Asmara Golden History, Grapples with Modern Struggles Featured

Home to just over half a million people, Asmara has been the capital city of Eritrea since the early 19th century. Although its evolution dates back centuries, many parts of the city were built during the Italian colonial period. Referred to as ‘Little Rome’, its impressive architecture and well designed buildings make Asmara distinct from other cities in the horn of Africa. However, not everything in the city has stood the test of time. From the decaying and severely damaged heritages to poor economic conditions and tough business environment, Asmara is currently struggling to maintain the artefacts of its golden era. EBR’s Samson Berhane visited the city to discover what makes it exceptional: both in a good and bad ways.

Semhar Amare, in her mid-20s, spends her free afternoons sitting at the gate of the Catholic Cathedral in Asmara, one of the city’s most distinctive landmarks. With its 52 meter high tall Gothic bell tower that is visible from everywhere in the city, the Cathedral is Semhar’s favourite place. “Although it is hard to explain, I feel so relaxed when I sit here and watch the people wander around.” 

She is not alone. The Cathedral has been the favorite place to hang out in Asmara for young people, older people and tourists for decades. The church, which was originally planned as the center for Roman Catholicism in eastern Africa, is thought by many to embody the unique features of Asmara and its citizens. “It is a place where you can understand the distinctiveness of the city,” says an Ethiopian tour operator on a seven day trip to Eritrea. 

But this is just one of hundreds of heritage sites and artefacts found in the city. Asmara, the capital of city of Eritrea, is like no other city in Africa, although by the 19th century it was only a shell of its ancient self. Its reconstruction as the leading city in the Italian-occupied East Africa region was carried out by European architects, the majority of whom were from Italy. It was also a landmark for Eritrea’s modernization. Of course, wonderful art, hundred years of culture and traditions as well as treasured historic sites are amongst distinguished features of Asmara.  

Its territory is surrounded by cities like Keren, Massawa, Barentu and Senafe, while Muslims and Christians from nine ethnic groups make up its population. Thought to have been founded in 982BC, Asmara is very old compared to other urban settlements in the region, such as Addis Ababa and Nairobi, the most developed cities in the Horn. Asmara started as four separate villages, and is now home to over 600,000 people.

Former Italian colony, Asmara, was also called ‘“Piccola Roma” or “Little Rome’ by Benito Mussolini, who was eager to restore the golden ages of the Roman Empire. This name is still used by a few Eritreans. In fact, it would not be an exaggeration to say that visiting the architecture and world-renowned ruins in Asmara is like taking a step back in time to colonial Eritrea, where century-old buildings and sculptures were a common sighting. 

The buildings of the city reflect a bygone era in Eritrean history. While most of it was built by Italian architect Giuseppe Pettazi, it was constructed when Europe was on the brink of the Second World War and Italy was preparing to conquer much of Eastern Africa. Despite its fascist regime, Italy undertook a large scale construction program, building residential and commercial buildings, churches, mosques, synagogues, cinemas and hotels, and had a big role in the making of the present day of Asmara. 

After replacing Massawa as Eritrea’s capital in the early 19th century, Asmara stood out as the ideal model of a well-planned modern city, featuring impressive architecture, beautiful villas and graceful mansions, pedestrian pavements, among others, an endorsement acknowledge by the UNESCO. Of course, keeping the marble facades and Roman-style pillars of the city’s heritages has been hindered by a shortage of money and local expertise. 

Mengestab Solomon, a mechanic, has witnessed the crumbling of the aged buildings and other relics of the Italian colonial legacy in Eritrea. “All of our heritages are decaying so fast and are at a risk of being severely damaged,” he says. “Unless prompt action is taken, Asmara, which once was an exemplary city in Africa, will be a shadow of itself.”

Many of the buildings, which are 40 or 50 years old, are severely damaged and in dire need of maintenance and conservation. Their walls are weak and cracked, while their roofs have rusted and the building joineries are breaking apart. “Despite their historical importance, the buildings are utterly neglected. This is mainly due to the stringent policies of the government, which prevent any construction project. The city has not been lucky enough to get much needed care and overhaul,” explains Mengestab.

The Aba Shawl district, which was part of the indigenous zone in the early 1900s during the Italian occupation, is one of the parts of the city on the brink of collapse. An overcrowded, struggling shanty town without proper sanitary services, the people in the area have low access to tap water, private toilets or sewerage facilities. This, coupled with frequent and prolonged power outages, has compounded the situation for the residents.

Such poor economic conditions are not specific to Aba Shawl. Like other parts of Eritrea, most parts of Asmara also suffer from the economic uncertainty of the past two decades. Although they have better living conditions compared to other Eritrean cities, a considerable number of households in Eritrea still live in poverty, although there is no shortage of food, contrary to popular belief. 

The shuq district, which is not far from the Cathedral, is one of the city’s big market areas, with shops selling fruits, vegetable, spices, chickens and eggs as well as non-food items such as souvenirs and household utensils.

A few hundred meters away from the shuq district lies Medeber, another marketplace with an open-air workshop where items are used and recycled in inventive ways. Although business activities usually peak at both markets on Saturdays, traders claim that they are suffering from ‘ill-advised’ governmental policies. “The people have no cash on hand because we are obliged to deposit much of our daily sales. Failing to do so means our business is closed for months,” explained one of the vendors

It is not unusual to observe closed supermarkets or shops, in Asmara or other parts of Eritrea. In fact, the government shut down over 450 private business in Eritrea three years ago, the majority of which were in Asmara, after being suspected of hoarding and failing to do business through the formal banking system. Unfortunately, this isn’t an isolated incident, as a look at Asmara’s market centers reveals. 

Present day Asmara, which used to be a vibrant city before the separation of Eritrea from Ethiopia in April 1993, is also like a trip to life during the pre-internet era. Although the smart-phone penetration rate grew drastically over the past five years, internet connections are still slow. Mobile data internet is unheard of and individuals are not allowed to have internet for home use. This has isolated the country from the rest of the world where the economic and social benefits of the internet have reached new heights. 

Although internet cafés are available in many places, it requires zen-like patience to get a connection. As a matter of fact, having to spend over an hour to post one thing on Facebook is common. “The government does not want us being connected with the rest of the world. If we are, we might protest and its hope of ruling the nation forever would be impossible,” said a taxi driver who spoke to EBR on condition of anonymity. 

The telecom sector is not the only one that left unexploited and underdeveloped. In spite of its potential, the city has not benefited from the tourism sector. Travel advisories issued by several countries, such as the US, which discourages tourists, coupled with the government’s skeptical attitude towards foreigners, has played a big role in the underperformance of the tourism sector. However, it started to show improvement following the registration of the city by UNSECO last year. What’s more, tourist flows are increasing after flights resumed between Ethiopian and Eritrea three months ago. 

While measures have recently been taken, like normalization of relations with several countries, the underdevelopment of the tourism infrastructure still remains a hindrance. Facilities and services that are necessary for tourist reception are underdeveloped, even compared with other cities, like Addis Ababa, which has fewer tourist attraction sites.

Kibrom Tesfaye, a tour operator who went to Eritrea for business, is one of the people who have learnt that. “Besides the expensive cost of a hotel room, [which is between 45 dollars and 110 dollars in starred hotels], there are only a few rooms available. Plus, people rarely book, for several reasons. Private tour operators are also systematically run out of business,” Kibrom explains.

Nonetheless, even with the uncertainties, there are renewed hopes for the people in Asmara, whose lives are linked with the city.  It does not seem as if there is something lost from the areas they enjoy. “We are people that have gone through a lot of challenges. There is nothing that can keep us from walking across the streets of our beautiful city,” Mengestab concludes.

6th Year . Sep 16  - Oct 15 2018 . No.66



Samson Berhane


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