In the quite early morning of the day the city is filled with the sound of churches’ bells and the azanat of mosques. Women are seen on their white traditional clothes heading to the church, to the market; men are seen going to the mosque, to work. Soon after, many people are seen entering bakers and shops to buy bread. Before the sun fully appears from the Biet Girgis, thousands of students on their varying uniforms fill the streets making it look like a garden of flowers. The daily livelihood of its residents continues to be so every day.
Asmara came across different situations. Some of its former residents reached the highest level of education tackling different challenges they faced. Some were forced to flee despite their love for her; some sacrificed their lives to express their love and to overthrow her enemies; Asmara wept so many times because of the successive foreign invasion and the damage they caused; her youngsters, however, paid precious price to make her not weep; they died for her beauty and peace.
Different adjectives are given to Asmara. Foreigners described it as: ’’the modernist city of Africa,’’ “the capital city of Africa,” “an oasis in a desert,” “a city inside the clouds,” “the city above the clouds”, “a decorated bride…” etc. Many also describe Asmara as “a hidden city,” when they saw her for the first time. However, since we, its citizens, sang so many songs that described her beauty and horizons, and since we wrote so many poems on her name, when we hear foreigners describe her as a hidden city, we became surprised for they failed to identify its long and rich history.
Educator Issac Yossief in his book entitled, “the story of the city of Asmara,” wrote that the city has a history of more than 700 years. He described the then Asmara as a city located in the highlands, a few kilometers away from the northern escarpment, inside an area covered by forest. According to the book, the area was rich of water resource and was very attractive. It was also the home of different wild animals. There were four villages that were believed to have been established 982 years BC. Their location, connecting the red sea region, western escarpment and the highlands enabled them to be center of trade.
However, bandits who came through the Red Sea and the highlands were the main enemies of the residents. In order to discuss the problem and bring a lasting solution, women from the four villages came together for serious discussions under a big tree in the St. Mary’s Church. Finally, they recommended three main alternatives: first to tell their husbands to come together and establish a common residence so as to stand united against their enemies; secondly, if their husbands didn’t agree, to deny them dinner; thirdly, if anyone tried to beat his wife she shouts and thereby they would shout altogether. And if they rejected their request completely, they agreed not to serve them lunch.
Finally, they succeeded and played an important role in uniting the villages and thereby in establishing Asmara. Since they were the catalysts of unity, the name ‘Asmara’ was given in honor of their endeavors. “Asmara,” in the local language of Tigrinya, means ‘they made them united.’ So, Asmara remains to be the symbol of unity since then.
Asmara took its major modern shape in the 1930s, during the Italian colonialism. In 1935 it expanded from ST. Mary’s Church up to the now Liberty Avenue. Its socio-economic activities expanded rapidly and its residents flourished tremendously. The establishment of the military caps in Embagaliano and Stantaoto were another factor that boosted its expansion. Areas like Arbaete Asmara, Gejeret, Godaef… also started to develop gradually despite lacking a master plan. The central part of the city was dominated by the Italians. It was only in the 1950s that Eritreans either bought or inherited houses in the central part of the city during the Federation years.
The city, after the ululating of the women that united it, it came across so many scaring and difficult times due to successive colonization. But, since the sprit of its citizens is everlasting, now many foreigners get amused by its harmony, beauty and cleanness. When they return to their respective countries they say, “Asmara is unique.” Their saying forces us to think “what is Asmara‘s uniqueness.’
Jerusalem is seeing its citizens fighting each other using stones and bullets; the ancient city of Baghdad was making daily headlines of the killings and bomb attacks of its citizens despite following similar religion; Nairobi, Johannesburg and other capital cities of Africa are known for crimes, corruption, theft… denying their residents peace and security. Many western cities are also suffering from the mafias and begamindos. Their citizens are always in fear of either being killed or kidnapped or confiscated…
Asmara, in contrast, has kept its female’s characteristics of love, kindness, security, harmony, peace, beauty and the like. It is a home of a mosaic of society, still united and peaceful. It is a land of beauty in diversity; its residents are a symbol of a united people despite their traditional differences; they respect each other, visit each other during traditional and religious ceremonies.
It is part of the daily life of the city to see a Muslim going to his Christian friend to say “Good Ester.” It is also common to see a Christian visiting his Muslim friend to say ‘eid mebruk’… Oh! Asmara, the wholly city! They have also more in common; they go to the same cemetery, Martyrs’ Cemetery, when they die while doing their national service.
Asmara is a center of test and change. It is also an art deco’s destiny. At first, the women who put the foundation of the city, stood up for unity and established a base. The Italians introduced and applied their art deco expertise: The airplane shaped Fiatalero, the attractive building of Cinema Asmara, the Cathedral at the center of the city… makes Asmara one of the few cities that have still inherited its attractive art deco. Now Asmara has registered its legacy as a world heritage, having the Italian style combined with the local ones, such as St. Mary’s Church design.
Asmara is a romantic city as well; its entertainment centers and their clients give additional beauty. Adjectives such as shikorey (sweetie), mearey (honey), natey (darling)… are the most commonly used words among the youngsters in these beautiful recreation centers. The old cinemas are some of these main entertaining centers. Love songs that were sang long years ago are heard from different directions. Asmara is a city that everything it has is of love and romance – from the ringing of the churches to the sounds of the singers; from the chatting of the youth to the conversation of the old – from everywhere the language of the city is love and unity.
Asmara is also a multi colored city; you listen to different songs of different languages and nationalities – you listen to Tigryana, Kunama, Tigre, Arabic, English, Italian, etc. When you enter a restaurant you order different traditional as well as modern meals; you have Zegni, Ful meselah, spaghetti, capreto, lasagna, pizza Africana, rice, vegetables, fruits etc. (all locally produced). A stranger always feels at home in Asmara!
Asmara, being a city established by mothers, is generous as well. Its residents believe in sharing, helping the needy, inviting each other for entertainments…‘etfedelu, nkedem belu,’ are the most commonly used words while having something to eat or to drink.
Fred D. Vrees once, after his first time visit to Asmara, wrote that “…the people are loving.” He first wanted to sit in a silent café and read the magazine in his hand. Ordering a cappuccino, he sat at a corner. But since some strangers, to him, came and sat with him, he couldn’t read. He changed to anther cafe, the same thing happened. Finally he ended up at Bar Impero; he turned up the first page of the magazine and started to read. Unfortunately, three men on their white traditional cloths came by and sat besides saying hi. Then he started to realize that it is the tradition of the people to share seats on the same table and to join people around. The men left giving him a warm goodbye. He also wanted to leave and called the waiter to pay. But she told him that the people who were with him had already paid for him.
Asmara is peaceful because its residents are peaceful; Asmara is generous because its people are generous; Asmara is clean because its people are clean; and the main source of all these substantial values of the city are the four women that made it united.
At dusk, the cities major activities remind you what you saw at dawn; busy movement of workers and students heading home; some entering entertainment centers; when you see the people freely and confidently walking along the streets that was once forbidden for their fathers and forefathers, you feel a strong sense of proudness and liberty. The streets which once were of racism, of torture, of colonialism, of hanging up and killings of its innocent youngsters, now are of love and friendship.
It was in May 24, 1991 that its people enjoyed liberty at the Liberty Avenue, after thirty years of bloody liberation war. It is the next morning now and similar peaceful day! May god bless this peaceful city forever!
Samsom Birhane and Henok Tesfabruk
Translation: Efrem Habtetsion