A note to the reader: I’ve recently completed a guide to travel on the ground once you arrive in Eritrea – it’s the most up to date and comprehensive guide on travel in the country (not to toot my own horn) as of September 2018, and I hope to keep it updated as more folks share their personal accounts of travel there with me. You can find that article here!
The primary reason for our trip to Eritrea was architecture. A close second was that we hadn’t been to Africa, but had it not been for the clandestine architectural splendor of Asmara, the country’s capital, we probably would have headed elsewhere for our first foray into the continent. Fact of the matter is, the architectural diversity mixed with a culture we knew almost nothing about (save injera) made Eritrea almost an obvious choice for our 2018 kickoff destination. We’d pondered including Sudan and Egypt as the precursor to the architectural orgasm that would be Asmara, but in the end, spent a week frustrated in a rental car in Albania instead. Normal, everyday problems, I know. What were we talking about even? Oh right, Asmara’s architecture.
While our arrival to Asmara in the middle of the night wasn’t without issues (I’ll be writing a post on practical information for potential visitors to Eritrea later), the following days we spent in the city were as lovely as any we can remember while on a trip (like, Paramaribo status). Super-chilled beers in hotel courtyards provided the respite we needed from the previous week driving questionable roads in Albania. Not to mention, the opportunity for architecture scouting was so vast that there’s no need for a map – walk the city, and you’ll trip across Italian Futurist/Art Deco/Fascist/Simply Delicious architecture around every corner.
For maps and details, skip to the end of the post to see a map of the buildings we visited. There’s even a book about it, which hasn’t been further away than arm’s reach from me for at least a year. While I’ve covered the bare minimum, scratch the surface highlights of the city’s architecture in this post, “Asmara: Africa’s Secret Modernist City” gives the modernist architecture enthusiast a complete background on the founding and building of modern Asmara.
That said, let’s get to the good stuff:
Cinema Dante (1910)
The Cinema Dante building is the sweetest. A big part of my love for this building is the sea foam green typography. Dante’s sleekness and effortless style sets my design sensibilities a’tingling. It also happens to be the oldest Italian cinema in the city. There’s a cafe in the lobby where you can have a cup of coffee served by immaculately-dressed staff. It’s right in between Harnet Ave. and the Central Market on Mata Ave., a part of Asmara that I could never quite meander through without lots of head-scratching.
There may or may not be a movie showing that day at the Dante, but fear not, you can always catch the latest episode of Game of Thrones at the Cinema Impero, the most famous of Asmara’s modernist cinemas, on Harnet Avenue.
Seriously, Game of Thrones was the only thing playing the whole week we spent in Asmara. Eritreans are deep into that Targaryen drama.
Medebar Market (1914)
We visited the Medebar market looking for a nice pair of shida – the sandals worn by EPLF fighters during the 30 year war for independence. They’re so important to the Eritrean national psyche that there’s a monument to them in the city. We immediately forgot about our desire for jelly sandals when we saw the walls of the market. Gorgeous bricks on bricks on bricks. Medebar is one of the oldest colonial buildings in the city, and remains in spectacular condition. Not to mention the fact that everything made in the market, from Eritrea’s famous jelly sandals, to kitchen utensils, to oil drums, are made from recycled material.
Pro tip: don’t look at the light coming from the welders. Apparently it’s not good for you. There was no shop class at my private high school, and I’m sorry about it.
Hamasien Hotel (1919)
We moved to the Hamasien Hotel for night three of our stay in Asmara, in search of working electrical outlets and running water. We found one of the two in this most elegant of buildings. The Hamasien Hotel is located south of Harnet Ave., but is difficult to miss. Known for its high tower and once-stately rooms, it’s in the part of Asmara dotted by foreign embassies. While it’s not futuristic like much of the other architecture in Asmara, the colonial-era building definitely projects vibes of more elegant times past. It’s also located directly north of the Embasoira/Imperial Hotel, whose interior is pretty spectacular as well (good wifi, too!).
Central Market (1938-52)
The Central Market’s rows of arches seem more Ottoman-influenced, than Italian – proven by the fact that most of the construction was completed after Italy relinquished control of its colony in 1947. What’s spectacular about the Central Market in Asmara is not necessarily the architecture of the place, but how the architecture and the people mix. Many will say that Harnet Ave. is the heart of Asmara. We contend that it is actually the area surrounding the Central Market, starting across from the entrance to Enda Mariam Cathedral and running westbound (also bordered by the Grand Mosque), is the real hub of activity in Asmara. We visited the market daily, dodging buses to more remote parts of the country, and side-eyeing homemade sambusa in fear of food-borne illness.
Agip Service Station (1937)
This is low-key my favorite building in Asmara. It’s on the fringe of the city – I knew beforehand so asked our driver (Daniel, you’re the best) to take us there after visiting the Tank Graveyard (whoo boy, lots to unpack there). The station is still functioning, albeit more as a place for social gathering rather than actually purchasing gas.
Ultimately, it had the perfect combination of architectural and coincidental elements to win me over: salty dudes hanging around, a sweet puppy, and lots of portholes. Honestly…that’s all it takes.
Fiat Tagliero Service Station (1938)
I buried this one in the middle so I’d keep your attention. For modernism/art deco lovers, Asmara’s Fiat Tagliero building is iconic. It’s located 1500m down Sematat Avenue (from the western terminus of Harnet Ave.) and is impossible to miss. There’s not much going on around the building, which is exactly why you need to see it as soon as possible. I honestly don’t have words to describe it other than it really just has to be seen in person.
Harsh angles in the carefully formed concrete slabs interact harshly with the surrounding bougainvillea and people walk by without registering its splendor. How this building has managed to make it through nearly a hundred years of social and political tumult is beyond my personal comprehension.
Legend has it that the night before the unveiling of the building, city authorities placed support columns underneath the building’s wings. Upon noticing Giuseppe Pettazzi, the architect of the building, flamboyantly held a gun to a man’s head, demanding the supports be removed. They followed his demands, and lo and behold, the wings still stand (or float?) today.
The Fiat Tagliero building, perhaps alongside the Cinema Impero, is what catapulted the effort to get Asmara on the UNESCO World Heritage List. Today it is surrounded by a chain link fence. It will be interesting to see how the local government treats this building moving into the future, especially with hopes of attracting more tourist dollars.
Cinema Odeon (1937)
The Cinema Odeon is located very close to the Hamasien Hotel, near Asmara’s foreign embassies. We stumbled upon it for the first time in search of a hotel with running water and electricity (we eventually found one!), but came back for photos later! It was not showing movies when we visited, but was certainly worth a look over upon passing. I wish I’d spend more time lurking around this building – pictures of the interior look amazing.
Bar Zilli (Late 1930s)
Portholes, check. Sexy typography, check. Papayas the size of a horse’s head for sale in the retail space, check. The Bar Zilli gets an A.
Shops and Apartments (1940s)
Somewhere in the no man’s land between the Central Market and the western terminus of Harnet Ave. lie a number of crisscrossed streets bisecting the main east to west thoroughfares. Here lie the superb fascist-style homes and shops Mussolini dreamed of for his African capital. Sadly, these buildings exist in a space and time that I’m not super familiar with, so I can’t include them on my guide map below. Rest assured knowing that, if you spend fifteen or minutes or so exploring Asmara’s backstreets, you’ll be similarly rewarded by secret architextures all around.
Asmara is an incredibly walkable city. With the exception of the Shell (now Tamoil) Service Station in the far south of the city, all of the buildings detailed above would be easy to see on a day’s walk. If you’re in Asmara, it’s easiest to combine seeing that building with seeing the Tank Graveyard, if you’re so inclined.
Here’s a map of the sites detailed in the post above. I’ve included some additional markers for places we didn’t see but that I think are of note. Coming to mind first are the Cinema Roma, public swimming pool, bowling center, and Enda Mariam Church.
Some good resources for practical information on Asmara include:
This Dutch site with regularly-ish updated information on tourist information in Eritrea
If you’re in Asmara, there is a great map that is in light circulation that you should try to find. We bought ours from a man on Harnet Ave. for 100NFA (about $6USD), but the map was also available at the Crystal Hotel when we visited. It’s a carefully constructed guide to the architecture of the city, published in 2003 by Eritrea’s Cultural Assets and Rehabilitation Project. Here’s a solid jpeg.
By far the best information I read was in the book I mentioned at the top of the article – Asmara: Africa’s Secret Modernist City. The dates and some stories included in the text above are from the contents of this beautiful and enlightening book.
I’m still processing a lot of what I saw in Eritrea, and I’m doing my best to figure out a way to best share it with you all. As I’m sure you’re aware, it’s an incredibly complex country with a troubled past, and I want to make sure I write in the most respectful way possible.