Asmara ( əs-MAHR-ə), or Asmera, (Tigrinya: ኣስመራ)is the capital and most populous city of Eritrea, in the country’s Central Region. It sits at an elevation of 2,325 metres (7,628 ft), making it the sixth highest capital in the world by altitude. The city is located at the tip of an escarpment that is both the northwestern edge of the Eritrean Highlands and the Great Rift Valley in neighbouring Ethiopia. In 2017, the city was declared as a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its well-preserved modernist architecture. Asmera was first settled in 800 BC with a population ranging from 100 to 1000. The city was then founded in the 12th century AD after four separate villages unified to live together peacefully after long periods of conflict. Under Italian rule the city of Asmara was made capital of Eritrea in the last years of the 19th century.
Originally, according to Eritrean Tigrinya oral traditional history, there were four clans living in the Asmera 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 the women of each clan decided that to defeat their common enemy and preserve peace the four clans must unite. The men accepted, hence the name “Arbate Asmera”. Arbate Asmera literally means, in the Tigrinya language, “the four (feminine plural) made them unite”. Eventually Arbate was dropped and it has been called Asmera which means “they [feminine, thus referring to the women] made them unite”. There is still a district called Arbaete Asmera in the Administrations of Asmara. It is now called the Italianized version of the word Asmara. The westernized version of the name is used by a majority of non-Eritreans, while the multilingual inhabitants of Eritrea and neighboring peoples remain loyal to the original pronunciation, Asmera. The missionary Remedius Prutky passed through Asmera in 1751, and described in his memoirs that a church built there by Jesuit priests 130 years before was still intact.
The origins of Asmara date back to the first millennium A.D., with four small villages that were close in proximity to each other. Due to animal attacks and women and children getting caught by slave traders, the women from the four villages pressured the men in their respective villages to unite to increase security for the inhabitants of all of the villages. The union was named Arbate Asmera, which translated means “the four united.”
In 1889 Asmara was occupied by the Italians during the Scramble for Africa. It became their colonial capital of Eritrea in 1897 and soon afterwards a rail line was built from the coast to the city. During the Italian occupation, Asmara was split into separate sections, with the Italians and other Europeans taking up most of the city, leaving the native Eritreans with the undesirable parts of the urban area. The colonists also westernized the city, changing its name from Asmera to Asmara. They often referred to it as “Piccola Roma” or Little Rome. The city began to flourish in the 1930s when Italian architects and city planners designed and constructed many of the now-famous buildings and broad boulevards. Italian influence was also reflected in the multiple coffee bars and pizzerias. By 1939 Asmara had a population of 98,000 of which 53,000 were Italians.
Italy lost control of Eritrea in 1941 to Great Britain. The British administered Asmara until 1952 when the United Nations placed Eritrea under temporary Ethiopian control. In 1961 Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie declared Eritrea to be the 14th province of Ethiopia, touching off a thirty year war for independence. While the city of Asmara did not experience extensive damage from the war, the residents were still impacted. Under Emperor Selassie’s rule, all industrial factories in Asmara were dismantled and reassembled in Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian capital, resulting in a local economic slump. Also parts of Asmara such as Mariyam Ghimbi were used to hold and torture prisoners during the independence war.
The war ended on May 24, 1991 when Eritrea resistance troops forced the surrender of the Ethiopian Army outside the city. Two years later Eritrea was recognized as an independent country with Asmara as its capital. The Eritrean government has worked to improve the infrastructure, since improvements to the city had been neglected during the thirty years of war. Asmara today is known by tourists and residents alike as a peaceful, enjoyable city with a 2003 population of approximately 600,000.
The city lies at an elevation of 2,325 metres (7,628 feet) above sea level. It lies on north–south trending highlands known as the Eritrean Highlands, an extension of the Ethiopian Highlands. The temperate central portion, where Asmera lies, is situated on a rocky highland plateau, which separates the western lowlands from the eastern coastal plains. The lands that surround Asmera are very fertile, especially those to the south towards the Debub Region of Eritrea. The highlands that Asmera is located in fall away to reveal the eastern lowlands, characterized by the searing heat and humidity of the Eritrean salt pans, lapped by the Red Sea. To the west of the plateau stretches a vast semi-arid hilly terrain continuing all the way towards the border with Sudan through the Gash-Barka Region.
UNESCO World Heritage Site
Asmara was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in July 2017, becoming the first modernist city anywhere to be listed in its entirety. The inscription taking place during the 41st World Heritage Committee Session.
The city has thousands of Art Deco, futurist, modernist, and rationalist buildings, constructed during the period of Italian Eritrea. The city, nicknamed “La piccola Roma” (“Little Rome”), is located over 2000 meters above sea level, and was an ideal spot for construction due to the relatively cool climate; architects used a combination of both Italian and local materials.
Some notable buildings include the Fiat Tagliero Building, Bar Zilli, opera houses, hotels, and cinemas, such as the Cinema Impero.
A statement from UNESCO read:
It is an exceptional example of early modernist urbanism at the beginning of the 20th century and its application in an African context.
The Historic Center of Asmara was placed on the World Monuments Fund‘s 2006 Watch List of 100 Most Endangered Sites. The listing was designed to bring more attention to the city to save the center from decay and redevelopment and to promote restoration.
Following CARP (a World Bank initiative on Cultural Heritage), the European Union Delegation in Asmara has engaged into a Heritage Project pertaining to building’s restoration and archive management. Launched in 2010 the EU/Eritrea Cultural Project was expected to be completed in 2014 (Pierre Couté – Edward Denison, Project Design Report, EUD Asmara 2009).
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 former of Latin and the latter of Coptic rite), the Enda Mariam Cathedral of the Eritrean Orthodox Tewahedo Church, and the Al Khulafa Al Rashiudin Mosque of the Islamic faith. Christians and Muslims have lived peacefully together in Asmara for centuries. The religious majority in Asmara are Orthodox Christians. The population in the Central Region is 89 percent Christian (almost 84 percent Orthodox, 4 percent Roman Catholic, and more than 1 percent Protestant) and 5 percent Muslim.
Asmara is also the see of the archbishop of the Eritrean Orthodox Tewahedo Church, which became autocephalous in 1993. The archbishop was elevated in 1998 to the rank of Patriarchate of Eritrea, on a par with the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church.
Eritrean Airlines and several other companies are based in the city. The Eritrean Telecommunications Corporation are headquartered in the city. The country’s national television station Eri-TV has many studios located in various areas in the capital.
Asmara Brewery built 1939 under name of Melotti is located in the city and employs 600 persons. The brewery produces several different beverages such as the famous Asmara beer and other beverages like Rum and Gin. The brewery also own and operates as a sponsor of the local football team Asmara Brewery FC also named “Asmara Birra” (translated “Asmara Beer”).
After Eritrean independence, the roads of Asmara underwent extensive construction projects. Old roads were renovated and new highways were also built. There are five primary roads out of Asmara.
Asmara International Airport serves the city with many international flights. Massawa International Airport is an alternative airport nearby.
As of 1999, there is a total of 317 kilometres of 950 mm (3 ft 1 3⁄8 in) (narrow gauge) rail line in Eritrea. The Eritrean Railway was built between 1887 and 1932. Badly damaged during WWII and in later fighting, it was closed section by section, with the final closure coming in 1978. After independence, a rebuilding effort commenced, and the first rebuilt section was reopened in 2003. As of 2009, the section from Asmara to Massawa was fully rebuilt and available for service.
Asmara is home to the majority of colleges and universities. The city has always been a national centre of education, and is home to many elementary and high schools. Until the recent opening of universities at Mai Nefhi and Sawa, it was the seat of the only university in the country, the University of Asmara. During the period of Ethiopian Federation and annexation, the college was also linked with what was then the nation’s largest tertiary institution, Addis Ababa University. Many campuses have been opening up across the country since independence, mainly for medicine and engineering.
So far, this strategy has been rather successful in adding to the country’s human capital. Despite challenges in trying to equally balance human resources, most Eritreans want their career to help further their country’s success. In other words, most accept their university assignment as their social obligation to serve a bigger purpose.
Universities and colleges
- University of Asmara
- Eritrea Institute of Technology
Primary and secondary schools
- Asmara International Community School – Anglophone international school
- Italian School of Asmara – Italian primary school with a Montessori department
- Liceo Sperimentale “G. Marconi” – Italian international senior high school
- Istituto Italiano Statale Comprensivo (IT) – Italian international elementary and junior high school
Asmara is divided into 13 districts or administrative areas. These districts are subdivided into North, North-West, North-East, South-East, South-West, East, West and Central areas. The thirteen districts (or Neous Zobas) are:
- Akhria District
- Abbashaul District
- Edaga Hamus District
- Arbaete Asmara District
- Mai Temenai District
- Paradiso District
- Sembel District
- Kahawuta District
- Godaif District
- Maakel Ketema District
- Tiravolo District
- Tsetserat District
- Gheza Banda District
- Gejeret District
- Abraham Afewerki, popular singer, songwriter and music producer
- Isaias Afwerki, President of Eritrea
- Tsehaytu Beraki, popular Eritrean musician
- Yemane Barya, famous Eritrean singer and musician
- Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, 8th Director-General of the World Health Organization
- Remo Girone, Italian film and stage actor
- Dawit Isaak, Swedish-Eritrean journalist
- Meb Keflezighi, Eritrean-born American long distance runner
- Gianfranco Rosi, Italian film director and documentarian
- Peter Volgger and Stefan Graf: “Architecture in Asmara. Colonial Origin and Postcolonial Experiences”, DOM publishers, Berlin 2017,ISBN 978-3-86922-487-9
- Stefan Boness: “Asmara – Africa´s Jewel of Modernity”. Jovis Verlag, Berlin 2016, ISBN 978-3-86859-435-5 (photo book; German, English)
- Stefan Boness: “Asmara – The Frozen City”. Jovis Verlag, Berlin 2006. 96 pages. ISBN 3-936314-61-6 (photo book; German, English)
- Edward Denison, Guang Yu Ren, Naigzy Gebremedhin, and Guang Yu Ren, Asmara: Africa’s Secret Modernist City (2003) ISBN 1-85894-209-8
- Gianluca Rossi, Renzo Martinelli inviato de “La Nazione”, 2009, ISBN 978-88-7255-356-5
Wikipedia Contributors. Asmara. Wikipedia. Published April 3, 2021. Accessed April 11, 2021. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Asmara
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