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Asmara: A Modernist African City

Asmara: A Modernist African City

Located at over 2,000 m above sea level, the capital of Eritrea developed from the 1890s onwards as a military outpost for the Italian colonial power. After 1935, Asmara underwent a large scale programme of construction applying the Italian rationalist idiom of the time to governmental edifices, residential and commercial buildings, churches, mosques, synagogues, cinemas, hotels, etc. The property encompasses the area of the city that resulted from various phases of planning between 1893 and 1941, as well as the indigenous unplanned neighbourhoods of Arbate Asmera and Abbashawel. It is an exceptional example of early modernist urbanism at the beginning of the 20th century and its application in an African context.

Description is available under license CC-BY-SA IGO 3.0

Asmara : une ville africaine moderniste

Située à plus de 2 000 m au-dessus du niveau de la mer, la capitale de l’Érythrée s’est développée à partir des années 1890 comme un avant-poste militaire de la puissance coloniale italienne. Après 1935, Asmara connut un programme de construction à grande échelle appliquant le style rationaliste italien de l’époque aux édifices gouvernementaux, aux bâtiments résidentiels et commerciaux, aux églises, mosquées, synagogues, cinémas, hôtels, etc. Le bien comprend la zone de la ville résultant des différentes phases de planification urbaine entre 1893 et 1941, ainsi que les quartiers autochtones non planifiés d’Arbate Asmera et d’Abbashawel. Il s’agit d’un témoignage exceptionnel du début de l’urbanisme moderne, à l’aube du xxe siècle, et de son application dans un contexte africain.

Description is available under license CC-BY-SA IGO 3.0

أسمرة: مدينة معاصرة في أفريقيا

تقع مدينة أسمرة، عاصمة إريتيا، على ارتفاع أكثر من 2000 متراً فوق مستوى سطح البحر، وقد تطوّرت منذ الثمانينيّات حيث كانت مركزاً عسكريّاً للسلطة الاستعماريّة الإيطاليّة. وشهدت المدينة، منذ العام 1935، برنامج تشييد واسع النطاق أسفر عن استخدام فن العمارة العقلاني الإيطالي في تلك الفترة في المباني الحكوميّة، والمباني السكنيّة والتجاريّة، بالإضافة إلى الكنائس والمساجد والمعابد اليهوديّة وصالات السينما والفنادق... وجدير بالذكر أنّ الموقع يحتوي على منطقة تعاقبت عليها مراحل مختلفة للتخطيط الحضري بين عامي 1893 و1941، فضلاً عن عدد من الأحياء العشوائيّة الأصليّة الواقعة في أرباط أسمرا وأباشاول. ويشهد الموقع على حركة التخطيط الحضري في مطلع القرن العشرين وتطبيقه في البيئة الأفريقيّة.

source: UNESCO/CPE
Description is available under license CC-BY-SA IGO 3.0

Asmara:una ciudad africana modernista
Situada a más de 2.000 metros de altura sobre el nivel mar, la capital de Eritrea, Asmara, se empezó a desarrollar a partir del decenio de 1890 como puesto militar de avanzada del poder colonial italiano. A partir de 1935, se inició un plan urbanístico a gran escala para construir con el estilo racionalista italiano de la época toda una serie de edificios gubernamentales y comerciales, iglesias, mezquitas, sinagogas, viviendas, hoteles, cines, etc. El sitio abarca la zona de construcciones planificadas en sucesivas fases, desde 1893 hasta 1941, y también las construcciones no planificadas de los barrios autóctonos de Arbate, Asmera y Abbashawel. Este bien cultural constituye un testimonio excepcional del urbanismo occidental de principios del siglo XX y de su aplicación en un contexto africano.

source: UNESCO/CPE
Description is available under license CC-BY-SA IGO 3.0

Asmara: een modernistische stad in Afrika

De hoofdstad van Eritrea ligt 2000 meter boven zeeniveau en ontwikkelde zich vanaf 1890 uit een militaire buitenpost van het Italiaanse koloniale bewind. Na 1935 onderging Asmara een grootschalig bouwprogramma waarbij het Italiaanse rationalistische idioom van die tijd werd toegepast op overheidsgebouwen, woningen, commerciële gebouwen, kerken, moskeeën, synagoges, bioscopen, hotels etc. De werelderfgoedsite bestaat zowel uit een gebied dat het resultaat is van verschillende planningsfases tussen 1893 en 1941 als uit de inheemse niet-geplande buurten Arbate Asmera en Abbashawel. Asmara is een exceptioneel voorbeeld van vroeg-modernistische stedenbouwkundige planning aan het begin van de 20ste eeuw en haar toepassing in een Afrikaanse context.

Source: unesco.nl

Outstanding Universal Value

Brief synthesis

Located on a 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 and 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 African City, 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.