Asmara, the capital of Eritrea, is one of those African cities that seem to have fallen off the map as so little about it escapes to the outside world and very few people travel there. But Marianne Grey, lured by tales of splendid Art Deco architecture, made the trip.
Eritrea is a difficult country to write about. There’s so much good about it but also so much bad. Its history is tangled and its one-party state is secretive. When I went to get a tourist visa from the embassy in London, they asked me why I wanted to go. Why would a white lady of uncertain years want to go there alone?
I said I was going there to see the architecture. Many of the buildings are showcases for the Italian modernist movement in the 1930s when Mussolini’s ambition was to establish a new Roman empire in Africa. To do this he sent his best architects to build a model city full of Art Deco and Futurist design and called it Piccola (small) Roma.
The embassy staff looked nonplussed but eventually gave me the visa.
I took a lot of planes to get there and was to have a really rewarding and happy time in Asmara, one of the most striking and unusual towns in the world, and one of the least known.
Eritrea is the sixth newest country in the world and the capital, Asmara, was recently named by Unesco as a world heritage site because of its extraordinary modernist architecture.
Not too many people go to Eritrea to visit. Bordered by Sudan, Ethiopia and Djibouti, Eritrea (population 5m+) occupies a strategic area in the Horn of Africa, with more than 1000km of coastline on the Red Sea.
It had a 30-year war with Ethiopia before it won its independence in 1993.
It is reportedly one of the worst countries in Africa for press freedom (only North Korea ranks lower) and human rights. It is second only to Niger for poverty and the GDP per capita was estimated at $740 recently.
Eritreans are the biggest group of asylum seekers in Africa, involving about 6% of the population. A UN report found that up to 400,000 people were ‘enslaved’ in the Eritrean military. In 2016, the UN called for the government to be brought before the International Criminal Court for continued crimes against humanity.
The President, Isaias Afwerki, was elected in 1993 and is still there 25 years later with no opposition party. Amnesty International believes that the government of Afwerki has imprisoned at least 10,000 political prisoners and claims that torture – for punishment, interrogation and coercion – is widespread.
I was told that there were seven or eight prisons in or around Asmara but nobody could volunteer any information. Free speech is a luxury the locals do not have.
Enduring Italian presence
The elegantly faded Asmara (population 0.88m) came under Italian control in the 1880s when they conquered the territory of Italian Eritrea.
The Italian background has visibly endured – a nearby railway station, 16km away in the mountains, is still called Seidici (16 in Italian); there are the churches, the road through the mountains to the coast which is Italian-built, the menus that include pasta and pizza and some people I talked to still spoke Italian. (The Italian vino hasn’t really survived and it is South African box wine that’s served.)
In Bar Zilli on Beirut St with its Art Deco radio-style curved façade, I spoke to local young men in both English and Italian as we sipped macchiato and drank local Melotti beer. I thanked goodness for CNN aiding their English as the Eritrean language, Tigrinya, is unnavigable and I don’t speak Arabic.
Education is free in Eritrea, as is health. Apparently the hospital is short on equipment and staff, but the education seems good, with many going on to university and studying useful subjects like accounting.
Some of the boys I met in the Metal Market worked in the mornings and studied in the afternoons. They spoke English and wanted to give me one of their coffee burners, made, literally, from old bits of prams and cans. They all wanted to go to America.
I was struck by the friendliness of the locals, mostly long-legged, slim-built men. (Women keep a lower profile.) They say it’s their excellent home-grown, healthy diet – and the cycling. The Eritreans are Africa’s champs. But their footballers, nicknamed the Red Sea Boys, haven’t yet qualified for FIFA finals or the Africa Cup of Nations.
They’d all heard of the Russian writer Alexander Pushkin, a great-grandson of Abram Gannibal, who was allegedly taken as a slave from (then) Abyssinia and presented to Tsar Peter in Russia, who then raised him as his godson. There’s a fine statue of Pushkin, with his dark curly hair, in Memorial Park.Russian and Eritrean dignitaries opened it with aplomb, forging close cultural ties.
Close business ties have clearly been forged between Eritrea and the Chinese, who are currently building an Expo business park, near an Italian and a German development.
Driving out of town, ageing concrete Mussolini-built suspension bridges have been replaced by new ones donated by South Korea, and (Libyan) oil tankers traverse the waters night and day. The minerals mined from the mountains, by workers including Zambians, Zimbabweans and South Africans, are managed by Canadian and Australian companies.
Eritrea is developing with growing international help but poverty and food insecurity is widespread. Their white marble might sell well to countries like Italy and modern powers such as China might feature prominently – the government gave them land to build their embassy – but the country needs so much more input into the key natural resources that include natural gas, gold, copper, oil, zinc and potash. Almost 70% of the country is covered by the greenstone belt of Eritrea that has deposits of precious metals and volcanic massive sulfide (VMS).
Eritrea is courting tourism, although you need a Travel Permit for Foreigners from the Tourism Service Centre (next to the Sweet Asmara Café in Harnet Avenue) if you want to go outside Asmara.
There is plenty for tourists to enjoy: archaeology, mountaineering, diving for wrecks on the Red Sea, trekking, interesting hotels, wild camel rides in the desert, watching lazy monkeys sunbathing on the hot tar of mountain roads, great seafood, spicy honey, livestock markets in small roadside villages, unusual outposts.
Asmara is an easily manageable, small city for visitors. There are interesting markets to visit, mosques, churches (the religion here is roughly 50/50 Christian and Muslim), mellow coffee shops, and the outdoor Tank Graveyard containing rusting war tanks, aircraft and vehicles from various Ethiopian/Eritrean wars, piled in a field where sheep and goats graze.
There’s an elaborate theatre and opera house built in 1918, and the extraordinary 1938 stadium, Bahti-Meskerem, where the President addresses his people for hours, and music shows and games of football fill in. And there are other architectural gems, including eight cinemas preserved in the sun but now on a permanent interval. I had a guide referred to me by my London greengrocer, who is from Asmara, take me round, and I felt I was very welcome.
As he drove me to the airport to go home on the absurdly early 4am flight to Dubai, the airport road was packed with people walking back to town at 2am. They’d all gone to watch the Arsenal/Chelsea game live on the airport café’s television. It seems that certain things are the same worldwide.