Asmara's Italian Architecture
Walking through Eritrea’s capital city Asmara, it may be surprising to hear people chatting with each other in Italian. Neighborly menin newsboy caps serpentining by on biciclettas, “Bon Giorno!” is surely a pleasant if not unexpected greeting for a traveler in Africa. I tried to coolly dish out a few phrases I'd remembered from school, but the nice man shook his head, smiled a big smile and switched to English. Story of my life.
As we got to know Asmara a little more intimately, I learned that the language wasn’t the only footprint left by Italy in the early 20th century- alongside espresso, cinematography and Fiats, the city remains the most intact showcase of Italian modernist architecture in the world.
Italy in Africa? We don't hear much about it besides the stints with Ethiopia in the early 20th century. Plus, Eritrea's hush hush borders make it slightly more difficult for tourists to come. Asmara's Italian legacy is all but a secret to the outside world.
A quick history for those (like me) had no idea about this little country on the Red Sea. 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 just around the corner. Italian architects and designers put their visionary energy into creating a "Second Roman Empire" as a exhibition of Western ambition. Asmara was that empire.
Italy pushed design and style into the realm of narcissism. 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. Eritrea at the time was the most sophisticated city in Africa.
Today, Asmara exists as sort of a hull of this gilded age, as 30 years of war with Ethiopia and it's struggle for independence (the last territory in Africa to gain it, in 1991) 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 literally slide back in time, visit a 115 year old pharmacy, bowl on a vintage lane, drive an old-school Fiat. Or, in my case, get schooled in Italian by the boys down on the Passagietta.
Perhaps it is a contradiction that African countries exteriorize the traditions of their colonizers, while their own vernacular is cast aside. Or perhaps this is just how history writes itself. In Asmara's case, it's a bitterwseet, beautiful paradox.