Asmara's Italian Architecture
Walking through Eritrea’s capital city Asmara, it may be surprising to hear people chatting with each other in Italian.
Men in newsboy caps serpentining by on biciclette, “Bon Giorno!” is surely a pleasant if not unexpected greeting for a traveler in Africa, especially in a country with an appalling human rights record and ironclad borders, giving it the nickname "Africa's North Korea."
To exchange a few words in Italian with a guy on a bicicletta was an insurmountable paradox, a gift the continent of Africa frequently gives you.
Italy in Africa? We don't hear much about it. Admittedly, we don't hear much about Eritrea aside from its refugee exodus, especially in Germany where I live. It is the youngest African country to gain independence, in 1991, and after a brutal 30 year war with Ethiopia (and longest running guerrilla war).
But after talking to people here (and making some friends we still keep in touch with), we found out that many citizens don't have passports and have no possibility for a better life outside its borders, unless they escape. It's no wonder Asmara's Italian legacy is all but a secret to the outside world.
Walking around the city we were able to see for ourselves, language wasn’t the only footprint left by Italy in the early 20th century. Paired with its espresso, cinematography and reservoir of Fiats, the city remains the most intact showcase of Italian modernist architecture in the world.
Italy swept in to Eritrea during Mussolini's rule in the 1930s, a robust time of development what with, Kodachrome, the Beetle and World War II on the precipice. Italian architects and designers put their visionary energy into creating a "Second Roman Empire" as an exhibition of Western ambition.
And empire they made. Eritrea at the time became the most sophisticated city in Africa.
The famous Fiat building, shaped like an airplane, was a lofty engineering tasks never before attempted. Cinemas were erected across the city, and buildings spanning Art Deco, cubist, expressionist, futurist and neoclassical styles overwhelmed the senses.
Today, Asmara exists as a hull of this gilded age,as well as the exit strategy of Italians have left Eritrea as their playground of the past. The urban space of Asmara shapes it’s character.
A traveler who makes it to Asmara can slide back in time, visit a 115 year old pharmacy, bowl on a vintage lane and sip an espresso as if they were on a Hollywood set. It's almost enough to trick you into forgetting the struggle Eritreans are facing today.