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Asmara – The Modernist City Hang In The Clouds

The famous Fiat Tagliero in Asmara

The famous Fiat Tagliero Building


With a perfect climate, remarkable architecture, spotless and safe streets, Asmara ranks among the most pleasant and remarkable capitals on the African continent and in the world. Perched on the eastern edge of the highland plateau, some 2356m above sea level which has an air of being a city above the clouds, Asmara is the largest city in Eritrea with a population of some 420,000.

Asmara stands alone as the only capital, other than Cairo, that is founded on the ruins of culture that gave birth to contemporary life; as such it resembles other capitals that boast great antiquity, such as Rome or Athens. It traces back its origin to 800BC with a population ranging from 100 to 1000 people.

Encouraged by the plentiful supplies of water, the city was later settled in the 12th century by shepherds from Akele Guzay. They founded four villages on the hills for which the site became to be known as Arbate Asmera (Four Villages), from which the name Asmara- literally meaning ‘the forest of flowers ‘ derived. The little village then became a staging post for travelers making the long and arduous journey between the sea and the mountains. Soon it has developed into a small but bustling center. By 1884, the town was home to some 2000 inhabitants and 300 houses, established on the hills where the city’s water reservoirs now stand.

The town then caught the eye of the Italian general Baldissera and, in 1889, he took it over. Italian architects and engineers got to work and had soon laid the foundations of the new town- Piccola Roma (little Rome), as it was dubbed, was born. It was not just beautiful, but was well planned, well built and, above all, functional and of great aesthetic appeal. In 1897, the first civil governor of Eritrea, Governor Martini, chose Asmara (in preference to Massawa) as the future capital of the Italian East African Empire. Filled with jacaranda and bougainvillea, the city has an almost Mediterranean atmosphere.

Many of the great architectural schools of the period are represented throughout the city: Italian Rationalism, Italian Futurism and Novecento; Streamline Moderne, Bauhaus, Expressionism, Functionalism and Cubism. The old Palazzo Mutton on the Liberation Avenue, now the Wikianos Supermarket, resembled a scaled-down version of the famous Novocomun in Como by Guiseppe Terragni, one of the founding members of Italy’s Gruppo 7 ( the Rationalist movement).

Asmara, the capital of Eritrea, has escaped the ugly, dehumanizing growth that has been inflicted on most other capital cities though out the world in the past 50 years. Isolated for so long, Asmara already has what other cities are trying to recreate. It is probably the only open-minded capital- vibrant and multicultural, harmonious and hospitable, a place of greetings and generosity- in the world. Shops stay open late, bars, cafes and restaurants are full, giant cinemas attract the crowds. Families gather, friends meet, women walk unmolested, children are safe, the visitor can linger and feel at home. These are things of the past in almost all other cities today.

The Roman Catholic Cathedral

The Roman Catholic Cathedral

The Roman Catholic Cathedral (The Church of Our Lady of the Rosary) stands about half way along Liberty Avenue, was built in 1923 by the architect Scanavini to a classical Italian design. It is thought to be one of the finest Lombard-Romanesque-style churches outside Italy. The Altar is made of Carrara marble and the baptistery, confessionals and pulpit are carved from Italian Walnut. The painting of Saint Mary by Carlo Maratta di Camerano (1625-1713) was presented by Vittorio Emanuel III, king of Italy. According to the plaque inside the cathedral, Mussolini himself was a patron of its construction. It has a large tower; 25m high, with 8 bells which were placed there in 1925, weighing 100kgs each at the top. The bells, as well as the angel atop the cupola, are said to be made from melted-down metal of Austrian field guns captured at the Battle of Carso. Its prominent bell tower and school buildings were built in the Florentine style and patterned after an Italian Cloister. Much of the church’s interior is made by hand, decorated with large pictures and paintings of angels as well as 14 Stations of the Cross.

Enda Mariam (St Mary Orthodox Church)

Enda Mariam (St Mary Orthodox Church)

St. Mary’s Coptic Cathedral (Enda Mariam Orthodox Cathedral), which stands one street ahead in a more easterly position, was built in 1938 and is a curious blend of Italian and Eritrean Architecture. Its central block is flanked by large square towers. Its twin towers topped with tukuls, could be a new version of Piacentini`s Chiesa di Cristo Re in Rome. Rather garish mosaics of stylised Christian figures are framed vertically above the entrance. Inside the church are a large number of paintings of angels as well as a large painting of St Mary. The four objects that look like broken elephant tusks suspended in the middle of the compound are century-old bells. These make a surprisingly musical sound when rung (beaten with a stick). There are various kinds of church artifacts, including crosses and ancient biblical manuscripts housed in this century-old building.

Al Khulafa al Rashedin (Followers of the Right Path) lies not far from Liberation Avenue near the fish market, on the Victory Street, is one of Eritrea’s most sacred Islamic shrines that was completed in 1938 by Guido Ferrazza- the grand complex that combines Rationalist, Classical and Islamic styles. The symmetry of the mosque is enhanced by the minaret, which rises at one side like a fluted Roman column above Islamic domes and arches. The mihrab (niche indicating the direction of Mecca) inside consists of mosaics and columns made from Carrara marble.

St George Greek Orthodox Church, established by the Hellenic Community, is a haven of tranquility in the area on the western side of the grain market. It is a pretty church, with an elaborate interior full of paintings, ornate decorations and an interesting ceiling. With its frescoes, carved wood and candles, it could almost be in Greece.

At the western end of Liberation Avenue is the old Governor’s Palace, which was built in 1897 by Ferdinando Martini – the first Italian civil governor of Eritrea. With its pediment supported by Corinthian columns and its spacious, elegant interior, it is thought to be one of the finest Neoclassical buildings in Africa.

Cinema Asmara, the previously famous Opera House

Cinema Asmara, the previously famous Opera House

Heading east down Liberation Avenue, sits the old Opera House (Cinema Asmara) – one of Asmara`s most elegant early 20th century buildings. Designed by Cavagnari and completed around 1920, this eclectic building combines a Renaissance scallop-shell fountain, a Romanesque portico supported by Classical columns and inside, above multi-tiered balconies, a spectacular Art Nouveau ceiling painted by Saviero Fresa.

Next door is the Ministry of Education. Built during 1930s as the Casa del Fascio (the Fascist Party headquarters), it mixes the Classical with the monumental and fascist. Its massive stepped tower has strong vertical elements, including three gunslit windows. The steps, string courses and mouldings give the building harmony.

Heading east down Liberation Avenue for 100m or so, sits Cinema Impero and Bar Impero, part of a grand Rationalist terrace built in 1938. The imposing Cinema is made up of three massive windows which combine strong vertical and horizontal elements with 45 porthole lamps. In the lobby, all the marble, chrome and glass features are original. The cavernous auditorium seats 1800 people and is decorated with motifs such as lions, nyalas and palm trees depicted in Art Deco style. The Bar Impero, where cinemagoers traditionally enjoyed an aperitif before the film, is also original.

Asmara’s synagogue was built about 1905. Its pediment, Doric columns and pilasters make it very neoclassical. As is usual in Asmara, the wrought-iron gates are handcrafted.

Opposite Wikianos Supermarket is the Municipality Building. Though built in 1950s, it is firmly Rationalist. The two geographic wings are stripped Palladian style, and are dominated by soaring central tower. The windows are beautifully detailed. The Mai Jhah Jhah fountain is one of the most elegant pieces of architecture in Asmara. This cascades down the hillside in a serious of rectangular steps. Above the fountain is the attractive suburb of Gezzabanda, which is full of impressive villas, and Beverly Hills cafe with its jet engine espresso machine.

Just opposite City Park and just off Liberation Avenue, is Cinema Odeon with its authentic Art Deco interior. The box office, bar, beveled mirrors, black terrazzo and Deco Strip lights are a good introduction to the large auditorium. Opposite to the cinema is the Bristol Hotel. Built in 1941, the hotel, with its central stairwell tower surmounting geometric wings, is an example of classic Rationalist design. The strip-course separates the top-floor windows from the well-proportioned and well-made shutters, and the plain concrete balconies below.

The Capitol Cinema, on Revolution Ave, north of the Governor’s Palace, was built in 1937, and its massive horizontal elements and sweeping curves are typical of the Expressionist movement. According to Professor Sandro Raffone, of Naples, the streamlined Cinema Capitol is strongly influenced by Mendelsohn, the German Expressionist who designed the revolutionary Einstein Tower in Potsdam, Germany.

Built in the 1930s, the Selam Hotel was one of a chain constructed by the Italian company Compagnia Immobiliare Alberghi Africa Orientale (CIAAO). Interesting interior details include the Arts and Crafts serving cabinets and the disc type lamps in the dining room, the old murals and the purple beehive lamps in the rear courtyard.

The National Museum is located next to Salem Hotel. It includes exhibits on the ethnic groups of Eritrea – national dresses of different nationalities, paintings of the nine ethnic groups, cooking pots, wooden pillows etc, the main archeological sites of the country and the struggle for independence.

The facade of the extraordinary Bar Zili, at the junction of Knowledge St and Martyrs` Ave, looks like a 1930s radio. The porthole windows and nautical balconies are separated into sections by mock-marble columns.

Perhaps the best-known building in Asmara is the Fiat Tagliero building. This futuristic aeroplano (aeroplane), in the southwest of the city, was built in 1938 by engineer Pettazzi. The central tower with its glass cockpit is similar to many structures in Miami, USA. The story goes that after the concrete has been poured, Pettazzi`s workers refused to remove the shuttering supports of the cantilevered wings for fear that the whole thing would collapse. Standing on one of the wings, with a revolver against his head, the engineer vowed he would shoot himself if his masterpiece didn’t hold together.

To the west of the city, above the Orota Referral Hospital, the Italian Forto Baldissera (home to the Ministry of Information) sits on raised ground and has good views over the city. Next to it is St Michael Church and further to the west is Kagnew Station, built as an American military base and easily identified by the piles of military detritus behind it (generally known as the tank cemetery). The incredible Italian Cemeter is also beside St Michael’s church and well worth a visit for those interested in sculpture or Art Deco. Other cemeteries include The British Cemetery, located on the Asmara Massawa road, 2km from the center dating from 1941. Interred here are 280 men killed during the African campaign. There is also a Hindu burial ground for the Indian soldiers fighting alongside the British.

The Shuq (Market) is one of Asmara`s major attractions and an essential part of any walking tour in Asmara. The largest market is in Eritrean Square and sells vast array of beans, pulses, grains, fruits and vegetables. The mini-mills around the outside of the market are worth taking a look at as the workers separate, sieve and prepare the various grains to make flour, with remarkable efficiency. The souvenir market (Edaga Lakha), the market behind the central mosque, is a great place to browse too, and is more interesting than the shops in town. One can find among other things, wicker basket, wooden masks, mats, pottery items, musical instruments, decorated gourds and skin paintings. Another market worth going for the sake of browsing is Medeber market (from the Tigrinya word for ‘together’) in the northeast corner of the town, is like an open-air workshop where absolutely everything is recycled. The air is filled with hammering, sawing and cutting; old tires are made into sandals, corrugated iron is flattened and made into metal baskets, and olive tins into coffee pots and tiny scoopers. It is a salutary lesson in waste and resource management.

The recently resurrected railway, which was begun 110 years ago and which climbs from sea level to 2400m in just 117km, is definitely worth a visit. The steam engines have been completely stripped down to their bare parts, cleaned and rebuilt by the veterans who had worked on the line during the Italian period. The service is running again from Asmara down to Massawa. For railway enthusiasts, looking for a new adventure, the railway promises to provide one of the world’s most spectacular and unusual journeys.