Asmara is now a UNESCO World Heritage site. The award could reduce its isolation and set the record straight about the conflict with Ethiopia.
By Guido Talarico for eastwest.eu
The roots of education are bitter, but the fruit is sweet”. Aristotle’s words aptly identify the significance of a recent recognition that could revive the pride and dignity of Eritrea, a country blighted by both old and new colonialism. The recognition in question is UNESCO’s designation of Asmara as a city included among the world’s heritage sites.
The UN Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization has deemed the Eritrean capital “an exceptional example of early Modernist urbanism at the beginning of the 20th Century and its application in an African context”. The cultural roots are bitter because the beauty recognized and celebrated by UNESCO today is the result of two waves of Italian colonisation. The first in the 1880s, followed by a second bout during the period of Fascist dictatorship.
This series of invasions, oppression and racial segregation also led to architectural and cultural construction efforts, especially after 1935, when Asmara became an architectural hub unparalleled elsewhere in Africa. Mussolini called on his best architects to exploit Asmara as a place where they could experiment, with the aim of transforming it into an imperial capital representative of Italian Modernism.
The result was truly astounding. The planning and construction of public buildings, shops and homes, churches and mosques and recreational spaces was carried out using the style and language of a revised form of rationalism, with greater freedom compared to the Roman examples and a greater inclination to adopt a locally inspired palette. Innovations in design and aesthetics were matched by equally advanced techniques in both construction and the employment of materials. The result of these endeavours is quite remarkable.
I am among the few journalists who has recently been to Eritrea, and can report that Asmara has a unique charm for us Italians. It touches the very core of our feelings because the intrinsic beauty of the location and its buildings is amplified by memories. It is as if the architecture of one’s childhood had come back to life, the idea of a city as we knew it as children stands before us once more. The cinemas, the post offices, the squares and railway stations have been preserved as they were at the time of their construction under the Fascist regime. And that’s not all.
In most cases, the people of Asmara exhibit the politeness of old, a slow tempo of living that we have forgotten completely. Entering the Cinema Roma or the Cinema Impero movie houses is like listening to songs that transport you back in time. It is a similar sensation to the one I experienced when I first visited Buenos Aires 30 years ago. There too, I had breathed in the air of an Italy long since past, but while the buildings built by Italian emigres in Buenos Aires to alleviate the pain of separation were hidden away, everything in Asmara is Italian, everything feels like home.
Massaua, Eritrea’s coastal capital, would be just as charming as Asmara if it hadn’t been so heavily damaged by bombing. The Grand Hotel Torino, the headquarters of the Bank of Italy and the residence of General Graziani make this small town built on the white sands of the Red Sea a true pearl of the Italian colonial style. The only difference is that in Massaua, the beauty is overwhelming yet dashed by extensive war damage, while Asmara is surprisingly intact.
Edward Denison is a member of the Asmara Heritage Project (AHP), a biannual programme set up by Europe in order to grant greater international visibility and protection for a particularly stunning part of the world’s heritage that is nevertheless in great need of restoration and consolidation. Denison is also the author of a report entitled “Asmara: Africa’s Secret Modernist City”. In this very detailed document, one discovers that the growth process set in motion in 1935 led Asmara to become “the most intact and concentrated collection of modernist architecture in the world”. Buildings such as the Fiat Tagliero, a service station designed in 1938 by Giuseppe Pettazzi (and still operational to this day), with its typically futurist winged roof, as well as the Mussolini Barracks, at first converted into a prison and now hosting the offices of the Bank of Eritrea, and the Enda Mariam orthodox church are the highlights of an urban project that stretches from the city centre to the suburbs. One need only consider the perfectly squared tree-lined avenues, the minimalist bars and shops found in every district or the 600 villas built to house Fascist party officials and Italian entrepreneurs. They all leave one completely breathless.
But it’s not just the bequeathal of beauty that manifests the sweet half of the Aristotelian saying. UNESCO’s acknowledgement is clearly a very positive development as it rightly reminds the world of the charm of a capital city that is banished from all tourist routes. But it also helps to balance out the isolation and mitigate the defamation campaign to which the small coastal state on the Horn of Africa is still being subjected.
Eritrea is unquestionably a historically tormented nation. Its strategic geographical position, extensive Red Sea coastline and natural resources have meant that the country has been the centre of major disputes for centuries. Even if we only consider its recent history, The Eritrean war of independence against Ethiopia lasted thirty years, from 1961 to 1991. The thirst for Eritrea’s treasures has never been quenched, and Ethiopia, like a modern day Goliath, keeps trying to overrun the much smaller Eritrean David. Ninety-five million Ethiopian inhabitants pitched against just 6 million stalwart Eritreans. It is a tale of conflicts, border violations and peace agreements signed and promptly disregarded by Addis Abeba. The state of permanent warfare in Eritrea is justified by the persistent Ethiopian threat. The Eritrean population is condemned to living with Kalashnikovs under their mattresses. Their economic development opportunities are consistently thwarted, and any hope of a democratic development is indefinitely postponed. With part of its territory still under occupation and peace perpetually incomplete, Eritrea and the government of the revolutionary leader Isaias Afewerki have more important fish to fry than calling an election.
By nominating Asmara as a world heritage site, UNESCO has pointed the finger at the hypocritical game being played by the West, which calls for greater democracy but does very little to free Eritrea from Ethiopian occupation (as a United Nations resolution has rightly highlighted). Eritrea is certainly no champion of democracy, but neither is it the violent and hellish place described by the slanderous isolation campaign orchestrated by the Ethiopians and their allies in order to wear down and destroy Asmara.
The sweet fruit that UNESCO has recognized in Eritrea articulates many truths that were previously still being denied: Asmara is an amazing city; its people are brave and proud, and the time has come for the international community to put a stop to the isolation devised to starve and weaken its population. After all, if the truth be told, the ultimate purpose of culture, as Albert Camus put it, is “the cry of men having to face their destiny”. UNESCO has amplified this isolated African cry. By underlining the beauty and the location’s need for protection, it has pointed the way ahead towards a true peace.
Peace must come through a dialogue that enables Ethiopia to focus on its own internal ethnic and economic problems, which are leading it towards a very dangerous destabilisation, while also enabling Eritrea to resume its journey towards democracy and development.