Asmara is the capital city of Eritrea. It is also its most populous city and located at an elevation of 2,300 meters. The city was established through the unification of four villages in the 12th century and became the administrative center for the Italian colonial mission by 1890. Today, its unique modernist urban architecture is protected as World Heritage Site and reflects its historical heritage and contemporary state as cultural melting pot.
Common narratives around Asmara’s inception refer to the Italian colonial conquest that gave birth to the city. However, its initial creation can be traced back to the 12th century when four clans formed on the Kebessa Plateau a united settlement called “Arbaete Asmera” (“the Four United” in Tigrinya).In 1897, Asmera was invaded by an Italian colonial mission and became the colonial capital of Eritrea. The Italian colonial mission changed the capital’s name to Asmara. During the Italian colonial occupation, the city became host to many Italian settlers who referred to Eritrea’s capital as “Piccola Roma” (Italian for “Little Rome”). The colonial occupation also provided opportunities for Italian architects and city planners to use Asmara as a creative playing field for their ambitious urban planning.
In 1941, Italy lost control over Eritrea and handed over power to Great Britain. In 1952, Eritrea’s control was deferred to Ethiopia by the United Nations which sparked the Eritrean independence war in 1961. Although Asmara was mostly left undamaged during this 30-year war, Asmara’s industry was severely dismantled under Ethiopian rule.
In 1991, the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF) moved into Asmara and declared the country’s independence on May 24. Despite initial hopes that full independence in 1993 would bring improved infrastructure into the city, Asmara’s contemporary cityscape has frozen in time with little efforts in historical restoration or new city planning.
Demographics and geography
Asmara’s population is estimated at 500,000 to 600,000 inhabitants (2020) due to the lack of official census data. The city’s population reflects Eritrea’s diversity in religion and ethnicity with Christians, Muslims and the various ethnic groups living together.Asmara is located at an altitude of 2,325m in the Eritrean Highlands. The international airport is 4km southeast of the city while Asmara has also been served by the now-defunct colonial-era Eritrean railway in the past. The city itself is constituted of 13 administrative districts: Acria, Abashawal, Edaga Hamus, Arbaete Asmara, May Temenai, Paradiso, Sembel, Godaif, Maakel Ketema, Tiravolo, Gejeret, Gheza Banda, Tsetserat.
Architecture and Lifestyle
In 2017, UNESCO declared Asmara a World Heritage Site. Its cityscape is an outstanding example of modernist Art Deco architecture where Italian architectural design has converged with Moorish architectural styles and local conditions. In addition, Asmara’s exceptional architecture exemplifies how its modernist project relied on Italian Fascism and its appetite for colonial expansion into Abyssinia. Famous religious sites of the city include the Catholic Cathedral, Nda Mariam Orthodox Church and Al Khulafa Al Rashiudin Mosque. Cinema Roma and Fiat Tagiliero are examples of the Italian-style Art Deco architecture.The city is also characterized by the “Asmarini” lifestyle, which includes slow strolls around the Asmara’s palm-lined streets and drinking “macchiato” or tea at a cafe. While the most popular dish in Asmara is injera, a staple sourdough flatbread in Eritrea and Ethiopian cuisine, other popular dishes include spaghetti al pomodoro, another legacy of the city’s Italian colonial past.