Atlantic Cities

An African City's Unusual Preservation Legacy

An African City's Unusual Preservation Legacy
Wikimedia Commons

Asmara, capital of Eritrea, is an unexpected time capsule of colonialism.

When Mussolini ruled here, a unique architectural style emerged that was disconnected from anything that had come before. But with time, it has become Asmara's history too and locals have embraced the remains. Through preservation of the Mussolini-era building stock, we see a truly unique post-colonial urban condition. 

There is more to Asmara's colonial era than Italian art deco buildings along well-planned streets. Mussolini divided the city into four sections, one for Italians; one for Greeks, Arabs, and Jews; one for industry and one for Eritreans. This separation helped the Italians place themselves at the top of the social hierarchy, while also insulating them from unwanted communication with natives.

Like in Tripoli, boulevards served as the separation lines between these communities while still allowing for cultural mixing within major commercial hubs like public markets.

Cultural institutions such as the Asmara Opera House actually helped to further entrench segregation. For all events, Italians would enter through the main entrance and sit in the lower levels. Eritreans were required to enter through the back, proceed up a staircase and sit in the upper balconies. 

Unlike Tripoli, Asmara never went through a period de-Italianization; it's collection of Italian Modernist architecture is largely viewed as part of the native culture. In part, this is because colonial-era construction relied on local labor, which helped to remove some of the more negative connotations affiliated with these buildings. But a key reason for much of Asmara's preservation is simply economics. Eritrea is poor, and any disposable income is further compromised by conflicts with neighboring Ethiopia. The untouched nature of many of these structures stems from a lack of funds, and they will continue to decay unless something is done.

The local government is committed to restoring the Opera House to its original luster. Locals have embraced the iconography of structures like the fully restored Tagliero gas station and the Casa del Fascio, built as offices for Mussolini's regime but which now hosts the Ministry of Education.

Asmarans have also incorporated less tangible Italian cultural perks, like cinema. Many of the city's Italian-style theaters still operate and movie-going remains popular. Coffee, grown nearby, takes on an Italian flair with espresso machines servicing the local cafes. A day in the city can include a cappuccino at Bar Tre Stelle, a film at Cinema Impero, and a light dinner at Pizza Napoli.

In a continent typically uncomfortable with embracing the cultural remains of an exploitative and overtly racist epoch, Asmara remains an unusually well preserved time-capsule.

Top image: An Italian government building now used by Asmara's Municipal government; Second image; One of Asmara's main boulevards built during Mussolini's reign; Bottom image; The Fiat Tagliero gas station, restored in 2003. All images courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Mark Byrnes is an associate editor at The Atlantic Cities. All posts »

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