News / Africa

    Africa's 'Little Rome' Survives Conflict, Seeks UN Accolade

    Pigeons fly outside the Nda Mariam Orthodox Cathedral in Eritrea's capital Asmara, Feb. 16, 2016.
    Pigeons fly outside the Nda Mariam Orthodox Cathedral in Eritrea's capital Asmara, Feb. 16, 2016.

    In an often forgotten corner of the Horn of Africa, Eritrea's capital boasts one of the world's finest collections of early 20th century architecture and the 
    authorities want it declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

    When Italy's colonial experiment in Eritrea ended in 1941, it left behind an array of Rationalist, Futurist, Art Deco and other Modernist styles in Asmara, a city whose historic heart has changed little since the Italians lived and worked there.

    In following decades, conflict ravaged Eritrea, leaving the nation isolated and stifling development. But the violence by-passed the city, and the capital has never been swamped by the kind of construction that raced ahead elsewhere in Africa.

    A Reuters photo essay at shows elegant avenues still flanked by the Art Deco Cinema Impero, the imposing lines of the Education Ministry that once housed the Fascist party headquarters and the Futurist Fiat Tagliero garage
    with gravity-defying concrete cantilevered wings, extending 15 meters either side without the support of pillars.

    Italian architects used what had been an amalgamation of highland villages centuries earlier as "an ideal blank canvas", according to UNESCO's description, to practice what were, at the time, some of the world's most avant garde designs.

    Italians nicknamed it "La Piccola Roma" or "Little Rome". "The city is very intact and maintains its original character," said Medhanie Teklemariam, coordinator for the Asmara Heritage Project, which has drawn up an inventory of about 4,300 buildings in Asmara's historic perimeter.

    The nomination dossier for World Heritage Site status was submitted to UNESCO this year, with a decision expected in 2017.

    If approved, Asmara would benefit from technical assistance, helping renovate and preserve the historic buildings, which include offices, government buildings and homes.

    World Heritage Site status could also draw visitors to a barely trodden tourist trail. Eritrea has soaring mountains and a long Red Sea coast, but no international hotel chains.

    The authorities have also carefully protected the architectural assets, adhering to 1938 building regulations. New planning regulations are being drawn up but some rules, such as limiting buildings to 60 meters high, are likely to remain.

    "If we are going to exceed above this height, I think we are going to destroy the skyline of Asmara," said Medhanie.

    The Italians left their mark in other ways. Pizza and pasta are almost national dishes — and expertly cooked. 

    Italians also brought cycle racing to Eritrea and it has become a national passion — images of Eritrean cyclist Daniel Teklehaimanot who wore the King of the Mountains jersey in the 2015 Tour de France are plastered in hotels and shops.

    Street-side cafes are filled with the grumble and hiss of polished coffee machines serving up espressos and macchiatos.

    Seeking to mirror the bigger and older empires of Britain and France, Eritrea was Italy's route "to enter the big business of imperialism," said Federico Niglia, a history professor at Luiss University in Rome.

    Coinciding with a period when there was an "explosion of art" in Italy, Asmara's architecture was one way to show off Italy's approach to colonial management, he added. 

    But Italy's ambitions lay beyond Eritrea, which was seen as simply the starting point of a far grander empire in East Africa. It had long had its eyes on Ethiopia next door, a nation it briefly occupied from 1936 until it was ejected in 1941.
    Unlike Asmara, a city Italians shaped during several decades there, Addis Ababa's soaring skyline and rapid expansion have overshadowed the few reminders of Ethiopia's brush with Italian rule.

    You May Like

    Russia Sees Brexit Impact Widespread but Temporary

    Officials, citizens react to Britain’s vote to exit European Union with mix of pleasure, understanding and concern

    Obama Encourages Entrepreneurs to Seek Global Interconnection

    President tells entrepreneurs at global summit at Stanford University to find mentors, push ahead with new ideas on day after Britain voters decide to exit EU

    Video Some US Gun Owners Support Gun Control

    Defying the stereotype, Dave Makings says he'd give up his assault rifle for a comprehensive program to reduce gun violence

    By the Numbers

    Featured Videos

    Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
    Brexit Vote Plunges Global Markets Into Unchartered Territoryi
    June 24, 2016 9:38 PM
    British voters plunged global markets into unknown territory after they voted Thursday to leave the European Union. The results of the Brexit vote, the term coined to describe the referendum, caught many off guard. Analysts say the resulting volatility could last for weeks, perhaps longer. Mil Arcega reports.

    Video Brexit Vote Plunges Global Markets Into Unchartered Territory

    British voters plunged global markets into unknown territory after they voted Thursday to leave the European Union. The results of the Brexit vote, the term coined to describe the referendum, caught many off guard. Analysts say the resulting volatility could last for weeks, perhaps longer. Mil Arcega reports.

    Video Orlando Shooting Changes Debate on Gun Control

    It’s been nearly two weeks since the largest mass shooting ever in the United States. Despite public calls for tighter gun control laws, Congress is at an impasse. Democratic lawmakers resorted to a 1960s civil rights tactic to portray their frustration. VOA’s Carolyn Presutti explains how the Orlando, Florida shooting is changing the debate.

    Video Tunisian Fishing Town Searches for Jobs, Local Development Solutions

    As the European Union tries to come to grips with its migrant crisis, some newcomers are leaving voluntarily. But those returning to their home countries face an uncertain future.  Five years after Tunisia's revolution, the tiny North African country is struggling with unrest, soaring unemployment and plummeting growth. From the southern Tunisian fishing town of Zarzis, Lisa Bryant takes a look for VOA at a search for local solutions.

    Video 'American Troops' in Russia Despite Tensions

    Historic battle re-enactment is a niche hobby with a fair number of adherents in Russia where past military victories are played-up by the Kremlin as a show of national strength. But, one group of World War II re-enactors in Moscow has the rare distinction of choosing to play western ally troops. VOA's Daniel Schearf explains.

    Video Experts: Very Few Killed in US Gun Violence Are Victims of Mass Shootings

    The deadly shooting at a Florida nightclub has reignited the debate in the U.S. over gun control. Although Congress doesn't provide government health agencies funds to study gun violence, public health experts say private research has helped them learn some things about the issue. VOA's Carol Pearson reports.

    Video Trump Unleashes Broadside Against Clinton to Try to Ease GOP Doubts

    Recent public opinion polls show Republican Donald Trump slipping behind Democrat Hillary Clinton in the presidential election matchup for November. Trump trails her both in fundraising and campaign organization, but he's intensifying his attacks on the former secretary of state. VOA National Correspondent Jim Malone reports.

    Video Muslim American Mayor Calls for Tolerance

    Syrian-born Mohamed Khairullah describes himself as "an American mayor who happens to be Muslim." As the three-term mayor of Prospect Park, New Jersey, he believes his town of 6,000 is an example of how ethnicity and religious beliefs should not determine a community's leadership. Ramon Taylor has this report from Prospect Park.

    Video Internal Rifts Over Syria Policy Could Be Headache for Next US President

    With the Obama administration showing little outward enthusiasm for adopting a more robust Syria policy, there is a strong likelihood that the internal discontent expressed by State Department employees will roll over to the next administration. VOA State Department correspondent Pam Dockins reports.

    Video Senegal to Park Colorful ‘Cars Rapide’ Permanently

    Brightly painted cars rapide are a hallmark of Dakar, offering residents a cheap way to get around the capital city since 1976. But the privately owned minibuses are scheduled to be parked for good in late 2018, as Ricci Shryock reports for VOA.

    Video Florida Gets $1 Million in Emergency Government Funding for Orlando

    The U.S. government has granted $1 million in emergency funding to the state of Florida to cover the costs linked to the June 12 massacre in Orlando. U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch announced the grant Tuesday in Orlando, where she met with survivors of the shooting attack that killed 49 people. Zlatica Hoke reports.

    Video How to Print Impossible Shapes with Metal

    3-D printing with metals is rapidly becoming more advanced. As printers become more affordable, the industry is partnering with universities to refine processes for manufacturing previously impossible things. A new 3-D printing lab aims to bring the new technology closer to everyday use. VOA's George Putic reports.

    Video Big Somali Community in Minnesota Observes Muslim Religious Feast

    Ramadan is widely observed in the north central US state of Minnesota, which a large Muslim community calls home. VOA Somali service reporter Mohmud Masadde files this report from Minneapolis, the state's biggest city.

    Special Report

    Adrift The Invisible African Diaspora