Unearthing History Through Street Names
|Asmara during the British occupation of the 1940s.|
Unearthing History Through Street Names
By Yakiem A.
“...With its Cathedral, the town hall, the terraces and the porticoes, its streets crowded with strollers, its civic pride, simple piety and love of pageantry make its look a real Italian town. It gives one the impression that it was built and perfected down to the last detail in Apulia and wafted over the sea to Africa where it came down like a meteorite and landed intact on this particular spot.”
This was said of our beautiful capital city Asmara by Swiss author Charles-Henri Favrod when caught by the city’s charm and heart-capturing elegance.
Meanwhile, according to indepth researches conducted by the Cultural Assets Rehabilitation Project (CARP), the history of modern Asmara dates back to 1895-1896. During these years, the Italian town planners exerted their efforts in engineering the first town plan, which focused on the market place. Assuredly, this part of the City was exclusively designated for Italian residents. And with the significant expansion and development of the master plan of Asmara, it was clear for the town planners to adorn the city with well-planned and perfectly laid out streets, avenues and squares.
Regarding this, therefore, Mr. Yishak Yosief, an Eritrean author, clearly elaborated in his book entitled “Zanta Ketema Asmara” by saying that “right from the moment when the Italian engineers got down to implementing their technical plan and the first main road trunks had been laid down so well graveled and paved, it was quite clear that Asmara would become an attractive City as it is today. Following the completion of some important and interesting roadways of the City in the early 20’s, in 1925 one of the streets was named Viale Benito Mussolini (today’s Harnet Avenue); and another one, Viale Regina Elena (later Itege Tsehaitu Street).”
In the beginning of 1930s, the Fascist Party in Italy had a zealously founded imperial dream to erect its empire in the Horn of Africa. Henceforth, the great political and military changes brought unprecedented aspects of developments for the colonial Capital. As a result, Asmara enabled to witness new buildings and other part of the City were linked by a network of asphalted streets, and street name plates, made from a quadrangle Lamiera ( a piece of Iron Sheet) were for the first time posted on the walls to identify the street names. Written in Italian language, streets, avenues and squares named according their broadness and narrowness thereby to reflect Italian identities and assets. The Italian words PIAZZA, VIA, VIALE, STRADA and CORSO accentuate these differences.
However, as anything has its own undeniable last destination, in April and May 1941, the Italians had their East African Empire. Especially after the great debacle at the battle of Keren, the Italian troops fled in disarray and the British took control of entire Asmara. But contrary to the for granted expectations, after controlling Asmara, the British do not concentrated their focus on changing the street names, except to three well renowned streets; henceforth, they changed Vialae Benito Mussolini to Corso Italian Viale Generale De Bone, and similarly, Viale Conte Galeazzo Ciano changed to Viale Roma and Milano.
In 1952, another eccentric his torical event recorded; in this year, Eritrea was federated with Ethiopia. Following to Hailesselassie’s first arrival to the soil of Eritrea through the Mereb River, situations also started to anchor other chronicles. Hence, a directive issued by the then Chief Executive of Eritrea, Tedla Bairu, on October 10 of 1952, brought a new official declaration that two avenues were given new Ethiopian names in honor of the imperialist Hailessealies. Similarly, another name Viale was awarded a new name in commemoration of the Bolivian Diplomat, Eduardo Anse Matienso, who was nominated by the United Nations to draft the Eritrean Constitution and to organize a government here. Therefore, avenue Corso Italia changed to Haileselassie First, and Viale Roma e Milano assumed to be Addis Ababa avenue, while they named avenue Eduordo AnseMatienso to replace Viale Badoglio e Azzi.
Changing names did not stop here. Similar to what has been aforementioned, on October 15, 1952, another avenue’s name was altered. Corso Del Re renamed Empress Mennen Avenue. Gradually and conspiratorially, Ethiopians were attempting to inculcate their raffish political sermons by renaming street names thereby to penetrate into every Eritrean life and culture. And transparently, this was not a matter of coincidence, but rather the reflection of their deliberate policy for Ethiopianization.
To accelerate what they were stating as “triumphing job”, in 1953, the Federal Government of Eritrea set up a commission to study and rename the streets, avenues and squares of Asmara. CARP documents testify that Dejazmatch Hags Geber (then Mayor of Asmara), Azmatch Zerom Kifle (then Director of Internal Affairs), Azmatch Afewerki Nemariam (then administrator of Asmara and Hamassien region. In 1958, two other new members were added tothe commission.
Following to this, the preliminary meeting of the commission was held on 28th February 1953, and it was a meeting in which the commission emphasized the need for the immediate substitution of the Italian denomination accounts by the new ones. In addition to this, the commission was also tasked with hearing public petitions which were presented either by the relatives of the deceased heroes, religious leaders and other influential individuals. After collecting detailed historical accounts from the petitioners, the commission studied the matter meticulously. However, the commission was not mandated with rejecting or approving the proposal the person would be given a street bearing his name or not as this was an absolute responsibility of the Chief Executive.
Therefore, after 1953, the process of name change of streets became fast. According to the Italian daily newspaper, IL Qotidiano Eritreo came out with 83 new street names and 07 squares. In addition, the military fortification which was built from 1890-1895 by the Italians atop of the Forto was christened as Dejazmatch Balch Aba Nefso Fort. Similarly, on 5th May of 1958, Zemen, the Tigrigna newspaper, published the list of 3304 streets, avenues and squares. The list encompassed the changes which were made from 1952-1958, and the streets names were written in Geez, Arabic, English and Italian. Different from the quadrangle Limeira of the Italians, the street signs which were posted on walls are made from snow-white marbles; transcribing on them was the name in three languages: Geez, Arabic and English.
The process of renaming streets continued up to 1982. The Ethiopian were busy not only rooting out the remains of Italian colonialism and its traces but also introducing their culture and history to Eritreans.
But following Eritrean independence, Asmara named its two main streets Harnet and Semaetat avenues. Different from the remaining streets, these two had changed a record number of five times. Also starting from September 2001, all old streets names of Asmara were replaced by new ones representing authentic Eritrean history and legacy.
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