Hedonistic, seductive, civilized, unexpected, Asmera has charm in spades. By some kind of miracle, it has been spared the litter-strewn, sprawling ghettos of many developing-world cities and the bleak high-rise office buildings of postcolonial Africa.
Instead, tree-lined avenues, peaceful neighborhoods, pavement cafes with vintage Italian coffee machines and tantalizing pastry shops depict this city from another era. Bathed in glorious sunshine almost nine months of the year, it boasts a balmy and temperate climate that rejuvenates the soul and body. Its relaxed pace of life is infectious. In many ways, tourists will feel like they’ve been teleported to a southern Italian town. And there’s the fabulous architecture that even we can’t help but be enthralled by its portfolio of unheralded architectural wonders from the Italian era. Where else could you find such a mix of rationalist, Art Deco, cubist, expressionist, futurist and neoclassical styles in other than the one and only Asmera? An iconic city waiting to be acknowledged for its marvelous existence.
Like most colonial Cities, Asmera was built under strict urban plan. This makes it clearly laid out and breeze to navigate through. What establishes Asmera as a suitable tourist destination is that its splendid examples of architectural figures are clustered within the center or within easy distance from it. Another thing worth mentioning about Asmera is its people, the so called “Azmarinos”. Decent, classy gents and ladies who got to see firsthand how much hard work Asmera demanded pass on the legend of the city down the generations. Asmera is graced with unhurried pace of life and pervading safety at the pleasure of its residents. Italians had a remarkable impact on Asmera, Eritrea at large and much of their culture still prevails today. They still enjoy their daily macchiato with old friends in one of the city’s many cafes, followed by a passeggiata – a stroll up and down Harnet Avenue which seems to be adapted by the younger generation. This tradition started when the Italians arrived and has been upheld ever since.
I was born and raised in this enchanted landmark whose name emerged from the merger of four villages located on a plateau at an altitude of well over two kilometers, high above the clouds. But, this realm was for the purpose of prosperity and common protection against raids from neighboring enemies. Encouraged by the plentiful supplies of water, this site known as “Arbate Asmera” (Four Villages in unity) developed into a small but bustling trading center. At the end of the 19th century, Ras Alula, Warden of the North for the Ethiopian Emperor Yohannes IV made it his capital and the center of a flourishing caravan trade.
The town then caught the eye of Baldissera, the Italian general, and in 1889 he took it over. Italian architects and engineers got to work and had soon laid the foundations of the new town and Piccolo Roma, as it was dubbed, was born. In 1900, the first civilian governor of Eritrea, Governor Ferdinando Martini, chose Asmera (in preference to Massawa) as the future capital of the Italian East African Empire. He commissioned the building of the Governor’s Palace (State Palace) that was completed in 1905. Designed in Moorish style in the first place, Martini ordered the palace be done in Neo-classical one, making it the finest example of the style in Asmera.
Especially during Mussolini era Asmera was flooded with young and devoted Italian architects who saw it as a blank canvas to experiment with building forms and structures. Owing to Asmera’s relative obscurity and distance from Europe, the architects and engineers who came to practice here could escape the constraints imposed on their activities in the more conservative European environment, making it an even more exceptional city. All those mixed architectural designs now on display on this exquisite city are credited to those young architects whose affection ranged from Art Deco to futurist styles. With its soaring concrete wings and Art Deco lettering, the Fiat Tagliero Service Station, designed by Giuseppe Pettazzi in 1938 and inspired by airplane is the best example of futurist style in the city.
Expressionism also emerged in the form of Cinema Augustus (Capitol) built for the Campagnia Immobiliare Alberghi Africa Orientale or C.I.A.A.O. (Italian hotel company in East Africa) in 1938 and rationalism in the Ministry of Education Headquarters (1928, extended 1940) which is defined by the asymmetrical façade, in which the tower, instead of being central, is located in the corner. But this beauty was made a reality with heart-felt and untold manual labor of our ancestors.
The undeclared purpose for this rapid drive in Mussolini’s era was to establish a magnificent urban center in the new Italian colony and to create a home away from home for the thousands of Italians expected to migrate here. But the orchestration of many architectural projects, ranging from Fascist Party Headquarters currently housing the Ministry of Education to residential villas, provided the fabric that would confirm Asmera’s status as the capital of the independent Eritrea half a century later. Although incredibly cruel to its people, Asmera’s history of war and violence has been surprisingly kind to its architecture. Its elegance was so dazing that proceeding colonizers did the best thing for Asmera which was at their disposal, leaving it alone. This was not only fortuitous but also bizarrely ironic since the destructive forces of war, so often the ravager of cities and political instability, protected Asmera from subsequent ill-planned urban development, leaving it almost exactly as its creators intended, intact with integrity.
Here I am, a native of Asmera, looking back on the years I lived on and continue to do so in this urban idyll at times known as “Secondo Roma”. Living in Asmera can be regarded as having exclusive access to famous museums where you are supposedly not allowed to touch the antiques there, but you get to feel them at the very time breath in their unique scent.
Think of it as watching Mona Liza every time she changes robes in accordance with the season. Your coup d’oeil on a certain building in Asmera provides you with a facet that wasn’t there last time you glanced through. You can wander around again and again and still discover new things, such as a previously overlooked building or an interesting design detail. My hobby to understand Asmera through its edifices goes back to my teen years when I started wondering about the lion-shaped brackets below the balcony of a building whose façade comprises a curious mix of styles located in Piazza Michele Bianchi, commonly known as Piasa Mikiele. I remember thinking if those lion statues were supposed to scare burglars away. Residing in Asmera can easily give you a crush course on classic architectural styles, that’s if you’re interested. Even now the only thing I know for sure is that there’s more to know to where Asmera came from. This can be clear as day can be to some self-anointed “Azmarino” when you get to read just a few pages of Martini’s diary. There you get to see how they thrived to build a home from nowhere and tried to satisfy every farfetched scheme on their Piccolo Roma. Marvel it is how all these buildings have managed to step viably to the 21st century without a complete restoration, if not a mystery. At present Asmera is a challenge. How can it remain itself and not become static in time? Asmera can’t keep on being the museum of a ‘perfect city’. Asmera is a living city, lively and throbbing. Bearing that in mind, Asmera must be spared the treatment of owners that have no worthily idea of where they are residing. As the evolution of Asmera continues, the successful design of its early urban development should be the foundation for progress rather than an impediment to it.