Asmara has been described as the “hidden jewel in the Horn of Africa” which is a
good description because despite its size and status as the capital city of Eritrea,
it remains far less well-known abroad and less visited by tourists than many other
capital cities of Africa. This is the tourists’ loss because not only is Asmara a
beautiful city with its palm-lined wide avenues, its magnificent blue-blossomed jacaranda
trees and its colourful scented sprays of bougainvillea, but it also has great character
and a great atmosphere which it inherits from its Italian colonial past. It boasts
an enviably low crime rate, and with its spacious, pleasant tree-lined avenues, italianate
Art Deco buildings, and welcoming street cafes, restaurants, and ice-cream parlours,
Asmara could well pass for an Italian city of the 1930s. At the same time it is a
wholly African city being populated for the most part by the largest ethnic group
in Eritrea, the Tigrinya, who are to be seen everywhere strolling through the streets
with the men dressed in their distinctive long white gabis and the women in their
Although much of modern Asmara dates back to the 1920s and 1930s of the Italian colonial
period, its history goes back much further. Indeed, legend has it that the Queen
of Sheba gave birth to the son of Solomon, Menelik I, in this region. True or not,
though that may be, it is more reliably recorded that in the 12th century, four separate
and distinct communities were located around the site of present-day Asmara on the
Kebessa Plateau. They were constantly being preyed upon and harassed by bandits in
the area and in order to protect themselves, they decided to unite, and were in this
way able to defeat the marauders. The community thus united, after the victory over
the bandits, was given the name ‘Arbaete Asmera’, which translates as ‘The Four United’.
Later the ‘arbaete’ part of the name was dropped and the place has been known ever
since as ‘Asmera’ or ‘Asmara’.
It was not until the late 19th century, however, that Asmara began to grow in importance
with the establishment of a market there by the emperor,Yohannes IV of Ethiopia,
and its designation as the residence of the provincial governor and capital of the
province of Mareb Mellash. The city was occupied by Italy in 1889 and became the
national capital in 1897. In the early 20th century, the Italians built a railway
line to the coast at Massawa, a great feat of engineering over such mountainous terrain.
This railway still stands and continues to be functional.
In the 1920s and particularly the 1930s under an extensive building programme by
the Italians, much of Asmara as it has come down to us today was built. The dictator,
Mussolini, had grandiose plans for a second Roman empire in Africa and Asmara was
to be its capital city, its ‘Piccola Roma’ as it was called — its ‘Little Rome’.
Architects representing a variety of the most advanced and modern styles of the time
were given free range to experiment and design new buildings for Asmara so that it
became in effect the ‘Dubai’ of its day. Numerous styles were represented and examples
of them can still be seen in the city today. They include Art Deco, Cubism, Neoclassical,
Futurist, Neo-romanesque, Victorian, and many others. Such a diversity of styles
greatly contributes to the charm and attractiveness of the city.
It is fortunate that Asmara suffered so little damage throughout the long years of
the War of Independence which ended in 1991, when the Ethiopian forces occupying
Asmara surrendered the city without a fight. As a result most of the older buildings
have survived, though many of them are slightly delapidated, which gives them a certain
old-world charm, much in the way that Venice is charming. As those who are familiar
with the city well know, it is one of the safest and friendliest cities in Africa,
with one of the lowest crime rates of any modern city. It is a city where Christian
and Moslem, Tigrinya and Tigre, Hidareb and Kunama can live together amicably and
peacefully, and where children can play safely in the streets.
On the new (2009) Pushkin statue erected in Asmara, read:
Crowther, Pete. ‘Pushkin comes to Asmara’, Elem Magazine, no. 16, Apr.-June, 2010,