Back to the Past: How Asmara came to be!

Natnael Y. Werke,

Although it would be easy to think of Asmara, the Eritrean capital, solely as an Italian built colonial city, its origins actually reaches hundreds if not a thousand years before.

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. At 7,900 feet of altitude, Asmara resembles an abandoned film set, its idle population waiting in cafés and the remains of Italian plazas. Art deco buildings align behind palm trees on large avenues and boulevards, their style reminiscent of similar colonial cities such as Rabat, Mogadishu, Tripoli and Casablanca. The capital traces back its origin to 800BC with a population ranging from 100 to 1000 people. The city was settled in the 12th century by shepherds from AkeleGuzay. They founded four villages on the hills. Mostly Tigrinya and Tigre people used to live around there. Originally, according to Eritrean Tigrinya oral traditional history, there were four clans living in the Asmara area on the Kebessa Plateau: the Gheza Gurtom, the Gheza Shelele, the Gheza Serenser and Gheza Asmae.

These towns were frequently attacked by clans from the low land and from the rulers of “seger mereb melash” (which now is a Tigray region in Ethiopia). Until one day the women of those clans decided that in order to defeat their common enemy and preserve their peace they must unite. The men accepted, hence the name “Arbate Asmera”. Arbate Asmara literally means, in the Tigrinya language, “the four (feminine plural) made them unite”. Eventually Arbate was dropped and it has been called Asmara which means “they [feminine, thus referring to the women] made them unite”. There is still a district called Arbaete Asmara in the Administrations of Asmara.

Asmara is very diverse when it comes to religion. Four big landmarks of the city are the Church of Our Lady of the Rosary and the Kidane Mehret Cathedral of the Catholic faith, the Enda Mariam Cathedral of the Eritrean Orthodox (Tewahedo) Church and the Al Khulafa Al Rashiudin Mosque of the Islamic faith.

Back before the four clans joined in unison, these clans respectively had their own churches, Kudus Giorgis for GhezaShelele, Kudus Qorqos for Gheza Asmae, Kudus Michael for Ghaza Serenser and Kudus Gebriel for Gheza Gurtom, Kudus standing for the nominative Saint. The missionary Remedius Prutky passed through Asmara in 1751, more than a hundred years before the Italians, and described in his memoirs that a church built there by Jesuit priests 130 years before was still intact.

In this period Asmara was known as a part of the kingdom of Medri Bahri (Hamassien). Emperor Yohannes IV of Ethiopia briefly occupied the area and gave his trusted Ras Alula the title of governor of Medri Bahri. Alula moved the capital of the province to Asmara, which then had about 150 inhabitants. At this time, the largest city in Eritrea was Debarwa. Dubarwa at the time was capital city of the Bahri Negasi of Medri Bahri. Within four years, the town’s population increased more than three fold. Its commercial importance grew with increased trade with Massawa, expanding considerably.

Asmara started to grow rapidly when it was occupied by Italy in 1889 and was made the capital city of Italian Eritrea in preference to Massawa by Governor Martini in 1897.

The beauty of Asmara belies its dark origins. A city that is collectively a Modernist masterpiece, its incongruous architecture is testament to the forcible subjugation of indigenous culture to the colonial powers that had settled there. For in 1890, Eritrea became the first territory to fall under Italian Rule during the infamous Scramble for Africa. Eritrea was formed from a number of separate provinces and kingdoms and was not declared a unified or centralized country until the Italians imposed their rule on the region. Landing in 1869, the Rubattino Shipping Company purchased a plot of land near Assab (in the province of Denkalia), under the pretext of functioning as a trading post for the governors of the region. But after 13 years, Assab was established as an official Italian colony. There was widespread opposition and conflict between the inhabitants of Denkalia and their Italian colonizers; yet Italy was not dismayed, and continued its expansion, going on to occupy a number of cities and provinces including Keren, Seraye and Akeluguzai. In 1885, Massawa became the main administrative capital of the Italian colony from which to expand inland, and five years on, Italy declared their newly acquired territory to be Eritrea. The famous 1896 Battle of Adua saw the Italians losing to the Ethiopians; forcing them to acknowledge Ethiopia as a separate state. The invaders were humiliated by the defeat, but did not lose their hold on Eritrea, and a year later, Asmara was reassigned as its capital.

The Italian army set camps in today’s Tsetserat, BietMeka, Kudus Michael areas of Asmara. Notably the Colonists called Tsetserat, camp Baldiserra, giving nod to the then Administrator of Eritrea Daniel Baldissera.

In the early 20th century, a railway line was built to the coast, passing through the town of Ghinda, under the direction of Carlo Cavanna. In both 1913 and 1915 the city suffered only slight damage in large earthquakes. In the late 1930s the Italians changed the face of the town, with a new structure and new buildings: Asmara was called Piccola Roma (Little Rome).

While Eritrea was under Italian colonial rule, early-20th-century Italians used Asmara “to experiment with radical new designs” in architecture. In the 1910s, Eritrea stood as the industrial center for the administrative territory of Italian East Africa. Powered by Italian Fascists who challenged architect Odoardo Cavagnari to design a “Little Rome,” the Eritrean capital Asmara became a space of experimentation for radical Italian architects. The small village saw hundreds of bold designs sprout, further influencing the vernacular architecture of the region. Asmara was populated by a large Italian community. The city of Asmara had a population of 98,000, of which 53,000 were Italian according to the Italian census of 1939. This fact made Asmara the main “Italian town” of the Italian empire in Africa. In all of Eritrea the population of Italians was only 75,000 in total in that year, making Asmara by far their largest centre.

Many industrial investments were made by Italy in Asmara (and surrounding areas of Eritrea), but the beginning of World War II stopped the blossoming industrialization of the area.

The Italians believed their new Empire would last forever, yet in 1941 during World War II, Eritrea was seized by the British. After subsequent subjugation under Ethiopian power, Eritrea gained independence as late as 1991, and there are still ongoing tensions between the two countries. The lack of stability in the region ensured that little development could take place; as such, Asmara remains largely as it was after the Italians left, though many places have fallen into disrepair.

Rising congruously from the Eritrean landscape, Asmara is an apparent monument to its history. Whilst it owes its appearance to the imposition of an oppressive and didactic regime, there is no questioning the superlative beauty and historic importance held in the buildings of the city.

And today Asmara is possibly the safest African capital in the continent. It is one of the cleanest cities in Africa. The streets are elegantly lined with palms and a string of boutiques, coffee-shops and restaurants suggestive of southern Italy.

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