The Historic Perimeter of Asmara and its Modernist Architecture

News Photos
 Asmara's Modernist architecture by Dr. Edward Denison
The Asmara Heritage Project (AHP) is currently preparing an application to UNESCO for the city to be accepted onto the World Heritage List. Asmara already meets 4 out of the ten criterions that are more than enough for the selection. The application will be presented on January 2016 and Asmara will be included on the UNESCO World Heritage List by July 2017. (Photo: Asmara’s Modernist architecture by Dr. Edward Denison)


Asmara represents perhaps the most concentrated and intact assemblage of Modernist architecture anywhere in the world. The urban design within the Historic Perimeter has remained untouched since its original implementation and subsequent evolution throughout the 1930s, and the architectural elements exemplify a superlative example of Modernist architecture in a complete urban setting.

These two contiguous and exceptional tangible components have nurtured a unique and distinct intangible social environment founded on Western Modernist design ideals realised in a highland African setting.

Asmara is the site of an ancient highland village called ‘Arbate Asmara’.

In 1885, the Italians invaded Eritrea and by 1900 Asmara had become the capital city. The site was chosen for its salubrious highland climate, reliable water supply and ideal geographic location in the centre of Eritrea.

In the early twentieth century, Asmara represented little more than a tiny highland village which grew incrementally to become a well-established town by the 1920s. However, by the 1930s, it was clear that Italy, under the rule of Mussolini, was intent on invading neighbouring Ethiopia and would use Eritrea as the launch pad for this long-held ambition.

In preparation for this substantial military escapade, an unprecedented quantity of materials and labour flowed into Eritrea throughout the 1930s. In a matter of months, Asmara became a vast building site, as over 70,000 Italians arrived to established new lives for themselves. The rapid transformation of Asmara from a relatively minor town into Africa’s most modern and sophisticated city at that time overlapped with equally momentous events in the world of design and architecture, which involved the global proliferation of Modernism and its various forms, including Futurism, Rationalism, Novecento, and Art Deco.

The spirit of this new age of travel and adventure was embodied in these new architectural forms. Asmara was an ideal blank canvas on which Italian architects could practice and realise these modern ideals.

From 1935-1941, thousands of buildings were constructed in the city, most of which reflect various Modernist styles and some of which represent inimitable architectural forms, such as petrol stations mimicking aeroplanes and boats, commercial buildings designed as trains, cavernous cinemas with fine period plasterwork and Art Dem interiors, fine ultra-modern hotels and offices, and government buildings with highly politicised monumental designs.

In 1941, Italian rule in Eritrea ended when Allied Forces liberated Eritrea in the first victory against fascism in the Second World War. No major construction has taken place in Asmara since the 1940s, because Eritrea has been subject to continuous unrest due to its struggle for independence, which it won in 1991. Ironically, this turbulence has served to protect Asmara’s unique urban heritage.

The Government of Eritrea established the Cultural Assets Rehabilitation Project (CARP) in 1999 to preserve and promote the unique architectural heritage of Asmara. The project will restore several key buildings in the city, including cinemas, a theatre and the central Post Office. Other work includes the establishment of a Historic Perimeter and a series of Planning and Conservation Guidelines to assist local residents and the Municipality of Asmara in ensuring that the architecture and the unique urban environment are conserved in concurrence with the city’s necessary development.


To be included on the UNESCO World Heritage List, sites must be of outstanding universal value and meet at least ONE out of ten selection criteria. Asmara already meets criteria 1, 2, 3 and 4. Here are the ten criterions:

Selection criteria (I)

to represent a masterpiece of human creative genius;

Selection criteria (ii)

to exhibit an important interchange of human values, over a span of time or within a cultural area of the world, on developments in architecture or technology, monumental arts, town-planning or landscape design;

Selection criteria (iii)

to bear a unique or at least exceptional testimony to a cultural tradition or to a civilization which is living or which has disappeared;

Selection criteria (iv)

to be an outstanding example of a type of building, architectural or technological ensemble or landscape which illustrates (a) significant stage(s) in human history;

Selection criteria (v)

to be an outstanding example of a traditional human settlement, land-use, or sea-use which is representative of a culture (or cultures), or human interaction with the environment especially when it has become vulnerable under the impact of irreversible change;

Selection criteria (vi)

to be directly or tangibly associated with events or living traditions, with ideas, or with beliefs, with artistic and literary works of outstanding universal significance. (The Committee considers that this criterion should preferably be used in conjunction with other criteria);

Selection criteria (vii)

to contain superlative natural phenomena or areas of exceptional natural beauty and aesthetic importance;

Selection criteria (viii)

to be outstanding examples representing major stages of earth’s history, including the record of life, significant on-going geological processes in the development of landforms, or significant geomorphic or physiographic features;

Selection criteria (ix)

to be outstanding examples representing significant on-going ecological and biological processes in the evolution and development of terrestrial, fresh water, coastal and marine ecosystems and communities of plants and animals;

Selection criteria (x)

to contain the most important and significant natural habitats for in-situ conservation of biological diversity, including those containing threatened species of outstanding universal value from the point of view of science or conservation.