By Costanza Beltrami

As recently reported by international news outlets such as The Guardian and the Financial Times, the Eritrean capital of asmara has just been inscribed in the World Heritage List. The history of this city is intimately connected with that of Italy and Italian twentieth-century imperialism. Due to its location 2000 meters above sea level, the city became an Italian military outpost in the 1890s. In 1913, urban planner Odoardo Cavagnari drew up a general plan for the development of the city. Later on, Fascism promoted a large-scale building programme with the aim of ‘setting in stone’ the regime’s hold on its African ‘empire.’ Indeed, Mussolini termed the city’s its ‘Little Rome.’

As in Italy, several of Fascist-era buildings were constructed in an innovative rationalist style which deserves recognition among contemporary modernist architecture. The recognition of Asmara — including its informal neighborhoods of Arbate Asmera and Abbashawel — as a World Heritage Site is a positive step for the recognition of Africa’s vast and unique heritage. Hopefully, it will also become an occasion to reflect on Italian colonialism and its ‘architecture of oppression’ and not only to the technical daring and aesthetic beauty of its built legacy.

References: ‘The Italian architecture that shaped new world heritage site Asmara,’ The Guardian, Saturday 8 July 2017; ‘Eritrea capital Asmara chosen as Unesco World Heritage site,’ Financial Times, Monday 10 July 2017; ‘Asmara: A Modernist City of Africa,’ World Heritage Centre.

Further reading: Sean Anderson, Modern architecture and its Representation in Colonial Eritrea: An In-visible Colony, 1890-1941 (Routledge, 2017).

 Odoardo Cavagnari, General plan for Asmara, 1913.

Opera Theatre, Asmara, built in 1918 and designed by Odoardo Cavagnari. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Church of Our Lady of the Rosary, Asmara, built in 1921-1923 and designed by Oreste Scanavini. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Governor’s Palace, Asmara, 1930s. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Cinema Impero, Asmara, 1937, designed by Mario Messina. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Enda Mariam Cathedral, Asmara, first built in 1920 and substantially altered in 1938 by an unknown Italian architect. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Fiat Tagliero service station, completed in 1938 and designed by Giuseppe Pettazzi. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

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