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Decision 41 COM 8B.11
Asmara: a Modernist City of Africa (Eritrea)

The World Heritage Committee,

  1. Having examined Documents WHC/17/41.COM/8B and WHC/17/41.COM/INF.8B1,
  2. Inscribes Asmara: Africa’s Modernist City, Eritrea, on the World Heritage List on the basis of criteria (ii) and (iv);
  3. Adopts the following Statement of Outstanding Universal Value:

    Brief synthesis

    Located on an highland plateau at the centre of Eritrea, Asmara, a Modernist city of Africa is the capital of the country and is an exceptionally well-preserved example of a colonial planned city, which resulted from the subsequent phases of planning between 1893 and 1941, under the Italian colonial occupation. Its urban layout is based mainly on an orthogonal grid which later integrated elements of a radial system. Asmara preserves an unusually intact human scale, featuring eclectic and rationalist built forms, well-defined open spaces, and public and private buildings, including cinemas, shops, banks, religious structures, public and private offices, industrial facilities, and residences. Altogether, Asmara’s urban-scape outstandingly conveys how colonial planning, based on functional and racial segregation principles, was applied and adapted to the local geographical conditions to achieve symbolic meaning and functional requirements. The town has come to be associated with the struggle of the Eritrean people for self-determination, which was pursued whilst embracing the tangible, yet exceptional, evidence of their colonial past.

    Asmara’s urban character and strong urban form exhibits a human scale in the relationship between buildings, streets, open spaces, and related activities adapted to the local conditions, which embodies both colonial and post-colonial African life, with its public spaces, mixed-use fabric and place-based material culture. These spaces and use patterns also bear witness to interchange and cultural assimilation of successive encounters with different cultures as well as to the role played by Asmara in building a collective identity that was later instrumental in motivating early efforts for its preservation. Asmara’s urban layout with its different patterns associated to the planning phases, illustrates the adaptation of the modern urban planning and architectural models to local cultural and geographical conditions. The ensembles attesting to the colonial power and to the presence of a strong and religiously diverse local civic society, with its institutional and religious places, the elements of the urban architecture (Harnet et Sematat avenues; Mai Jah Jah park; the walking paths; the old plaques with traces of the street names), the buildings, complexes and facilities resulting from the 1930s programmes (the post office building at Segeneyti Street), the cinemas (Impero, Roma, Odeon, Capitol, Hamasien), the schools, the sport facilities, the garages, the residential complexes and buildings, the villas, the commercial buildings, the factories; the cores of the community quarters (e.g. the Italian quarter and market square and mosque square); the major religious buildings, marking the landscape with bell-towers, spires, and minarets, and the civil and military cemeteries which illustrate the diversity of the populations and of their rituals.

    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 exploiting 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 its 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 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.


    All the significant architectural structures and the original urban layout, including most of the characteristic features and public spaces, have been retained in their entirety. The site has also preserved its historical, cultural, functional and architectural integrity with its elements largely intact and generally in relatively acceptable condition, although a number of buildings suffer from lack of maintenance. Limited negative impacts have been the occasional inappropriate restoration of older structures and the construction of some buildings in the late 20th century that are inappropriate in size, scale or character. Despite continuing developmental pressures, the establishment of the ‘Historic Perimeter’ around the centre of the city since 2001 and a moratorium on new construction within this perimeter by the municipal authorities have safeguarded the site’s integrity.

    The integrity of the intangible attributes associated with the local community that has inhabited parts of the site for centuries has been maintained through a process of cultural continuity that, despite successive waves of foreign influence, has been successfully assimilated into a modern national consciousness and a national capital.


    Asmara’s combination of innovative town planning and modernist architecture in an African context represents important and early developmental phases of town planning and architectural modernism that are still fully reflected in its layout, urban character and architecture.

    Climatic, cultural, economic and political conditions over subsequent decades have favoured the retention of the artistic, material and functional attributes of the city’s architectural elements to an almost unique degree of intactness, which allows also for future research on the history of construction of its buildings.

    The authenticity of local intangible attributes manifested in language, cultural practices, identity, and sense of place have been retained through Asmara’s evolution from an indigenous centre of economy and administration, through a colonial capital, to a modern African capital.

    Protection and management requirements

    The protection of Asmara has been granted by the Regolamento Edilizio 1938, issued at the time of Cafiero’s plan, and by the moratorium on new construction issued in 2001. The Cultural and Natural Heritage Proclamation 2015 provides conditions for the legal protection of the property through ad-hoc designations. The Asmara Heritage Project and the Department of Public Works Development hold responsibilities for issuing building permits and granting permission for maintenance works in compliance with existing regulations. Planning instruments at different scales are crucial in complementing the legal protection of Asmara and its setting and in guaranteeing its effective management: the Urban Conservation Master Plan and the related Asmara Planning Norms and Technical Regulations under development are key tools in this regard. Both need to ensure that the intactness of Asmara’s urban and built fabric, its human scale and specific modernist yet African character, are preserved, though favouring proactive maintenance, conservation and rehabilitation of its urban fabric and spaces. Given the several administrative/technical structures and instruments already in place, the envisaged management framework needs to build on existing experiences and structures and ensure coordination and clear mandates, which avoid duplication.

  4. Recommends that the State Party give consideration to the following:
    1. Issuing the specific protective designations for the property as per the provisions of the Cultural and Natural Heritage Proclamation 2015 and developing an implementation calendar to monitor advancements in this regard,
    2. Finalising the Urban Conservation Master Plan and the Asmara Planning Norms and Technical Regulations, making consistent the zoning in the relevant plan and regulations, taking into account the 15 zones of the urban analysis, and developing action plans with clear priorities for conservation intervention and budget proposals,
    3. Developing strategies to ensure a steady influx of financial resources, including loans and tax reduction or exemption measures, substantial qualified human resources, and considerable institutional and technical capacity,
    4. Setting up the central management body envisaged by the Integrated Management Plan, based on the existing capacities and functioning structures, and giving it the function to coordinate all relevant stakeholders, both public and private, acting within the property and its buffer zone and providing it with the necessary technical and financial means and adequate human resources;
  5. Requests the State Party to submit to the World Heritage Centre by 1 December 2018 a report on the implementation of the above-mentioned recommendations for examination by the World Heritage Committee at its 43rd session in 2019;
  6. Decides that the name of the property be changed to Asmara: a Modernist City of Africa.
Decision Code
41 COM 8B.11
Inscriptions on the World Heritage List
States Parties 1
Decisions adopted during the 41st session of the World Heritage Committee (Krakow, 2017)
Context of Decision