Asmera – UNESCO World Heritage Site
19 July 2017
Asmera is designated a World Heritage Site, duly inscribed in UNESCO’s World Heritage List. Eritreans everywhere are right to rejoice and celebrate this recognition of Asmera as a repository of a large collection of art deco designs and modernist buildings. Indeed, the architectural gem that is Asmera is a living testament to the creative genius of Italian knowhow and Eritrean workmanship. However, there is a dark side to the story that must be borne in mind. The art deco designs and modernist structures were the products of experimentation by Italian architects to construct buildings that were otherwise avant-garde and forbidden in Mussolini’s Italy. The modernist buildings that dot Asmera’s urban landscape are thus also the legacy of fascist Italian colonial rule in Eritrea. Under a rigid apartheid system of racial segregation, the celebrated edifices and beautiful facades were built for the sole enjoyment of Italian colonial officials and settlers, strictly off limits to the local Eritrean population.
It is therefore prudent to toe a fine line in how we portray and celebrate the history of this modernist architecture. Apart from the dark side of the story, these are the achievements of an era now long past, and we need to make a clear distinction between celebrating the past, and living in it. While celebrating the past, we must reproach the Eritrean government’s attempt to live in it; its constant glorification of the past, trying to project legitimacy by usurping credit for the work of past generations, since it has nothing new to show for its 26 years of tenure.
It cannot even maintain what it inherited! Victim to the attrition of ‘time, weather and neglect’, the dilapidated buildings are today crying for restoration while Eritrea, a bright beacon of hope and promise at independence, has become an authoritarian, impoverished and dysfunctional State.
‘Asmera – The Sleeping Beauty’ was originally written by Ambassador Andebrhan Welde Giorgis in 2016 for publication in a book project designed as a theoretical and scientific contribution to help with the installation of the new Cultural Heritage Programme.