With Asmara being registered in the UNESCO World Heritage List, the attention invested in the city is growing by the day. The administration of the city, professionals of all fields from Eritrea and abroad, journalists, historians, architects, artists and tourists are opening their eyes to see what this historic city is all about.
Normally, we see monuments and specific places being enlisted in the UNESCO World Heritage List but in the case of Asmara it is the city with its thousands of buildings, roads, monuments and the intangible heritage, the Asmarino’s culture. A question arises now on how to preserve and maintain the city. Professionals are being put in place to restore the beauty of Asmara in its most natural and original essence. It is certainly not an easy task so there have been and will be ideas and expertise sharing by experts aiming for best laid out plans before the actual restoration begins.
When the chance presented itself I spoke to two prominent women, professor and architect Susanna Bortolotto, and professor and archeologist Serena Massa. I present to you today my interview with prof. Bortolotto.
Prof. Bortolotto made recurrent visits to Eritrea for several projects related to the restoration of archeological sites, but this time she was here in line with the recognition of Asmara as a world heritage. She talked to me about the experience she had in passing down and sharing her expertise and technical visions regarding the restoration project for the city of Asmara.
- Hello and thank you for your time. Could you please introduce yourself to our readers?
Thank you for having me. I am Susana Bortolotto and I am from the University of Politecnico di Milano. I am here in Asmara for a project called “Capacity building for safeguarding Asmara’s urban environment.” This project was sponsored by the EuropeAid; it was officially signed on the 29th of December 2016. The action of the project will be carried out by several stake holders including Eng. Medhanie from the Asmara Heritage Project for supervision while my university will provide technical course regarding maintanance and restoration.
- How did you first get to know about Asmara? What was your impression? Please elaborate your opinions.
I had the opportunity to visit Eritrea for the first time thanks to archeological projects of the ancient port city of Adulis. During several visits to Eritrea I had a prolonged opportunity to learn and know about Eritrea, its history and its people. Part of its history is also part of the Italian history. But particularly speaking it is the Asmara’s modernist architecture and the Asmara Heritage Project team with their brilliant proposals that facilitated the idea and possibility of realizing a dream. To teach my profession and share with Eritrean professionals what I know, and see how to sustain and safeguard this beautiful city. Asmara is known as ‘La Piccola Roma’ and the buildings and the overall layout does suggest that. I was born in 1961 and I really don’t know the Italy of 30 years before my birth, but here in Asmara I gain a clue of what my country looked like before I was born. Asmara holds history of many centuries. So, it is definitely a historic city in this sense. However, what I personally loved from the very beginning is the quality of life. It’s the open areas, the beautiful weather, the vegetation on the side of avenues and in parks, it’s the life style and its quality… I was totally impressed by these features. The intangible heritage is charming beyond explanation. Cappuccino, macchiato and lasagna you name it. The parks, the people’s tranquility and modesty, the language… when everything is combined, Asmara and the life style in Asmara is of eminence.
The most important thing is the mindfulness of Eritrean people. They are extremely aware of the historic attribution of their city and their country in general that they safeguard their environment the best way they can. I love and respect that. In fact I want to use this occasion to applaud and express my gratitude to the people of Eritrea. The appeal to UNESCO was made by the people its self . The main reason is because Asmara was mapped and drown by Italian engineers but nevertheless built by Eritreans. Therefore, the people feel extremely close and proud of their city. Asmara became to the Eritrean people part of their own identity and culture. Like I said the idea to build a city came from the outside but on the ground it was the Eritrean people who put bricks and paste to bring up a marvelous modern urban area.
In other former African colonies signs of colonization were soon canceled as they suggest the notion of oppression. Thanks to links I mentioned before Asmara became the hub of different societies –local and foreign cultures formed a cosmopolitan city. This made Asmara distinct from other cities of Africa and the world of 1800s.
- Before we get to the details of your actual project, you’ve also had prior experiences in other parts of Eritrea, mainly focusing on archeological sites of Adulis. Please do tell us something about it.
My friend and colleague, Prof. Serena Massa, recommended me for a pilot program for the restoration of the ancient port of Adulis. What’s interesting about her field and mine is that most of the times the two go hand in hand. So when archeologists reveal ancient cities and towns concealed underground they call for the hand ofrestorator, and that is where we work together in bringing to light ancient establishments.
- What will the restoration look like?
For now it’s the starting phase. We’re exchanging ideas and sharing knowledge. But the plan is to bring Asmara to the knowledge of the international community. The application is not going to be as easy as it might seem because it’s not just one building but 4300 buildings, it is also the thousands of roads, public parks etc… so the concept is not solely about safeguarding but it is more of an urban restoration. It will also be highly linked to the inhabitants of this city. It is difficult to maintain the city in the conditions it’s found now. UNESCO has strongly believed in the preservation of this city, and now that Asmara has become the possession of the international community, the international community has to contribute for its preservation.
On the other side, a big component of the project, will be raising technical awareness amongst the inhabitants of Asmara. They have to learn that every inch of their houses and shops is a document, a monument. If they change the door handle then that’s equivalent to destroying a piece of history. We all will be required to communicate and disseminate that even the smallest heritage is a material evidence of relevance to civilization. People have also to realize that their houses can be a major source of income as people from outside will want to come and see, live and feel historic components of the city.
- What is the workshop about?
The workshop we’re conducting at the moment is instrumental in emphasizing the importance not only of buildings, but also small implements almost nonexistent in other parts of the world. The workshop has multiple purposes: preservation and conservation, sharing technical expertise and tips as well as awareness campaigns.
With my colleague Eng. Teklemariam we have nurtured an idea of establishing pilot fields so that participants of the workshop can practice whatever is shared in the workshop. The participants are from different local ministries and fields of work. We have engineers, archeologists, historians and more. They all come from different parts of Eritrea. The first part was theoretical , a peculiar dive in to concepts of preservation and its procedures. The second part is scheduled for next year, and that part will be more of implementation of multiple case studies and we’ll analyze how to reuse and restore.
- How is the Eritrean government’s stance about this project?
I think it’s warmly welcomed. At the opening seminar several high ranking officials were present. Several participants of the workshop represent ministries and the ground was given to us gladly so I’d say that the government is positive about the impact this workshop will have. After the workshop, which will be extended given the nature of the city’s compositions, many young Eritrean engineers, archeologists and architects will be able to do the rest of the job on their own. Moreover, they will be able to maintain what will be done while conserving other historic sites of Eritrea and not necessarily just Asmara.
- Okay, is there anything you want to say before we end our conversation?
I want to thank the people for contributing a big part of its own history to the humanity. And I want to express the satisfaction I feel to be working in Eritrea with my Eritrean collegues. We will come back in January for the second half of the project and I just can’t wait!