short fascist period of 1935-1941 the city received its distinct modernist and rationalist public buildings, which mostly have survived intact since then.
Map of AsmaraLoad map
I must admit that I didn't go all the way to Eritrea in Feb 2020 to specifically visit this WHS though it would be impossible to miss once you are there since it encompasses pretty much the whole capital. It was my third trip to the region but first successful attempt at getting into the country so it had been a bit of a nagging personal goal for a while. I'm not familiar with the other major Art Deco hot spots so wasn't sure how appealing it would be to me personally but I quickly came to love the overall atmosphere of Asmara and very much enjoyed my time there. I'm not sure if it says more about me or the country but it is easily my favourite African capital.
The good news is the Eritrean system seems to have lost the harshest edge of its paranoia and my experience was overwhelmingly hassle free. The bad news is the number of dilapidated buildings has only continued to increase over the years. I used a guide book that was 12+ years old and found that while the buildings hadn't moved, several that were listed as visitable or in use had been shuttered completely and left to decay. The Fiat building is fenced off and empty now for example. I found this added to the trapped in time character of a country that has been isolated and undeveloped for so long. It was more like walking around a huge antique shop, far more akin to a Cuba without any tourists than to North Korea, to which is it normally (unfairly) compared.
The weather was perfect during my visit and I spent the better part of 2 days walking the city and enjoying at leisure. It is a excellent city for wandering, first with a purpose to find the most important buildings and then after simply for the joy of discovering hidden gems. There are numerous interesting cafes to rest and refresh scattered about also to reward the effort.
Well - could you guess that this is Africa (photo)? Just 1 of the amazing Art Deco buildings in Asmara. There is a fine book which catalogues all (most?) of the relevant buildings in the city - but I only found it at the airport when leaving. And there are a lot of these buildings. There are at least 4 "time warp" cinemas ranging in condition from "lovingly restored" to "in grave danger of falling down" The best are still in use and still have the original ticket offices etc and very pleasant cafes. This iconic Fiat garage/petrol station is unfortunately in sad need of repair. There are also a number of governmental buildings, public squares etc and innumerable private dwellings - anyone interested in architecture will be able to spend a good number of hours exploring the Art Deco heritage of this pleasant capital with its pleasant climate. Mussolini foresaw great things for this colony and spared no expense in demonstrating the greatness to which his empire aspired! Look out for the "Fasces" still decorating the pillars outside the Italian club
Unfortunately when we visited in Nov 2006 the Eritrean government was paranoid about foreigners (and from what I hear things haven't changed!) and I was marched off with an, I fear, loaded rifle sticking in my back by an angry conscript for photographing 1 of the cinemas - luckily I was "rescued" by an educated local who sorted things out. But Eritrea is like that - a mixture of totalitarian xenophobia with pockets of educated internationalism (The Eritrean Diaspora living worldwide but particularly in N America numbers some 850,000 or a fifth of the current homeland population). Its long struggle for independence and its revolutionary leaders' Marxist background has created a country with a somewhat psychotic personality! As a foreigner you need specific permission to visit anywhere outside Asmara and places we had planned to visit were withdrawn without reason and without notice from the list of available destinations. Asmara is far and away the "star" of what you are likely to be able to see in the country. Napier (NZ) and South Beach Miami are other possible Art Deco inscriptions but Asmara has that added dimension of "surprise" for its location and of "history" for its colonial background. Whether Eritrea will ever be able to bring it to a suitable state for ICOMOS's satisfaction is another matter
2018 Name change
From Asmara: a Modernist City of Africa to Asmara: A Modernist African City
2017 Name change
From TWHS "The Historic Perimeter of Asmara and its Modernist Architecture" to WHS nomination "Asmara, Africa’s Modernist City", and then again by ICOMOS to "Asmara: a Modernist City of Africa”.
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