Tuesday, May 5, 2015


Italian Eritrea was a colony of Italy from the end of the XIX century until just after WWII. The main cities were "Italian Asmara" (the capital) and "Italian Massaua" (the main port). The two cities in those years had a huge population of Italians and their descendants: more than 3/4 of the Italians living in Italian Eritrea were in both cities. Here it is a description of Italian Asmara, nicknamed "piccola Roma" (little Rome):


'''Italian Asmara''' was the capital of Italian Eritrea from 1890 to 1941, when Eritrea was called in Italian language with the nickname ''Colonia Primigenia'' (first colony) of the Kingdom of Italy.

Italian Asmara as a city was practically created by the Italians, when it was chosen as Eritrea's capital in 1897.

Italian Asmara was even called in the late 1930s with the nickname ''Piccola Roma'' (little Rome), because looked like a typical small Italian city, with most inhabitants being Italians.

Only in February 1947 -with the Peace Treaty following World War II- the Italians renounced to the city.

Fiat Tagliero building: masterpiece of Art Deco

Introduction & historical background

When in the late 19th century the first Italians arrived in the area where it is now Asmara, they found a small Christian village of nearly 200 inhabitants. The missionary Remedius Prutky had passed through Asmara in 1751, and described in his memoirs that a church built there by Jesuit priests 130 years before was still intact.

Asmara, which was then part of the independent kingdom of Medri Bahri, was ruled by Ras Alula who had received the title of governor of Medri Bahri from the emperor of Ethiopia.

Asmara acquired importance when it was occupied by Italy in 1889 and was made the capital city of Eritrea in preference to Italian Massaua by Governor Ferdinando Martini in 1897. In the early 20th century, a railway line was built to the coast, passing through the town of Ghinda, under the direction of Carlo Cavanna. In both 1913 Asmara Earthquake and 1915 Asmara Earthquake the city suffered only slight damage in those large earthquakes.

Italian Asmara attracted a small community of Italian Jews, that grew in the 1930s. The first Jews to settle in Eritrea were Yemenite Jews who began arriving in the late 19th century, attracted by new commercial opportunities driven by Italian colonial expansion, which saw the colonization of Eritrea at the time. In 1906, the Asmara Synagogue was completed in Asmara. It included a main sanctuary which could seat up to 200 people, classrooms, and a small Jewish cemetery. Indeed in the 1930s, the Jewish community was bolstered when many European Jews emigrated to Eritrea to escape Nazi persecution in Europe.

In the late 1930s the Italians changed the face of the town, with a new structure and new buildings: Asmara was called ''Piccola Roma'' (Little Rome). While Eritrea was under Italian colonial rule, architecturally conservative early-20th-century Europeans (mostly Italians) used Asmara "to experiment with radical new designs." Nowadays the major part of buildings in Asmara are of Italian origin, and shops still have Italian names (e.g., ''Bar Vittoria'', ''Pasticceria moderna'', ''Casa del formaggio'', and ''Ferramenta'').

Asmara was populated by a numerous Italian community and consequently the city acquired an Italian architectural look. The city of Asmara (called in the Italian Empire: ''Asmara italiana'') had a population of 98,000, of which 53,000 were "Italian Eritreans" according to the Italian census of 1939. This fact made Asmara the main "Italian town" of the Italian empire in Africa. In all Eritrea the Italians were 75,000 in that year (see http://www.maitacli.it Eritrea, la colonia primigenia).

The official language was the Italian language, while the currency was the "Tallero Eritreo" until 1921 and later the "Italian East African lira". The city was mostly Christian, with Catholicism being the most numerous faith (64% in 1940, including the Italians): the government built in 1922 one of the best churches in Africa, the Asmara Roman Catholic Cathedral (called "St Joseph's Cathedral").

Asmara was connected to Addis Ababa (capital of Ethiopia) by the ''Via della Vittoria'', a fully asphalted new road of 1077 kms built between 1936 and 1939 and served by a weekly bus service that connected the two capitals in four days. A huge modern hospital (called "Hospitem, Ospedale italiano" (called now "Hospital Italiano" and still working with another Italian Hospital called "Hospital Regina Elena") was inaugurated in 1937. Asmara had one of the first airports in eastern Africa and was connected to Italy by the worldwide famous "Linea dell'Impero", an international flight of nearly 7,000 kms between Rome and Mogadiscio (capital of Italian Somalia).

The first sport activities and structures were made in Italian Asmara in the 1930s: it was even created a football tournament linked to the Italian championships. Even a "Circuit of Asmara" was created in 1937: the first car race in eastern Africa. Furthermore, many industrial investments -read last month edition of this same blog- were made by Italy in Asmara (mainly in the metalmechanic sector), but the beginning of World War II stopped the blossoming industrialization of the area.

Italy was defeated in 1941, and the British administered the city from then until 1952. Most Italians moved away from the city in those years: after 1942 started a very difficult decade for the Italians of Asmara (see Eros Chiasserini. "Eritrea: Gli anni difficili (1941-1951)" in http://researchomnia.blogspot.com/2015_04_01_archive.html ). In 1952, the United Nations resolved to federate the former colony under Ethiopian rule, but in 1991 Eritrea obtained the independence after a long struggle''.

Italian Eritreans in Asmara

The city even in 2014 had a small but significant population of "Italian Eritreans". These were Eritrean-born descendants of Italian settlers as well as Italian long-term residents in Eritrea. Those born of mixed race unions were locally called 'hanfets'. Their ancestry dated back from the beginning of the Italian colonization of Eritrea at the end of the 19th century, but only after the Second Italo-Abyssinian War of 1935 they settled in large numbers.

Indeed in December 1935 the population of Asmara was of only 16.000 inhabitants, of whom 4,000 Italians and 12,0000 Eritreans; but in January 1939 the Asmara population reached 84,000 imhabitants (with 48,000 Italians and 36,000 Eritreans): Asmara was the only capital of Africa where the majority of the population was european at the start of World War II. In Asmara alone, according to Resoum Kidane, there were 16 elementary and 10 secondary Italian schools (in addition, there were three institutions for higher education in Italian language with a total of 3,000 pupils with 150 teachers, and four Pre-University courses with 120 students).

In the 1939 census of Eritrea there were more than 75,000 Eritrean Italians (over 10% of the Eritrean population then), most of them (53,000) living in Asmara. Many Italian settlers got out of their colony after its conquest by the "Allies" in November 1941 and they were reduced to only 38,000 by 1946. Although many of the remaining Italians stayed during the decolonization process after World War II and were actually assimilated into the Eritrean society, a few in Asmara were stateless in the 1980s, as none of them were given citizenship unless through marriage or, more rarely, by having it conferred upon them by the State. However in the 1990s all were given Italian passport and nearly all repatriated. In the last decades many of their descendants born in Asmara have moved to Italy, where they have taken the Italian citizenship (like Luciano Vassalo, a famous football player and trainer).

One of the most important members of the Italian community in Asmara was Dr. Vincenzo Di Meglio. In 1940 he promoted -with other Italian doctors- the creation in Asmara of a university section of a faculty of Medicine near the Hospital of Asmara (then called "Ospedale Italiano"): it was the first nucleus of the "University of Asmara" created in the 1950s. It was founded in 1941 and was called "Scuola italiana di Medicina di Asmara" (Sforza, M. 'La Scuola italiana di medicina di Asmara.Rievocazione di un'opera di italianità (1941 – 1961)'. Tipografia Arcuri. Roma, 1978). During the last years of World War II Dr. Di Meglio defended politically the Italians of Eritrea and successively promoted the independence of Eritrea. After the war he supported the creation of the ''Associazione Italo-Eritrei'' and the ''Associazione Veterani Ascari'', in order to get alliance with the Eritreans favorable to Italy in Eritrea. As a result of these creations, he cofounded the ''Partito Eritrea Pro Italia'' ("Party of Shara Italy") in September 1947, an Eritrean political Party favorable to the Italian presence in Eritrea that obtained more than 200,000 inscriptions of membership in one single month.

Indeed the Italian Eritreans strongly rejected the Ethiopian annexation of Eritrea after the war: the "Party of Shara Italy" was established in Asmara and Eritrea in the late 1940s and the majority of the members were former Italian soldiers with many Eritrean Ascari (the organization was even backed up by the government of Italy).

Today there are approximately 900 Italian Eritreans remaining in the Asmara region. However, there are an estimated 100,000 descendants of Italian Eritreans out of the 600,000 population of the city of Asmara.

Italian architecture

Italian Asmara represents perhaps one of the most concentrated and intact assemblage of "Modernist architecture" anywhere in the world. The urban design within the "Historic Perimeter" of modern Asmara has remained untouched since its original implementation and subsequent evolution throughout the 1930s, and the architectural elements exemplify a superlative example of Modernist architecture in a complete urban setting.

The city's architecture is heavily influenced by Italian architecture, even because since 1914 the Italians created urban plans for Asmara. The best plan was done in 1937 by Cafiero:

Vittorio Cafiero in 1937 did a new "Urban Plan" for Asmara...maintaining the old street plans, done by the "Cavagnari Plan" in 1914 -that divided Asmara in four sections: the Italian, the native Eritrean, the governmental and the industrial, he added a new section for future development with a "circonvallazione" (round circle avenue). The improvement of the axis around "Roma square", "Mussolini boulevard", "Cadorna boulevard" and the "railways station", moved to the south the administrative/economic center of the planned city... to the southeast there was the green quarter with rich villas around the Ghezza Banda" hill... and to the north of the "Milano boulevard" there was the indigenous quarter. -- Santoianni

In 1885, the Italians invaded Eritrea and by 1900 Asmara had become the capital city: the site was chosen mainly for its salubrious highland climate, reliable water supply and ideal geographic location in the center of Eritrea. In the early twentieth century, Asmara represented little more than a tiny highland village, which grew incrementally to become a well-established town by the 1920s.

However, by the 1930s, it was clear that Italy, under the rule of Benito Mussolini, was intent on invading neighbouring Ethiopia and would use Eritrea as the launch pad for this long-held ambition. In preparation for this substantial military attack, an unprecedented quantity of materials and labour flowed into Eritrea throughout the 1930s. In a matter of months, Asmara became a vast building site, as over 70,000 Italians arrived to established new lives for themselves.

The rapid transformation of Asmara from a relatively minor town into Africa's most modern and sophisticated city at that time overlapped with equally momentous events in the world of design and architecture, which involved the global proliferation of Modernism and its various forms, including "Futurism", "Rationalism, "Novecento Italiano", and "Art Deco". The spirit of this new age of travel and adventure was embodied in these new architectural forms. Asmara was an ideal blank canvas on which Italian architects could practice and create these modern ideals.

From 1935-1941, thousands of buildings were constructed in the city, most of which reflect various Modernist styles and some of which represent inimitable architectural forms, such as petrol stations mimicking aeroplanes and boats, commercial buildings designed as trains, cavernous cinemas with fine period plasterwork and Art Deco interiors, fine ultra-modern hotels and offices, and government buildings with highly politicised monumental designs.


The city is known for its early 20th century buildings, including the Art Deco "Cinema Impero" (opened in 1937 and considered by the experts one of the world's finest examples of Art Déco style building), the Cubist "Africa Pension", the eclectic Eritrean Orthodox "Tewahdo" Church, the former "Asmara Opera House", the futurist architecture "Fiat Tagliero Building", the neo-Romanesque architecture "Roman Catholic Cathedral", and the neoclassical architecture "Governor's Palace". The city is adorned by Italian colonial villas and mansions, one prominent example being the "Asmara's World Bank Building''.

Most of central Asmara was built between 1935 and 1941, so effectively the Italians managed to build almost an entire city in just six short years (read BBC: Reviving Asmara ; http://www.bbc.co.uk/africalives/ram/reviving_asmara01.ram )

At this time, the dictator Benito Mussolini had great plans for a second Roman Empire in Africa. War cut this short, but his injection of funds created the Asmara of today, which supposedly was to be a symbol that his "Fascism" worked and that it was an ideal system of government.

The city shows off most early 20th century architectural styles. Some buildings are "neo-Romanesque architecture", such as the Roman Catholic Cathedral, some villas are built in a late "Victorian Architecture" style. Art Deco influences are found throughout the city; essentially Asmara was then what Dubai is now. Architects were restricted by nothing more than the bounds of their imaginations and were given the funds to create masterpieces which we can see today. Essences of "Cubism" can be found on the "Africa Pension Building", and on a small collection of buildings. The "Fiat Tagliero Building" shows almost the height of futurism, just as it was coming into big fashion in Italy. In recent times, some buildings have been functionally built which sometimes can spoil the atmosphere of some cities, but they fit into Asmara as it is such a modern city.

Italian Asmara had even a 19th century fort, Forte Baldissera, and was connected to the port of Italian Massaua by the "Eritrean Railway" and by a state-of-the-art "Asmara-Massawa Cableway".

The Asmara airport was created in 1922, the first such facility to be opened in Italian Eritrea. It served as the main military airport in the territory. In the mid-1930s, the airport began offering civilian and commercial flights: the first international was the Asmara-Rome, started in 1933. Furthermore, an efficient postal service was created using the Asmara airport.

On 7 July 1935, an agreement was signed with the British "Imperial Airways" to connect Asmara to Khartoum. A regular Kassala-Khartoum-Asmara-Massawa 770 km commercial route was subsequently started with a Caproni Ca.133 of the Italian "Ala Littoria".(read Flavio Riccitelli. ALA LITTORIA S.A. (1934–1941); http://www.ilpostalista.it/unico2004pag55.htm). During World War II, the airport was nearly destroyed by the British. Italian Asmara was known in 1940 to be an exceptionally modern city, not only because of its architecture, but even because had more "traffic lights" than Rome had when the city was being built. The city incorporates many features of a planned city. Indeed, Asmara was an early example of an ideal modern city created by architects, an idea which was introduced into many cities across the world, such as Brasilia, but which was not altogether popular. Features include designated city zoning and planning, wide treed boulevards, political areas and districts and space and scope for development.

The city has been regarded as "New Rome" or "Italy's African City" due to its quintessential Italian touch, not only for the architecture, but also for the wide streets, piazzas and coffee bars. While the boulevards are lined with palms and indigenous ''shiba'kha'' trees, there are numerable pizzerias and coffee bars, serving "cappuccinos" and "lattes", as well as "ice cream" parlours. Indeed the first brewery in Asmara (and Eritrea) was the ''Melotti Brewery'', that was founded in 1939 by Luigi Melotti: even now it exists but with the new name "Asmara Brewery" and supports one of the best football teams in Eritrea (the "Asmara Brewery F.C.").

Asmara has been proposed as a possible new addition to the UNESCO's World Heritage Sites, under the direction of the "Cultural Assets Rehabilitation Project", for its outstanding examples of 20th century architecture and town planning when was called ''Asmara italiana''.