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Brief Urban and Architectural History of Asmara

Asmara – pronounced “Assmera” in Tigrinya, literally means “The women brought unity to the four villages”. Asmara was originally established during the 7th Century around the area the present St Mary’s (Mariam Tsion) church (commonly referred to as Enda-Mariam) is located.

It was earlier known as ‘Arbate- Asmera’, an ancient highland village with four settlement areas i.e. Geza-Asmea, Geza-Guretom, Geza-Shlele and Geza-Serensir. The four settlements used to live independent of each other and had separate churches i.e. Gheza Asmea, St-Kirkos; Geza-Guretom, St-Gabriel; Gheza-Shilele, St- George (Biet-Giorgis); and Geza-Serensir, St-Mikael. They were however commonly linked to the church of Mariam-Tsion. Notwithstanding the harmonious life the four settlements enjoyed among each other, they were frequently attacked and pillaged by outside raiders and intruders. As legend has it, during one year of severe drought, they gathered together at the church of Mariam- Tsion to pray to the Almighty for rain. On this occasion, the women took the opportunity to persuade their husbands to unite their four villages for a stronger defense against their common enemies. A new name was henceforth adopted: “Arbaete-Asmera” or “the Four United”.

With the passage of time the name Arbaete-Asmera was abridged to the present ‘Asmera’ or ‘Asmara’. For Eritreans, Asmara is not just our capital city, but an object of love; an icon of unity with a very strong social bondage and attachment. This intangible aspect of Asmara’s cultural significance is critical to the nomination of the city for world heritage listing as part of wider and richer historiography than merely modernist architecture and planning.

Asmara’s Architecture and Urban Planning Process

Asmara’s innovative urban plan was laid out at the start of the twentieth century, coinciding with the birth of the modern profession of town planning. Asmara’s planners recognised the benefits of modern planning, adopting their principles and combining them with elements of the gridiron system and adapting them to local topographical conditions. They also adopted the modern theory of zoning, which was a salient feature of the contemporaneous Garden Cities Movement. Asmara’s undulating topography created by volcanic basalt dike swarms which pass through the Plain of Asmara did not suit a rigid gridiron system. Local physical and cultural conditions as much as contemporaneous developments in town planning theory and practice internationally informed Asmara’s physical characteristics. In this uniquely African context the amalgamation of local natural features and cultural conditions and modern town planning created the continent’s first modernist city.

Asmara is not a one-off urban plan, but rather the result of a process of innovative urban planning. The first three decades of Italian occupation in Eritrea provided the foundation on which the subsequent intense development of Asmara occurred and for its subsequent materialization as a truly modernist city. The years 1896 to 1922 saw the design and initial execution of various urban plans addressing defining elements that informed the subsequent urban planning of the fledging colonial town of Asmara. In the first few years of the twentieth century, the early development of Asmara was characterized by a comparatively unimaginative grid system. Asmara’s 1902 plan focused primarily on improving public hygiene and concentrated only on the Italian community that was growing up around Campo Cintato, placing less emphasis on other public works and ignoring the indigenous areas. The 1908 Asmara plan, however, addressed the entire city and adopted the contemporary theory of zoning. In 1908, four distinct urban quarters were defined: European only, a ‘mixed’ quarter for Europeans, other foreigners, indigenous population and industrial zone. In the years that followed further plans were ratified for the detailed development of various zones. The formalisation of the 1913 plans can be seen in the drawings by Cavagnari dated 1916. The purpose of these urban plans was not only to provide a pleasant and functional urban environment for the Italians, but also to contain and control the native population.

When the architect Vittorio Cafiero prepared another Master Plan in 1938, he was aware of the new racial laws imposed by Mussolini and both provided a reason for and made it necessary to implement certain changes to make the city “tidy and functional”. In carrying out the plan, Cafiero emphasized the zoning of the city to distinguish its varied functions. Certain practical considerations of balancing the requirements of commercial, industrial, residential and leisure areas needed attention, but central to the plan was the separation of the races. All the evolved urban plans contributed to form the urban structure that is the collective product of planning, temporal and cultural processes.

Asmara’s modernist architecture represents one of the most complete collections of its genre in the world. As a total urban ensemble, Asmara bears exceptional testimony to the formative stage of one distinct strand of modernism: Rationalism. Hundreds of buildings designed and constructed from 1935 to 41 possess the characteristics of Rationalism, which emerged in Italy with Giuseppe Terragni’s design for the Novocomum Apartments in Como (1927– 29) and reached its apogee in 1936 with the completion of the celebrated Casa del Fascio, also by Terragni and also in Como. Rationalist architecture embraced the new machine age and was uncompromising in its promotion of aesthetic purity and geometric simplicity in built forms, volumes and masses. The defining characteristic of Asmara’s Rationalist architecture is witnessed in the profusion  of pure geometric volumes, asymmetric and abstract forms, and a lack of ornamentation in the design of cinemas, shops, banks, religious structures, public and private offices, industrial facilities, and residences.

In Europe architectural modernism was expressed in new materials of glass and concrete, but in Eritrea, where such materials were comparatively expensive, many of the modernist buildings were built using local materials and made to appear modern. Although reinforced concrete was available and frequently used, many buildings in Asmara used large quantities of local basalt rendered in lime plaster to give the appearance of concrete or to create modern geometric forms befitting the modern machine age, albeit constructed using traditional materials.

Asmara’s unique architectural value is derived not only from the prevalence of Rationalism. The city also possesses other expressions of modernism, including Futurism, as well as earlier articulations of architectural modernity such as Novecento and neo-traditional styles recalling Classical, Lombard, Romanesque, Renaissance, Gothic, medieval and even vernacular forms. Collectively, Asmara’s architectural character is therefore broad and fairly represents the transformation in architecture during the early-twentieth century from tradition to modernism.

Beyond the physical attributes of Asmara’s innovative urban plan and modernist architecture, Asmara is an outstanding example of the interchange of cultural influences brought about by the encounter with modernity in an African context. In summary, Asmara can be seen as an urban ensemble and cultural landscape defined by a wide-range of human experiences that defined the twentieth century and culminated in the city becoming the nation’s capital following independence in 1991. As the political and spiritual centre of Eritrean national identity, Asmara has helped define a people as much as they have defined it.

Asmara’s inclusion on UNESCO – World Heritage List for its outstanding modernist architecture and urban planning and its exceptional testimony of the universal aspiration for and attainment of national self-determination goes beyond merely pursuing international recognition for its cultural assets. Asmara’s nomination also presents an opportunity to encourage critical reflections on cultural relations and heritage globally, and to promote stability and prosperity locally.

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