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ኣስመራ Asmera
Piccola Roma - ፒኮላ ሮማ
—  Capital  —

Coat of arms
Nickname(s): Piccola Roma "Little Rome"
Asmara is located in Eritrea
Map of Asmara in Eritrea
Coordinates: 15°20′N 38°56′E / 15.333°N 38.933°E / 15.333; 38.933
Country Eritrea
Region Maekel
Districts 13
Demonym Asmarino
 • Mayor of Asmara Semere Russom
 • Mayor of Zoba Tewelde Kelati
 • Land 4,694.3 sq mi (12,158.1 km2)
Elevation 7,628 ft (2,325 m)
Population (2009)[1]
 • Total 649,000
 • Density 138.3/sq mi (53.38/km2)
Time zone EAT (UTC+3)

Asmara (Arabic: أسمرة‎, Tigrinya: ኣስመራ?, Asmera), known locally as Asmera (meaning "The four (feminine plural) made them unite" in Tigrinya), is the capital city and largest settlement in Eritrea. Home to a population of around 649,000 inhabitants,[1] it sits at an elevation of 2,325 metres (7,628 ft). The city is located at the tip of an escarpment that is both the northwestern edge of the Eritrean highlands and the Great Rift Valley in neighbouring Ethiopia.

Asmara is situated in Eritrea's central Maekel Region. It is known for its well-preserved colonial Italian modern architecture,[2] and is divided into thirteen districts or administrative areas: Acria, Abbashaul, Edaga Hamus, Arbaete Asmara, Mai Temenai, Paradiso, Sembel, Godaif, Maekel Ketema or Downtown, Tiravolo, Gejeret, Tsetserat and Gheza Banda.




Boulevard in downtown Asmara.

Although it would be easy to think of Asmara, the Eritrean capital, solely as an Italian built colonial city, its origins actually reach back to between 800 BC and 400 BC. The Tigrinya and Tigre people live around there. Originally, it is said, there were four clans living in the Asmara area on the Kebessa Plateau: the Gheza Gurtom, the Gheza Shelele, the Gheza Serenser and Gheza Asmae. These towns fought each other until the women of each clan decided that to preserve peace the four clans must unite. The men accepted, hence the name Arbate Asmera. Arbaete Asmara literally means, in the Tigrinya language, "the four (feminine plural) made them unite". Eventually Arbaete was dropped and it has been called Asmara which means "they [feminine, thus referring to the women] made them unite". Although there is still a zone called Arbaete Asmara. It is now called the Italianized version of the word Asmara. The westernized version of the name is used by a majority of non-Eritreans, while the multilingual inhabitants of Eritrea and neighboring peoples remain loyal to the original pronunciation, Asmera. An Ethiopian legend tells that in this region the Queen of Sheba gave birth to the son of Solomon, Menelik I.

The missionary Remedius Prutky passed through Asmara in 1751, and described in his memoirs that a church built there by Jesuit priests 130 years before was still intact.[3]

Medri Bahri[edit]

Asmara, which was part of the kingdom of Medri Bahri (later Republic of Hamassien), would briefly come under the occupation of the British-backed and -supported Egyptians. Later Emperor Yohannes IV of Ethiopia occupied briefly occupied the area and gave his trusted Ras Alula the title of governor of Medri Bahri. Alula moved the capital of the province to Asmara, which then had about 150 inhabitants. At this time, the largest city in Eritrea was Debarwa, now located in the Debub Region. This was the historical capital of the Bahri Negash of Medri Bahri. Within four years, the town's population numbered more than three thousand, and its commercial importance, with increased trade with Massawa, grew considerably.

Italian Eritrea[edit]

The Cinema Impero, built in 1937 in the art deco style.

Asmara acquired importance as a result of Alula's choice for the capital of his province, and when it was occupied by Italy in 1889 and was made the capital city of Eritrea in preference to Massawa by Governor Martini in 1897. In the early 20th century, a railway line was built to the coast, passing through the town of Ghinda, under the direction of Carlo Cavanna. In both 1913 and 1915 the city suffered only slight damage in large earthquakes.[4] In the late 1930s the Italians changed the face of the town, with a new structure and new buildings: Asmara was called Piccola Roma (Little Rome).[5]

While Eritrea was under Italian colonial rule, architecturally conservative early-20th-century Europeans used Asmara "to experiment with radical new designs."[6] Nowadays the major part of buildings are of Italian origin, and shops still have Italian names (e.g., Bar Vittoria, Pasticceria moderna, Casa del formaggio, and Ferramenta).

Asmara was populated by a numerous Italian community and consequently the city acquired an Italian architectural look. The city of Asmara had a population of 98,000, of which 53,000 were Italian according to the Italian census of 1939. This fact made Asmara the main "Italian town" of the Italian empire in Africa. In all Eritrea the Italians were 75,000 in that year.[7]

Many industrial investments were made by Italy in Asmara, but the beginning of World War II stopped the blossoming industrialization of the area.

British occupation[edit]

Italy was defeated in 1941, and the British administered the city and the rest of the country from 1941 to 1952. During this time, many industries were shipped out of the city to other, long-standing British colonies such as India and Kenya. The British maintained initially the Italian administration of Eritrea, but the country soon started to be involved in a violent process of independence: from the British in the late forties, and from the Ethiopians after 1952, who annexed Eritrea in that year). Asmara was one of the cities (along with Addis Ababa and Gondar) that Queen Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom visited in 1965, at the invitation of the then-Emperor of Ethiopia, Haile Selassie I.

Federation with Ethiopia[edit]

In 1952, the United Nations resolved to federate the former colony under Ethiopian rule. During the federation, Asmara was no longer the capital city. The capital was now Addis Ababa, over 1000 kilometers to the south. The national language of the city was therefore replaced from Tigrinya language to the Ethiopian Amharic language. In 1961, emperor Haile Selassie I ended the "federal" arrangement and declared the territory to be the 14th province of the Ethiopian Empire.[8] Ethiopia's biggest ally was the USA. The city was home to the US Army's Kagnew Station installation from 1943 until 1977. The Eritrean War of Independence began in 1961 and ended in 1991, resulting in the independence of Eritrea. Asmara was left relatively undamaged throughout the war, as were the majority of highland regions. After independence, Asmara, again became the capital of Eritrea.


Asmara's population of around 564,000 residents makes it the largest city in Eritrea. Although all ethnic groups are represented in the capital, the largest groups are the Tigrinya people (77%) and the Tigre people (15%). In Asmara, the main language is Tigrinya. Arabic, Italian and English are also widely spoken and understood.

The Eritrean government's 2003 national census found 99.67% of Asmara's housing units had access to safe drinking water, 96.9% had flush toilets, 2.1% pit toilets (both ventilated and unventilated), and 1% had no toilet facilities. Adult literacy for men is 95.2% and for women 89.95%, the highest in the nation for both sexes.


Enda Mariam Eritrean Orthodox Church, St Joseph's Roman Catholic Cathedral, Al Khulafa Al Rashiudin Mosque in the capital Asmara.

Asmara is very diverse when it comes to religion. Three big landmarks of the city are the St Joseph's Cathedral, Asmara of the Catholic faith, the Enda Mariam Coptic Cathedral of the Eritrean Orthodox Tewahedo Church and the Al Khulafa Al Rashiudin Mosque of the Islamic faith. Christians and Muslims have lived peacefully together in Asmara for centuries. The religion with the most believers in Asmara is the Eritrean Orthodox Tewahdo Church (60%), Catholicism (15%) and Sunni Islam (25%). The towns and villages surrounding the city in the highlands are predominantly Christian (most places being all Christian). Further towards the lowlands, a few Muslim towns and villages are found.

Italian Eritreans[edit]

The city has a significant population of Italian Eritreans. These are Eritrean-born descendants of Italian settlers as well as Italian long-term residents in Eritrea. Those born of mixed race unions are called 'hanfets'. Their ancestry dates back from the beginning of the Italian colonization of Eritrea at the end of the 19th century, but only after the Second Italo-Abyssinian War of 1935 they settled in large numbers. In the 1939 census of Eritrea there were more than 75,000 Eritrean Italians (over 10% of the Eritrean population then), most of them (53,000) living in Asmara. Many Italian settlers got out of their colony after its conquest by the Allies in November 1941 and they were reduced to only 38,000 by 1946. Although many of the remaining Italians stayed during the decolonization process after World War II and are actually assimilated to the Eritrean society, a few are stateless today, as none of them were given citizenship unless through marriage or, more rarely, by having it conferred upon them by the State.

year Italian Eritreans Eritrea population Asmara population
1910 1,000 390,000 24,000
1935 3,100 610,000 47,000
1939 76,000 740,000 103,000
1946 38,000 870,000 88,000
2008 900 4,500,000 610,000
The Italian Eritrean population in Eritrea, from 1910 to 2008

Today there are approximately 900 Italian Eritreans remaining in the Asmara region. However, there an estimated 100,000 descendants of Italian Eritreans out of the 600,000 population of the city of Asmara.


The city lies at an elevation of 2,325 metres above sea level. It lies on north-south trending highlands known as the Eritrean Highlands, an extension of the Ethiopian Highlands. The temperate central portion, where Asmara lies, is situated on a rocky highland plateau, which separates the western lowlands from the eastern coastal plains. The lands that surround Asmara are very fertile, especially those to the south towards the Debub Region of Eritrea. The highlands that Asmara is located in fall away to reveal the eastern lowlands, characterised by the searing heat and humidity of the Eritrean salt pans, lapped by the Red Sea. To the west of the plateau stretches a vast semi-arid hilly terrain continuing all the way towards the border with Sudan through the Gash-Barka Region.


Asmara features a somewhat rare version of a steppe climate with warm, but not hot, summers and mild winters. Due to its 2,325 metres (7,630 ft) altitude, temperatures are relatively mild for a city located not particularly far from deserts. Asmara averages about 500 millimetres (20 in) of precipitation annually. Frost, however, is extremely rare in the city. July and August comprises Asmara’s short wet season. In fact, on average, about 60% of Asmara’s annual precipitation is seen during these two months. In contrast, December to February are typically Asmara’s driest months, where on average only 8 millimetres (0.31 in) of precipitation falls in the three months combined.

[hide][hide]Climate data for Asmara
Month Jan Feb Mar Apr May Jun Jul Aug Sep Oct Nov Dec Year
Average high °C (°F) 23
Average low °C (°F) 6
Rainfall mm (inches) 1
Avg. rainy days (≥ 0.1 mm) 0 0 4 6 8 6 20 18 5 2 2 1 72
 % humidity 52 51 48 53 47 50 80 81 63 63 67 63 59.8
Mean monthly sunshine hours 285.2 257.0 266.6 255.0 294.5 204.0 151.9 179.8 255.0 291.4 270.0 288.3 2,998.7
Source: Climate & Temperature[9]


Aerial view of Asmara city section.

Asmara represents perhaps one of 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. The city's architecture is heavily influenced by Italian architecture. 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 to 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.


Panorama of Asmara in the evening.

The city is home to the Eritrean National Museum and is known for its early 20th century buildings, including the Art Deco Cinema Impero (opened in 1937 and considered by the experts one of the world's finest examples of Art Déco style building[10]), Cubist Africa Pension, eclectic Orthodox Cathedral and former Opera House, the futurist Fiat Tagliero Building, neo-Romanesque Roman Catholic Cathedral, and the neoclassical Governor's Palace. The city is adorned by Italian colonial villas and mansions, one prominent example being the World Bank Building. Most of central Asmara was built between 1935 and 1941, so effectively the Italians managed to build almost an entire city, in just six years.[11] At this time, the dictator Benito Mussolini had great plans for a second Roman Empire in Africa. War cut this short, but his injection of funds created the Asmara of today, which supposedly was to be a symbol that Fascism worked and is an ideal system of government.

The city shows off most early 20th century architectural styles. Some buildings are neo-Romanesque, such as the Roman Catholic Cathedral, some villas are built in a late Victorian style. Art Deco influences are found throughout the city; essentially Asmara was then what Dubai is now. Architects were restricted by nothing more than the bounds of their imaginations and were given the funds to create masterpieces which we can see today. Essences of Cubism can be found on the Africa Pension Building, and on a small collection of buildings. The Fiat Tagliero Building shows almost the height of futurism, just as it was coming into big fashion in Italy. In recent times, some buildings have been functionally built which sometimes can spoil the atmosphere of some cities, but they fit into Asmara as it is such a modern city.

Modern building in Asmara overlooking a war memorial.

Asmara is also the see of the archbishop of the Eritrean Orthodox Church, which became autocephalous in 1993. The archbishop was elevated in 1998 to the rank of Patriarchate of Eritrea, on a par with the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church.

Asmara was known to be an exceptionally modern city, not only because of its architecture, but Asmara also had more traffic lights than Rome did when the city was being built.[11] The city incorporates many features of a planned city. Indeed, Asmara was an early example of an ideal modern city created by architects, an idea which was introduced into many cities across the world, such as Brasilia, but which was not altogether popular. Features include designated city zoning and planning, wide treed boulevards, political areas and districts and space and scope for development. Asmara was not built for the Eritreans however; the Italians built it primarily for themselves. One unfortunate aspect of the city's planning was separate areas designated for Italians and Eritreans, each disproportionately sized.

The city has been regarded as "New Rome" due to its Italian-style architecture, wide streets, piazzas and coffee bars. While the boulevards are lined with palms and local shiba'kha trees, there are numerable pizzerias and coffee bars, serving cappucinos and lattes, as well as ice cream parlours. People in Asmara dress in a unique, yet Eritrean style. Asmara is also highly praised for its peaceful, crime-free environment. It is one of the cleanest cities on the continent.

The city hosts the We Are the Future center, a child care center giving children a chance to live their childhoods and develop a sense of hope. The center is managed under the direction of the mayor’s office, and the international NGO Glocal Forum serves as the fundraiser and program planner and coordinator for the WAF child center in each city. Each WAF city is linked to several peer cities and public and private partners to create a unique international coalition.

Asmara has been proposed as a possible new addition to the UNESCO World Heritage Sites,[11] under the direction of the Cultural Assets Rehabilitation Project, for its outstanding examples of 20th century architecture and town planning. Many of these historic buildings are not currently being taken care of and there is a serious risk that this heritage could be lost.

The Historic Center of Asmara was placed on the World Monuments Fund's 2006 Watch List of 100 Most Endangered Sites. The listing was designed to bring more attention to the city to save the center from decay and redevelopment and to promote restoration.

Following CARP (a World Bank initiative on Cultural Heritage), the European Union Delegation in Asmara has engaged into an Heritage Project pertaining to building's restoration and archive management. Launched in 2010 the EU /Eritrea Cultural Project is expected to be completed in 2014 (Pierre Couté - Edward Denison, Project Design Report, EUD Asmara 2009).


Offices of the Red Sea Trading Corporation in downtown Asmara.

As the capital city and largest settlement of Eritrea, most Eritrean businesses have their headquarters in Asmara. The city was once a factory town.

During the colonial period, Asmara was an administrative and commercial center of Italian East Africa. When the British entered the country in 1941, many businesses were closed down or relocated outside of the city. This trend continued under Ethiopian occupation.

More recently, Eritrean Airlines and Nasair have their head offices in Asmara.[12][13][14] Eritrean Telecommunications Corporation also has its headquarters in the city.[15] In addition, country's national television station Eri-TV has many studios located in various areas in the capital.


Public bus transportation in downtown Asmara.

Taxis that run in the city of Asmara start at 07:00 and end at 21:00, and can get very crowded at peak times. The fare for a shared taxi is 5-10 Nakfa per seat. A contracted taxi can charge between 20 and 300 Nakfa so the price should be negotiated before entering the taxi. Contracted taxis also run outside Asmara to various other cities, towns and villages including; Massawa, Keren, Mendefera, Dekemhare, Adi Quala, Ghinda and Nefasit. Long distance buses in Eritrea are not crowded because it is illegal for passengers to stand in the aisle. There are organized breakfast and/or lunch stops on longer trips. When traveling to remote places, like Assab, Nakfa, Tesseney or Senafe, reservations should be made for the return trip in advance, to prevent being stranded.[citation needed]

There is a railway station in Asmara that connects the city with Massawa: the Eritrean Railway, built by the Italians between 1887 and 1932, has been recently restructured. Indeed the line has now been restored from Massawa all the way through to Asmara, but as of 2006 no scheduled services traverse the whole length of the line. The area is served by Asmara International Airport.

Charter trains for tourists now do, and regular train services exist in certain areas where there is demand. While the surviving equipment is sufficient for such a limited service, the purchase or building of more is necessary to provide a serious form of transportation over the length of the line.

The Eritrean Railroad Authority has requested funding to continue the Italian-era plan to extend the route from Asmara to Tesseney and provide an opportunity for Sudan to efficiently use the Port of Massawa.


Asmara is home to the majority of colleges and universities. The city has always been a national centre of education, and is home to many elementary and high schools. Until the recent opening of universities at Mai Nefhi and Sawa, it was the seat of the only university in the country, the University of Asmara. During the period of Ethiopian federation and annexation, the college was also linked with what was then the nation's largest tertiary institution, Addis Ababa University. Many campuses have been opening up across the country since independence, mainly for medicine and engineering.

Universities and schools[edit]

Universities Phone Fax
University of Asmara (291)-1-161926 (291)-1-162236
Eritrea Institute of Technology N/A N/A
Orotta Medical School N/A N/A
College of Health Science (291)-1-124761 N/A


Asmara is divided into 13 districts or administrative areas. These districts are divided into North, North-West, North-East, South-East, South-West, East, West and Central. The thirteen districts(or Neous Zobas) are:

  • Acria District
  • Abbashaul District
  • Edaga Hamus District
  • Arbaete Asmara District
  • Mai Temenai District
  • Paradiso District
  • Sembel District
  • Godaif District
  • Maakel Ketema District
  • Gheza Banda District
  • Tsetserat District
  • Tiravolo District
  • Gejeret District

Sister cities[edit]

Notable residents[edit]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b "CIA - The World Factbook". Retrieved 2 September 2012. 
  2. ^ Mark Byrnes An African City's Unusual Preservation Legacy Feb 08, 2012 Atlantic Cities
  3. ^ J.H. Arrowsmith-Brown, translator and editor (1991). Prutky's Travels to Ethiopia and Other Countries. London: Hakluyt Society. p. 78. 
  4. ^ Ambraseys, Nicolas; Melville, C.P., Adams, R.D. (1994). The Seismicity of Egypt, Arabia and the Red Sea: A Historical Review. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-39120-2. 
  5. ^ Italian architectural planification of Asmara (in Italian) p. 64-66
  6. ^ "Asmara useful for experimenting with radical designs for Europeans". Washington Times. 15 September 2007. Retrieved 8 December 2010. 
  7. ^ "Benvenuto sul sito del Maitacli" (in Italian). Archived from the original on 22 July 2011. Retrieved 8 July 2011. 
  8. ^ Encyclopedia of Urban Cultures. Grolier Publishing Co. 2002. 
  9. ^ "Average Conditions Asmara, Eritrea". Climate & Temperature. January 17, 2012. Retrieved 17 January 2012. 
  10. ^ Gianluca Rossi, Renzo Martinelli inviato de La Nazione, 2009.
  11. ^ a b c "Reviving Asmara". BBC Radio 3. 19 June 2005. Retrieved 30 August 2006. [dead link]
  12. ^ "World Airline Directory." Flight International. 23–29 March 2004. 68.
  13. ^ "Eritrean Airlines: Fly to Eritrea". Eritrean Airlines. Archived from the original on 13 January 2007. Retrieved 19 October 2009. 
  14. ^ "Fly Eritrean Hospitality ". Nasair. Archived from the original on 31 May 2011. Retrieved 8 July 2011.  Text " Nasair " ignored (help)
  15. ^ Welcome to the Telecommunication Internet Service Provider - TSEiNET, archived from the original on 20 July 2011, retrieved 8 July 2011 

Further reading[edit]

  • Stefan Boness: "Asmara - The Frozen City". Jovis Verlag, Berlin 2006. 96 pages. ISBN 3-936314-61-6 (photo book; German, English)
  • Edward Denison, Guang Yu Ren, Naigzy Gebremedhin, and Guang Yu Ren, Asmara: Africa's Secret Modernist City (2003) ISBN 1-85894-209-8
  • Gianluca Rossi, Renzo Martinelli inviato de “La Nazione”, 2009, ISBN 978-88-7255-356-5

External links[edit]

Coordinates: 15°20′N 38°56′E / 15.333°N 38.933°E / 15.333; 38.933