On Saturday, 8 July 2017, during the 41st World Heritage Committee Session in Poland, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization UNESCO announced that our marvellous capital, Asmara, was officially inscribed a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
It is a great honour of tremendous value to the city and its people in particular, the country, the horn of Africa and the continent of Africa at large. It is a historical accomplishment for the people and government of Eritrea and, in particular, for all the parties who have been working assiduously to earn the city its well-deserved World Heritage Site status.
Perched on the central plateau of the central highlands of Eritrea, Asmara was initially planned to be a major modern city in Africa, in the first decade of the 20th century by the Italian architect-engineer Odoardo Cavagnari. In the years that followed, throughout the Italian colonial occupation, a large number of splendidly striking buildings which combine Italian futurist motifs with local methods of construction were constructed in Asmara. Some of these buildings were outrageously daring architectural adventures to be welcomed in the conservative European cities of that era. Hence, Asmara became a safe haven for daring Italian architects where they could experiment and flout their imaginative, dreamy and daring architectural ambitions. By the end of the 1930s, the prevalence of such wonderful buildings in a well-planned-modern-city infrastructure transformed Asmara and made it “Africa’s most modern metropolis”. It is this transformation along with the large number of Italian residents in the city that earned Italy’s planned African city the nickname ‘Piccola Roma’, or “Little Rome”. And now it is these buildings that have earned Asmara a World Heritage Site status by the UNESCO after all these years.
A World Heritage Site is a natural or man-made site, area, or structure recognized as being of outstanding international importance and, therefore, as deserving special protection. Such sites are nominated to and designated by the World Heritage Convention. The Paris based agency of the United Nations, UNESCO, which has been set up by the UN to contribute to peace and security of the world by promoting international collaboration through educational, scientific, and cultural reforms, formed the organization of the World Heritage Convention through the Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage. This convention is an international agreement adopted on 16 November 1972 by the Member States of the UNESCO. The principal purpose of this convention is to ensure ‘the proper identification, protection, conservation and presentation of cultural and natural heritage with ‘outstanding universal value to all mankind’. Today this convention has been ratified and signed by 193 countries including 189 UN member states. Through the years, a World Heritage List has been established by merit of the Convention. As of July 2017, 1053 sites are listed: 815 cultural, 203 natural, and 35 mixed properties, in 165 countries as of July 2017. Based on the number of sites that they have officially registered Italy, China, Spain, France, Germany and India rank at the top of the chart registering 53, 52, 45, 42, 41, and 35 sites respectively.
The procedure with which a place is promoted to a World Heritage Site status is not easy and straight forward. To begin with the place has exhibiting cultural and/or natural heritage of ‘outstanding universal value’ and, at least, ‘meet one of a set of World Heritage criteria’. However, that is only the beginning; in order for a property or place to be considered for inclusion in the World Heritage Site list, there is an elaborate procedure that needs to be followed by the country which is requesting the status. First, the country needs to provide a tentative list of sites to be considered for inscription. And here, it should be noted that only countries that have signed the World Heritage Convention, pledging to protect their natural and cultural heritage, can submit nomination proposals for properties on their territory to be considered for inclusion in UNESCO’s World Heritage List. After submitting the tentative list, the country in question produces and submits to the World Heritage Centre for review a nomination file which should exhaustively include all the necessary documentation and maps. The Centre checks the thoroughness of the file and sends it for evaluation to the appropriate Advisory Bodies. Then, the nominated site is evaluated by three Advisory Bodies. Two Advisory Bodies mandated by the World Heritage Convention, the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS) and the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), independently evaluate the site. And a third Advisory Body, the International Centre for the Study of the Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Property (ICCROM) also makes an evaluation. After the nomination and evaluation, a final decision is then made by the intergovernmental World Heritage Committee.
However, on more than one occasion, the World Heritage Committee has been subject to criticism for under-representation of heritage sites outside Europe and for controversial decisions in inscribing some sites. These days, an extensive and costly lobbying system has evolved around the process of inscription that it has become increasingly difficult for poor countries such as Eritrea to have sites put on the list. Which is probably why, the governmental and non-governmental parties who have worked tirelessly to have Asmara inscribed on the World Heritage List ought to be commended heartily.
There are six cultural and four natural criteria for the selection of the World Heritage List. If a site is to be included the World Heritage List, it must be of ‘outstanding universal value and meet at least one out of the ten selection criteria’. Asmara has been selected as a World Heritage site by meeting two of the six cultural criteria; criteria ii and iv. Criteria ii requires a site “to exhibit an important interchange of human values, over a span of time or within a cultural area of the world, on developments in architecture or technology, monumental arts, town-planning or landscape design”. Criteria IV expects a site “to be an outstanding example of a type of building, architectural or technological ensemble or landscape which illustrates (a) significant stage(s) in human history”. The UNESCO has added Asmara to its list of World Heritage sites as the city still holds many well-preserved modernist buildings from the time Eritrea was ruled by Italy which has an outstanding universal value that met two of the selection criteria. UNESCO said Asmara was “an exceptional example of early modernist urbanism at the beginning of the 20th century and its application in an African context”.
Having survived a 30 year war for independence, around 4,300 modernist buildings, which make Asmara’s heritage unique in the world, with a historic perimeter within an area of 480 hectares, still stand today with have survived and most of them are still in a well-preserved state. These buildings include the famous Fiat Tiaglero building, a petrol station shaped as an aeroplane by the architect Giuseppe Pettazzi, which was built in 1938, the garage that resembles the hull of a ship with porthole windows, which was built in 1937, Cinema Impero, completed in 1937, still holds screenings for thousands of Eritrean cinemagoers, the art-deco bowling alley with coloured glass windows, the central post office which was completed between 1915 and 1916, and the Bar Zilli building that looks like an old-fashioned radio set, with windows like tuning buttons, etc. Moreover, there are a number of captivating villas, stylish shops and heroic factory complexes, specimen of “modernism’s broad palette, including novecento, rationalism and futurism”.
The inclusion of a site in to the UNESCO World Heritage Site list means that if UNESCO judges the site to be in danger, it may step in to preserve it. Inclusion into World Heritage list has a significant advantage in boosting a nation’s tourism industry. It can bring masses of tourists to the country. And a country such as Eritrea can use this flow of tourists and cash that can promote businesses and create jobs. Heritage tourism is a growing industry with the number of travellers who incorporated a heritage or cultural activity into their trip growing by the year. What makes the Heritage Tourism even more attractive to the host is that travellers who seek to visit heritage and cultural sites consistently stay longer and spend more money than other type of tourists. Hence, Heritage Tourism is a significant industry which can promote the recognition and preservation of the sites and contribute to the economic development of the host country.
Cultural, historical and natural heritages, even those that are not included in the UNESCO Heritage List, are some of the most precious, priceless and irreplaceable possessions, of not only a given nation, but humanity at large. Over the years, armed conflict and war, natural disasters, pollution, poaching, uncontrolled urbanization or human development, theft, invaders/tourism, etc. have deteriorated and caused the loss of vast treasured heritages all over the world. The loss of such a prized possessions in place or in a country is a loss for the entire humanity as it constitutes an impoverishment of the heritage of all mankind and its history, not just a given nation. The inclusion of a site into UNESCO Heritage List is an important step in the recognition of the site’s exceptional qualities, which can be considered of outstanding universal value and, as such, worthy of special protection against the dangers that threaten it. The honour of the inclusion of Asmara into the list is also a responsibility to the people and government of Eritrea to cherish and protect this treasure. The good thing about the inscription is, now that the city has been added into UNESCO Heritage List, the responsibility of its protection would, to some extent, be shared by the UNESCO and the whole world.