Recently, I had to address a group of students who major in tourism or tourism related courses. From our background conversation, I picked that many of them were interested in travelling and seeing the world, I also found out that some of them have not been able to travel beyond their country because of logistics challenges, a few even told me that they did not have international passports because they could not afford it.
Anyway, considering their interest I decided to wager an all-expense paid trip for anyone who would answer 5 questions correctly on a cross-word puzzle I was putting together about a city I had recently visited. Well, none of the students got 5 questions correctly and I was not surprised at that.
The city around which my puzzles were drawn is Asmara, unfortunately, not many people know much about it. Until lately, Asmara, Eritrea’s capital and largest city is almost literally closed-off. Those who visit the city are mainly Eritreans returning home and, maybe, a few expatriates and curious tourists/travellers. The first usual discouragement, of course, is with Eritrean visa, which is difficult to get.
Well, on February 1 2016, Eritrea, in a move that suggests a change from its close-off attitude, presented Asmara to UNESCO as a candidate to enter the list of World Heritage Sites. The bulk of its justification for the request lies in the city’s fine collections of early 20th century architecture—actually, they are arguable some of the world’s finest Rationalist, Futurist Art Deco and Modernist Styles.
Actually, Eritreans have the Italian to thank for this architecture, but they also have themselves to praise for preserving these historic art such that they have changed little since the Italians lived and worked there.
When I revealed the answers of my puzzles to the students, there was this “oh! I didn’t think of it” response from all of them, though they all accepted being quite ignorant about the country and the burden was on me to enlighten them.
“Eritrea is a country in East Africa, the area popularly called the Horn of Africa,” I said as I began what would be a long lesson about this little known country.
The country shares borders with Ethiopia, Djibouti and Sudan and has a long history of colonialism and war, from which it has emerged better off.
Asmara is the capital of Eritrea. The city has frequently been described as the neatest city in Africa, though it is more popular for its safety and its fine collections of early 20th century architecture.
Eritrea has been at various times an Italian colony, a British protectorate and an Ethiopian province before it began ruling itself in 1991 after wearing its Shida for battles in its struggle for independence. President Isaias Afwerki leads the country.
Asmara’s reputation as one of the world’s safest places stems from Eritrean history, particular its struggle for independence and desire to secure itself from external aggression. The struggle informed the practise of forcefully conscripting Eritreans into national service.
The symbol of the nation’s struggle for independence is a sculpture of two giant sandals located at Shida Square. For Eritreans, the Sandal, called Shida in local language, is more than a mere cheap plastic footwear, it eulogizes the Eritrean freedom fighters that fought Ethiopian in the 30-year long struggle for independence and symbolizes “self-reliance, collectivity and rudimentary survival.”
On the other hand, the fine collections of early 20th century architecture for which Asmara is seeking UNESCO recognition as World Heritage Sites has its credit to Mussolini’s Italy.
Actually, Italy had developed an urban plan for its colonial capital in 1913, but Mussolini saw Asmara as the link between Africa and his New Roman Empire and therefore spurred futurist architects to pour into Asmara and turn it into their haven by articulating futurism in architectural form there. The architect’s work help materialize what Mussolini had envisioned when he called Asmara, “La Piccola Roma” – Africa’s little Rome.
You’ll recall that Italy had got Eritrea from the 1890s’ scramble for Africa, and had attempted to spread its colonial campaign from there to everywhere in the Horn of Africa and it’s King, Victor Emmanuel III, had in fact crowned himself the Emperor of Ethiopia though this title was not internationally recognized.
Anyway, the most iconic structure from that era left in the city is the Fiat Tagliero service station which is built in the shape of an airplane by Giuseppe Pettazzi.
There is also the Imperio Cinema built in 1937, it is located in the city’s main street called Harnet Avenue (Independence Avenue).
In Asmara, you spend Nakfa (ERN) and speak Tigrinya, but you can also use Arabic, English and Italian all of which are part of the nine languages used in Eritrea.
By the time I was done talking about Asmara, all the students were eager to visit the country.
Usifo Mike-Alvin is a creative writer with a knack for budget traveling and adventure. He travels across Africa and reports for www.afrotourism.com
All pictures are licensed under the creative common or GNU licence
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