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Studies: Asmara, The Little Rome

Studies: Asmara, The Little Rome


Asmara – the capital city and main industrial, economic and cultural centre of Eritrea- is also known as “The Little Rome” or “Africa’s Modernist City” due to its urbanistic structure designed by Italians between the end of the 19th Century and the 1940s.

Photo: The Fiat Tagliero Service Station. The image is licensed under “Creative Commons Attribution Share Alike 3.0. International” (Wikimedia Commons).

The Prisma Foundation puts constant effort and dedication in the enhancement of Italian real estate heritage both domestically and abroad. Russia, Slovenia, Greece and Africa are all countries that bear traces of excellent examples of Italian architecture. And it is in Africa, more precisely in Asmara, Eritrea, that one finds the highest concentration of Italian Rationalist buildings outside of Italy. The Prisma Foundation has conducted a research on the capital city of Eritrea titled “Asmara, The Little Rome”. Part of the study is published on the second issue of the Foundation’s “On Line Diary” featured on the website.

Asmara: The Little Rome

Asmara – the capital city and main industrial, economic and cultural centre of Eritrea- is also known as “The Little Rome” or “Africa’s Modernist City” due to its urbanistic structure designed by Italians between the end of the 19th Century and the 1940s.

The city lies on a highland at an elevation of 2300 metres above sea level and was founded in the 12th century AD with the unification of four separate villages. Asmara started to grow quickly during the first decade of the 20th century, when Asmara’s first land use plan was drafted. The name of the city was originally “Arbate Asmera” which literally means “the four unite” in the Tigrinya language. Even if Asmara is the result of the union of the four original villages, the settlement remained mostly a village through the centuries until around the 1880s when its population started to increase significantly after the establishment of a local market.

Occupied by Italian troops in 1889, Asmara became capital of the colony with the construction of a railroad between the port of Massawa, on the Red Sea and the military fort of Saati, a few kilometers from the city: in 1911 the railroad was extended to the capital. The Cathedral of Our Lady of The Rosary and the Opera House are among the oldest buildings.

The Italian Fascist Government considered Eritrea the ideal base for the invasion of Ethiopia and therefore it invested heavily in the developing of the country, Asmara’s population increased by more than 30 times its original population to almost 100.000, more than half of which were Italian. During the 1920s the architectural image of the capital was radically transformed with new Rationalist and Art Deco constructions that have remained relatively untouched. Among the most notable buildings of the colonial period are the Cinema “Impero”, known as one of the main examples of the Rationalist style and the Futuristic “Fiat Tagliero Service Station”.

Due to the large number of Italian settlers, Asmara was designed as an Italian city with a central high street, markets, cafes, meeting points and churches. Unlike Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian Capital, where the architects were bound to the Imperial style and its monumentality, the same architects felt free to consider Asmara as a kind of experimenting ground, building architectures projects of fantastic avant-gardism in a very modern Urbanistic Structure.