Between the years 1889-1941, when the area was ruled by Italy, many modernist buildings were built, and Eritreans have lobbied for many years to have their capital city – also known as ‘Little Rome’ – registered as a World Heritage Site. The current authorities first declared it a national monument in 2001, the starting point in an attempt to gain recognition for the architectural heritage that has culminated in the recent award from the United Nations.
During their occupation of the territory, the Italian authorities embarked upon large-scale development programmes, leading to strong Italian architectural influences on governmental and commercial buildings, churches, mosques, synagogues, cinemas and hotels. Some of these are still used to this day. The central post office was completed between 1915 and 1916 and is still the main postal building in the city.
Over the years and through the decades of wartime in the country, many Eritrean cities have been destroyed, but Asmara has survived. As a result, it is often referred to as the “City of Dreams.” But the conflict took its toll, and due to a lack of money the buildings are not being preserved as best they could. This is where UNESCO can step in to help provide preservation funds. The buildings have been classified as not immediately in danger, so funding will not immediately be made available, but it is there should it be required.
An official UNESCO communication on the city’s new status described Asmara as “an exceptional example of early modernist urbanism at the beginning of the 20th century and its application in an African context.”