Africa's 'Little Rome' survives conflict, seeks U.N. accolade

Thu Mar 10, 2016 5:35am EST
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By Edmund Blair

ASMARA (Reuters) - In an often forgotten corner of the Horn of Africa, Eritrea's capital boasts one of the world’s finest collections of early 20th century architecture and the authorities want it declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

When Italy's colonial experiment in Eritrea ended in 1941, it left behind an array of Rationalist, Futurist, Art Deco and other Modernist styles in Asmara, a city whose historic heart has changed little since the Italians lived and worked there.

In following decades, conflict ravaged Eritrea, leaving the nation isolated and stifling development. But the violence by-passed the city, and the capital has never been swamped by the kind of construction that raced ahead elsewhere in Africa.

A Reuters photo essay at shows elegant avenues still flanked by the Art Deco Cinema Impero, the imposing lines of the Education Ministry that once housed the Fascist party headquarters and the Futurist Fiat Tagliero garage with gravity-defying concrete cantilevered wings, extending 15 meters either side without the support of pillars.

Italian architects used what had been an amalgamation of highland villages centuries earlier as "an ideal blank canvas", according to UNESCO's description, to practice what were, at the time, some of the world's most avant garde designs.

Italians nicknamed it "La Piccola Roma" or "Little Rome".

"The city is very intact and maintains its original character," said Medhanie Teklemariam, coordinator for the Asmara Heritage Project, which has drawn up an inventory of about 4,300 buildings in Asmara's historic perimeter.

The nomination dossier for World Heritage Site status was submitted to UNESCO this year, with a decision expected in 2017.   Continued...

Pigeons fly outside the Nda Mariam Orthodox Cathedral in Eritrea's capital Asmara, February 16, 2016. Eritrea's capital city boasts one of the world's finest collections of early 20th century architecture, which the authorities want declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. REUTERS/Thomas Mukoya