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Asmara: Africa’s ‘Little Rome’

At the rarified height of more than 7,625 feet above sea level, one can find a sort of Italian “Shangri La.” To travel by car, train or even airplane requires rising through the clouds and arriving atop a high plain.

There, in a city bathed in perpetual spring and largely free of tourists, you can experience authentic, old-world Italy replete with flowing fountains, whistling espresso machines, picturesque piazze and luscious lasagna. Broad, palm-lined boulevards are dotted with quaint sidewalk cafes and teem with elegantly attired inhabitants who doff their Borsellino hats at passing ladies. And its abundance of amazing art deco-style architecture has earned it a place as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

But this isn’t Italy, it is Asmara — capital city of the former Italian colony of Eritrea on the horn of East Africa. In the span of half a century, the Italians built a city of such style and gracefulness that by the 1930s had earned the nickname of Piccola Roma or “Little Rome.” Today it is widely considered the safest and most beautiful city on the continent.

But the Italians were determined to make the best of this largely inhospitable land bordering the Red Sea, and eventually they succeeded. The port city of Massawa was established as the colony’s first capital. Built largely by the Ottoman Turks, Massawa had the exotic look and feel of a Middle Eastern sultanate, but the Italians soon realized that it was one of the hottest places on earth. If Eritrea were to absorb a portion of Italy’s excess population, as the Italian government had hoped, they would have to push inland and establish a more suitable capital. They found it only by climbing more than a mile high to a high, temperate plain, where they began building Asmara on the site of an indigenous village.

To transport everything needed to build a suitable capital, they had to create a railway linking Massawa and Asmara. This true marvel of engineering snaked up the mountains, making hairpin turns on narrow gauge track. The endeavor required the construction of 65 bridges and 39 tunnels, the longest of which is 1,050 feet. Begun in 1887, the railway finally reached Asmara in 1911. During Asmara’s Golden Age in the 1930s, the Italians built a cableway between Massawa and Asmara that was the longest in the world, running almost 45 miles.

Once ensconced in Asmara, the Italians went about building a quintessentially Italian city. One of the first major buildings was the Asmara Theater and Opera House, which opened in 1918. This elegantly appointed structure, capable of accommodating 750 guests on three levels, would feel equally at home in Milan or Naples. The next major structure to be erected was the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Rosary. Done in the Lombard Style, it was consecrated in 1923.

Asmara experienced its greatest period of growth in the 1930s, when Mussolini planned to use it as a springboard for the creation of an East African empire. In the five years between the invasion of Ethiopia in 1935 and the start of World War II, Asmara was transformed from a pleasant, little town of 4,500 Italians to a metropolis of more than 100,000. Italian architects were dispatched from home to create a model city that represented Mussolini’s ambition to es-tablish a second Roman empire. Freed from the stylistic constraints of the motherland, they used Asmara as a blank canvas to experiment with a host of futuristic designs. The most mundane of structures took on fanciful forms, such as the iconic Fiat Tagliero petrol station, designed to look like an airplane, or the Zillii Bar, made to resemble a ship. But the prevalent style was modernist, establishing Asmara as one of the art deco capitals of the world. The Italian architects built scores of noteworthy residential and commercial structures and had them painted in the pastel colors of spumoni. They also built more than 2,000 factories, making Er-itrea the most industrialized country in Africa on the eve of World War II. By 1939, Asmara had more traffic lights than did Rome.

World War II marked the onset of half a century of difficulty for Asmara and Eritrea in general. Cut off from the supply lines of Italy, Italians were compelled to capitulate. When the British arrived in 1941, they marveled at the city’s beauty and its many unexpected amenities. But that didn’t stop them from systematically taking anything of value as war booty. Before long, gone were the factories and cableway, transported lock, stock and barrel to British Pakistan.

By the end of the war, Asmara was a city depleted but not defeated. Cut off from Italy, the Asmarini began producing everything they needed locally, from matchsticks to glassware.

After 10 years of British military rule in Asmara, Eritrea was federated with Ethiopia. But the federation with Ethiopia did not go down well with the Eritreans who had, by that time, developed their own identity, based largely on their experience as an Italian colony. Despite the hardships and deprivations that the Eritrean native population endured during the Fascist period, they had become largely Italianized. They dressed like Italians, ate like Italians, played soccer and went cycling like Italians and they spoke Italian. In addition to their cultural differences, Eritreans resented that the Ethiopians treated them as a new colonial occupier that soon dissolved the federation into an outright annexation. By 1961, armed rebellion had broken out between tiny Eritrea and Ethiopia, its much larger neighbor. The conflict went on for the next 30 years. It took a terrible toll on the population of Eritrea, but it had the one residual benefit of stopping any re-development of Asmara’s historic center and freezing it in time. All of Eritrea’s meager resources went toward the war effort.

During this period, most of the remaining Italians returned to Italy, leaving only a few hundred of the most committed.

Against all odds, Eritrea prevailed in its struggle with Ethiopia and gained full independence in 1991. From that time, border wars with Ethiopia have flared periodically, and the country’s focus remained on defense. In the current climate, it won’t be long before the city’s immense appeal to Italophiles and architecture buffs becomes widely known and appreciated. Until then, however, Asmara is largely tourist-free. I had the good fortune of going to Asmara a few years ago with two dear friends, one an Italian Asmarino who grew up in the city before immigrating to the U.S.

We flew in by private jet, and once in the airport we quickly learned that the connection to Italy is still so strong that any Caucasian in Eritrea is considered by Eritrean children to be a “Tal-yan,” a local corruption of “Italiano.” The older Eritreans, who were schooled in Italian, were keen to wish us a Buongiorno as we passed.

On the way from the airport to the city center, we turned down Asmara’s main boulevard, which reveals the entire history of the country in the various names it has borne during its life span. It began as Viale Mussolini, then Corso Italia, followed by Emperor Haile Selassie Avenue and now Independence Avenue. Call it what you will, it is an inherently Italian street, with many buildings bearing Italian names. When the Eritreans achieved their independence, they were determined to return the Italian-era names to several of the prominent buildings, including vintage movie houses like Cinema Roma, Cinema Dante and the evocatively named Cinema Impero, a true art deco masterpiece.

The same holds true for our hotel, the Albergo Italia, which dates from 1899. It spent several decades as the hotel Keren before reverting to its original name. Oh, how I loved this hotel! The 18 rooms and suites are appointed with beautiful antique furnishings imported from Italy and retain their original ornate plasterwork in the form of various fruit, flowers, fish, figurines and faces. But the dining room is the real star. It’s another gorgeous art deco masterpiece where you can enjoy al dente pasta and succulent scaloppini served in grand, old-can even forgive its occasional periods with no hot water — or indeed no water at all — for all its faded colonial splendor. You can almost picture Sam from “Casablanca” hanging out in the lovely hotel lounge where Asmara’s few foreigners take their evening aperitif, mixing with well-heeled Asmarini. Stepping out of the hotel was like stepping back in time. Out of curiosity, I walked across the street to the Farmacia Centrale (the central pharmacy) and was transported back at least a century, with all drugs neatly displayed in the same carved wooden cabinets and drawers with which it opened.

All the principle buildings are in some state of disrepair, with collapsing plaster and fading paint, but their beauty still shone through. In contrast to Italy, the buildings were free of graffiti and the city was free of the overflowing trash that blights many Italian locales. There is spirit among the locals to preserve what the Italians provided to the full extent that their means allowed.

In wandering, we stumbled upon the Casa degli Italiani (the house of the Italians), a complex with a lovely courtyard restaurant that serves as the gathering place for the dwindling number of Italians who still call Asmara home.

Like the dining room of the Albergo Italia, it proves to be another venue at which you can order an authentic Italian meal as if you were in Bologna. I mention authenticity because while pasta is available in nearly every Eritrean restaurant, I soon learned that some of them bend to local tastes. It is not uncommon to find a little Eritrean Berbere red pepper spice mix tossed into the pasta sauces, which turn them all into convoluted arrabiata sauces.

Of course, if you really want to absorb a location’s history, you need to visit the local cemetery and Asmara is surely one of the most beautiful in all of Africa. On a hilltop bursting forth with bougainvillea, you’ll find elaborate tombstones and crypts that speak to the one-time wealth of Asmara’s Italian community. Buried there are many who lived in Asmara’s lovely villa quarter, with its palms, flowers and manicured lawns, which today serve largely as embassies and ministries. On the opposite end of the spectrum from the tranquility of the villa district is Asmara’s central market, which was built by the Italians in stages between the late 1930s and the early 1950s. Here, the inhabitants of Eritrea’s nine principal ethnic groups mix peacefully with each other while buying an incredibly wide range of culinary items and dry goods. Eritrea is almost evenly split between Muslims and Christians, but religion doesn’t dominate and an uncommon religious harmony reigns throughout the country.

(This issue was written by Robert Allegrini Principal at Golden Wings Communications)

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