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Asmara 2022 - The remains of Mussolini's "Piccola Roma"


August 2022

Asmara in the ’30s

Mussolini’s “Piccola Roma”

An Art Déco gem

The coexistence of three religious cults

The Years after II World War

The forgotten country


August 2022

We last met in Rome in 2017. Then there was the pandemic, the post-pandemic and all that it entailed. Grandma Stella is now elderly and we go to visit her in Eritrea, where she retired after a life in Italy.

His story is significant. She starts working at the age of 9, at 14 she is sent to the city, in Asmara, to be a nanny by the Tringali, a family of Italian entrepreneurs who are making their fortune with gold mining. It was the 1940s and a large Italian community lived in the town.

Much of the city of Asmara was built in those years, between 1936 and 1941, filling up with colonial-style villas. In just five years, the Italians manage to build an entire city, a symbol of the greatness of the fascist policy that aims at a colonial expansion project in Africa. 

1938 Circuito dell'Asmara
Asmara 1938 on the background the Opera House colonnade
asmara opera house
2022 The Opera House

Asmara in the ’30s

Relations with the native population are based on servile functions, according to strict racial segregation. The city center is totally reserved for Italians. In their bars, restaurants and schools, Eritreans are forbidden to enter, and in buses they must sit in the back rows. A law prohibits mixed marriages and offenders face up to five years in prison. According to a decree of 1940, the children of mixed couples are not considered Italian, so even today people considered “mestizo” often do not have information about their identity.

However, Stella can move freely in the center of Asmara. She accompanies the little girl she takes care of to Italian school and piano lessons but she can’t enter, she has to wait outside. She quickly learns to speak Italian and today she remembers with a smile the day she is sent to buy mozzarella and, unable to pronounce it well, the grocer thinks he wants to buy  mia sorella (my sister). When the little girl makes a fuss to take a bath, Stella gets into the tub with her to play even if her mother scolds her, blacks and whites shouldn’t be in the same water. The Signora, daughter of a butcher, grew up in Mantua and cannot accept this mixture.

Scuola italiana di Asmara
Asmara's italian school

Mussolini’s “Piccola Roma” 

Meanwhile, roads, bridges, railways and factories are being built in the country. The Italians make Asmara the most beautiful city in Africa, with tree-lined avenues, residential neighborhoods, cafés with outdoor tables and pastry shops. Even today, bars retain the original counter on which an old but functional coffee machine rests. The furnishings, chairs and tables are the same ones that were imported in those years.

Mussolini wanted to transform the city, which he called “Piccola Roma” (Little Rome), into a sort of avant-garde urban utopia for the time. To do this, he calls the most visionary Italian architects, who can give substance to their most bizarre and audacious ideas by inventing new lines and shapes and using the latest technologies.

The most significant and well-known modernist building in Asmara is the Fiat Tagliero service station, considered by many to be the most beautiful in the world: it is an impressive concrete building that resembles an airplane, with two 30 meters long wings. It was designed by Giuseppe Pettazzi, and when it was inaugurated in 1938, it is said Pettazzi showed up with a gun to threaten the workers who refused to remove the scaffolding from the wings for fear they would collapse; if they collapsed, Pettazzi threatened, he would shoot himself.

Caffetteria Asmara
Asmara's most typical cafeterias
Asmara Fiat Tagliero
Asmara Fiat Tagliero

An Art Déco gem

The Eritrean capital is not just beautiful, it is well planned and well built. Unfortunately, the buildings have never been renovated due to lack of resources and today all that remains of that splendor are the signs. However, you can find traces of this past in the very structure of the city: the area of ​​villas where the Italians lived, in all its art deco splendour, up to the main street, Harnet Avenue.

Asmara Villa in stile coloniale italiano
Asmara's italian colonial style villas
Asmara Villa in stile coloniale italiano
Asmara's italian colonial style villas
Asmara viali alberati
Asmara's tree lined avenues with sidewalks

From here you enter what was called the “mixed zone”, that of the markets, where stalls of corn on the cob, bananas, papayas and oranges are placed side by side, ordered under rationalist covers. Walking under the arcades of the spice market, you finally arrive in the “indigenous” area, where the city becomes fuller and more lived-in. Here is the Medebar market area, the huge open-air laboratory where everything is recycled and nothing is thrown away. Under the blows of hammers, saws and knives, old tires are worked into footwear and the sheets are flattened and shaped to form metal buckets.

mercato delle spezie Asmara
Spice market's arcades
Medebar Asmara
Medebar market

The coexistence of three religious cults

Asmara is also a place where the sound of the bells of the Catholic cathedral alternates with the footsteps of the Orthodox monks while the muezzin invites the Muslim faithful to prayer, demonstrating the harmony that reigns between the three main religions.

Cupole Asmara
The three places of worship in the city, the Orthodox church, the bell tower of the Catholic church, the mosque

The years after II World War

Unfortunately, the years following the II world war saw a succession of conflicts with neighboring Ethiopia which have not yet been resolved. An unprecedented diaspora ensues. In the 60s and 70s many girls were chosen by Italian families by virtue of their previous cohabitation and left Asmara to reach Rome. Among these there is Stella.

The day she arrives in Italy, dressed in white, the lady who hired her really thinks that her star has arrived (stella means star in italian)  and since then everyone here has called her like that.

Pane tradizionale eritreo
Mano nella mano

The forgotten country

In July 2017, Asmara was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site as an outstanding example of applied urban planning in an African context. Yet the city remains crystallized. Looking nostalgically beyond its retro charm, one quickly realizes that the country is suffering. According to UN statistics, among the migrants arriving on italian shores, Eritreans are the most numerous, at a rate of 4,000 a month.

The 30 years of military dictatorship that followed independence have annihilated civil rights and freedom of expression (Eritrea vies with North Korea for the last place in the world ranking of press freedom). National elections have never been held. There is compulsory military service for all men and women aged 17 and over, for an indefinite period, based on a military and a civilian component. This is why no one can have a passport before the age of 60. Young people run away to avoid military service from which there are no prospects of acquittal.

International sanctions have worsened the living conditions of the population living below the poverty line. Electricity is rationed, most homes have no running water, the internet is inaccessible. Medicines and basic necessities are lacking. Corruption is widespread.

“Piccola Roma” only remains  in the memories of some old nostalgic.

asmara cathedral
Asmara's Church of Our Lady of the Rosary built in 1923
I tombini di Asmara
Asmara albergo Italia
Asmara cinema Impero