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Keren: Asmara’s Twin City

Eritrea is endowed with a number of tangible and intangible cultural assets.

Many cities in Eritrea have been harboring within them relics and assets that could be traced centuries back. Even though Asmara has been recognized for its historic and beautiful architectural buildings that have been registered in the UNESCO World Heritage List, cities like Massawa, Keren and Akordet are also embellished with building complexes that are prominent for their unique art-deco features. Some of these buildings are religious centers, administrative offices, restaurants, cafes and residential houses.

The Keren City Municipality Building (Comeceriatio Keren), Cinema Empero or Casa degli Fasho, Plaza Riva (Riva Palace), Albergo Vitorio (now Senhit Hotel), Keren Hotel also known as Enda Baskuzi, Casa Degli Majri, Villa Mussa Bekit, “Ferovia”- Keren’s former Railway Station and currently Bus Station, Abi Mesgid (Big Mosque), Beilul Restaurant and Awet Hotel, Shitata (Enda-Molgom), Greek Orthodox Church, Yakot Building, St. Michael Church, St. Hana School, Selam Primary School, St. Anthonios Church, Megarih Temple are among the art-deco buildings of Keren City. These buildings and the history that they have carved within them makes this city a hub of cultural assets that are rare of their type.

Historic relics and artifacts in Keren have their own different stories to tell. Some of the buildings and relics are reminders of a global History. These living tangible remnant heritages of the World War II, reminders of the Turkish and Italian rule in Eritrea are now part and parcel of a global history.

Historic development and modernization of the city dates back to the Turkish and Italian colonization in Eritrea. Plenty of relics and artifacts of different eras are still available in Keren. A place known as “Forto”, for instance has a history to tell to visitors. A fierce battle between the Italian and British colonizers during World War II was held in that particular area. So, Keren was a center of attraction for various colonial powers for its strategic location for military operation and, of course, for its favorable climate.

“Tinqulhas” – a terrain with hairpin twist roads that lead to Keren from the vast western plains of Eritrea, for instance, was the last stronghold for the Italian colonizers, which saw to the victory of the British over the Italians only two years after the start of World War II. Cemeteries of Italian soldiers and that of the Common Wealth soldiers are still some of the glorious examples of the bloody battle.

Even though there existed various historical buildings and relics before the inception of colonization in Eritrea, Keren, like many other major Eritrean cities, was built as a modern city during the Italian colonial period. A number of historic buildings similar to that of the buildings in Asmara and Massawa were built in 1902 and thereafter. Most of the buildings are still in a good shape despite their age. What is fascinating about the art-deco buildings in Keren is their resemblance to some wonderful buildings in Morocco.

Keren is not only known for its art-deco buildings. Some remnants of its glorious past include a railway line that pierces through the mountainous escarpments from Keren to the Gash-Barka region. This railway line is known for its amazing engineering spectacle which has gained the attention of many locomotive enthusiasts and other visiting tourists.

The Culture and Sports Department in Keren city has recently started to carry out extensive exploration and research activities to document all art-deco buildings of the city along with various relics and cultural assets.
According to Mr. Siraj Haji, Head of Culture and Sports Department in the Anseba Region, a wide range of exploration and research activities have been carried out to document the historic buildings, relics and other important heritages of the city some of which need urgent preservation and due care.

“Documenting the current status of the buildings and other heritages of historic importance is the primary objective of the documentation of such assets”, Mr. Siraj said.

So far a wide collection of still and motion pictures have been accumulated. What the documents show is that many of the historic buildings have been deteriorated particularly during the per-independence period. Some of the buildings have also been refurbished by the owners without professional supervision.

Hence, Mr. Siraj said, “What we are trying to accomplish through this research and documentation is familiarizing these beautiful buildings at international conventions and thereby to work hard to put the city at the UNESCO World Heritage List.

The office of culture and sports in the Anseba region has so far forged good partnership with the office of cultural heritage in Asmara. “We have consulted the office of cultural heritage in Asmara to share their experience with us and they responded with enthusiasm. They have always been ready to assist our office with all the capacity they have”, Mr. Sraj Said.

For its priceless heritages, Keren is no more Eritrea’s asset only, but it now has a global importance. That is why the Department of Culture and Sports in the Anseba Region has been working to promote and make such assets known to everybody. Efforts have been underway to preserve the art-deco buildings and other historic assets in their original state.

The battle fought between the Italians and the British in 1941, which came to an end in “Tinkulehas”, was a part of World War II and is now part of Keren’s history. Just at a simple glance one could understand a lot about Keren and wonder about its numerous cultural and historic assets.

Anthropologists and Archeologists have been participating in the extensive exploration and documentation of Keren’s multifaceted assets. They are working hard to collect the remnants of war and other relics of historic importance that could be dated back to ancient times.

Mr. Siraj finally said that their office is making preparations and finalizing a documentary film that depicts an overall history of Keren over the past 100 years. “The people of Keren have been fully collaborating and playing decisive role with all capabilities in the efforts we are making to register Keren in the UNESCO world heritage list,” Mr. Sraj noted.

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