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Asmara: A Modernist City of Africa World Heritage Site

Asmara, Eritrea (Credit: RedSeaLove)



The State of Eritrea submitted its first ever application to UNESCO for inscription on the World Heritage List (WHL) on 1st February 2016. Asmara was officially declared a World Heritage Site and put on the prestigious World Heritage List on the 41st session of the UNESCO´s World Heritage Committee that was held from 2-12 July 2017 in Krakow, Poland.

The 1,300-page Nomination Dossier prepared for the Asmara Heritage represents the distillation of nearly two decades of collaborative research by professionals from a wide range of disciplines in Eritrea and overseas, supported by many national and international government agencies. This article summarizes the most important propositions as to why Asmara is significant as a World Heritage Site.


Eritrea’s decision to conserve Asmara’s colonial era architecture represents a profoundly different attitude towards architectural heritage and its interpretation and treatment compared with many other post-colonial settings. Asmara’s inscription also presents an opportunity to encourage critical reflections on cultural relations and heritage globally, and to promote stability and prosperity locally. In addition, Asmara has contributed towards a World Heritage global strategy redressing the comparative under-representation of African and modernist sites on the World Heritage List.

The Government of Eritrea has implemented several programmes and projects for the preservation, conservation and safeguarding of the nation’s cultural and natural heritage and their transmission to future generations. The Central Region Administration, the Ministry of Education and the Commission of Culture and Sports jointly initiated Asmara Heritage Project to inscribe Asmara on UNESCO – World Heritage List and prepare conservation and management documents. Eritrea’s approach towards conservation is not aimed only at getting Asmara a World Heritage Status but at preserving and conserving the rich urban heritage in a sustainable manner.

The World Heritage Site of Asmara comprises the city’s ‘historic’ centre founded on the site of an ancient local settlement and developed during the years of the Italian occupation from 1889 to 1941. The evolution of the urban plan over this period subject to local climate, topographical, political and cultural features has produced one of the most complete early-modernist built environments in the world. As an outcome of a cumulative planning process over decades, Asmara’s layout is an embodiment of the universal encounter with modernity in the 20th century in an African context. The site extends from the indigenous quarter of Abba Shawel in the north to the industrial and residential districts of Gejeret and Tiravolo in the south, and from the edge of the escarpment in the east to ‘Forto’ and the Italian cemetery in the west. Contained within this total urban setting are the successive phases of early-modern urban planning that defined Asmara’s layout and the majority of buildings and structures that give the city its modernist architectural character.

The Buffer Zone surrounds the nominated property and follows the urban fabric and natural features. It encompasses the city limits up to the peaks of the surrounding hill, the escarpment edge urban fabric of more recent residential zones on the city’s southern outskirts and residential developments to the north.

The modernist city of Asmara is an outstanding example of a colonial capital that bears witness to the universal encounter with modernity in the 20th century and consequent postcolonial experiences. The historic urban landscape embodies in a whole city the unity of innovative urban planning and modernist architecture combined with local natural and cultural conditions.

An urban planning process based on functional and racial zoning demonstrates the Italian colonial response from the late 19th century to the challenges of modern urban requirements in a highland African setting. The architectural character exemplifies a period of intense development in the 1930s that coincided with the global proliferation and artistic apogee of pre-war modernism and its various forms. The result is a total urban landscape characterized by its human-scale buildings and mixed uses, built forms, and activities, including well-defined open spaces, cinemas, shops, banks, religious structures, public and private offices, industrial facilities, and residences. The integrity and authenticity of Asmara’s functional, aesthetic and cultural values have been retained throughout a protracted struggle for independence and subsequently assimilated into a national consciousness in which Asmara features centrally.

The historic centre of Asmara is inscribed as an outstanding example of a capital city that embodies the unity of early town planning principles and modernist architecture combined with local natural features and cultural conditions consistent with its highland African setting. The site is inscribed under the following criteria:-

Criterion (ii): Asmara, a modernist city of Africa represents an outstanding example of the transposition and materialization of ideas about planning, in an African context and were used for functional and segregation purposes; the adaptation to the local context is reflected in the urban layout and functional zoning, and in the architectural forms, which, although expressing a modernist and Rationalist idiom and exploited modern materials and techniques, also relied on and borrowed heavily from local morphologies, construction methods, materials, skills and labour. Asmara’s creation and development contributed significantly to Eritrea’s particular response to the tangible legacies of their colonial past. Despite the evidence of its colonial imprint, Asmara has been incorporated into the Eritrean identity, acquiring important meaning during the struggle for self- determination that motivated early efforts for its protection.

Criterion (iv): Asmara’s urban layout and character, in combining the orthogonal grid with radial street patterns, and picturesque elements, integrating topographical features, taking into account local cultural conditions created by different ethnic and religious groups, and using the principle of zoning for achieving racial segregation and functional organisation, bears exceptional witness to the development of the new discipline of urban planning at the beginning of the 20th century and its application in an African context, to serve the Italian colonial agenda. This hybrid plan, that combined the functional approach of the grid with the search for the picturesque and the creation of scenic spaces, vistas, civic plaza and monumental places, served the functional, civic and symbolic requirements for a colonial capital. The architecture of Asmara complements the plan and forms a coherent whole although reflecting eclecticism and rationalist idioms and is one of the most complete and intact collections of modernist/rationalist architecture in the world.

Asmara’s inclusion on UNESCO - World Heritage List for its outstanding modernist architecture and urban planning and its exceptional testimony of the universal aspiration for and attainment of national self-determination goes beyond merely pursuing international recognition for its cultural assets. For Eritreans, Asmara is not just their capital city but an object of love; an icon of unity with a very strong social bondage and attachment. This intangible cultural aspect of Asmara’s is significant not only for world heritage listing but as part of a wider and richer historiography than merely a modernist architecture and planning.

This article highlighted the significance of Asmara Heritage property as a World Heritage Site. In the next edition of this column a glimpse into the history of the development of the urban landscape will be sketched.

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Asmara: A Modernist City of Africa World Heritage Site Reviewed by Admin on 12:00 AM Rating: 5

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