BY ALEM FISSHATZION
Asmara is the city of my dreams. This article is not about Asmara, nor is it about the history of the city. Rather, it is about an exciting period of my experiences growing up in The City of Cultural
Heritage as a schoolboy in the 1960s.
There is a Swedish proverb which loosely translated, says: “A well-loved child has many names”. That is exactly what Asmara has. Eritreans call it “The City of Dreams”. During Eritrea’s colonization period under Italian rule, Asmara was widely referred to as “Piccola Roma” or Little Rome. For us born and bred there, she will always be “Asmera”.
On Saturday July 8th 2017, Asmara became the world’s first modernist city to be designated in its
entirety as a UNESCO World Heritage site at Krakow, Poland. In announcing its decision on Saturday, UNESCO called the city “an exceptional example of early modernist urbanism at the beginning of the 20th century and its application in an African context.”
There are 814 cultural sites worldwide and only 48 of them are in the African continent. That is fewer than what Italy alone can boast of.
Although the history of Asmara dates as far back as some 700 years, she was made the capital of Italian colony Eritrea by Italian Governor Ferdinando Martini in 1897 thereby winning the fierce competition from the coastal city of Massawa.
By then, Eritrea had been under Italian rule since 1889. Most of the magnificent awes-trucking architecture that make Asmera the world’s first modernist city to be designated in its entirety as a UNESCO World Heritage in the 1930s.
A census held in Eritrea by the colonial government in 1939 showed that out of the 75,000 Italians living in Eritrea at the time, 53,000 of them were staying in Asmera; only a mere 45,000 indigenous Eritreans made up the rest of the population of the city. That is around the time the phrase “Little Rome” was coined. Today, the bustling city of Asmera is home to some 800,000 individuals.
I was born and bred in Asmera and did my school-boyhood there in the 1960s. The Cinemas Asmara, Dante, Odeon, Impero, Croco Rosa, Roma Capitol are some of the social institutions that I grew up with.
The cinema played a great role in recreational Asmera during my boyhood. They typically opened their doors at 12 Noon and played non-stop till midnight. Sometimes up to three films would be shown during the day, alternatively repeated. You paid once and could enjoy all the films as many times as you wanted. In fact you could pay and enter at midday and stay there up to midnight.
The bars and cafés were focal meeting places. We Asmarions knew that the places to get the best ice cream in town were Bar Impero and Bar Ugo. We were not allowed inside but could buy the icecream from the outside through openings on their walls.
Café Moderna was frequented by teenagers. For the grown-ups there were favourite hangouts like Bar Maybela, Bar Asmara and Bar Centro, not to mention the espresso specialist, Bar Tre Stella. Fiat’s Tagliero garage, a petrol station with 60ft concrete wings mimicking an aeroplane taking off was one of my favourite edifices of marvel during my boyhood. I never tired of running errands to places in its general vicinity just to get the chance of seeing the magnificent building.
The schools arranged annual picnics called Passajo. Most popular venues for these equally popular occasions were May Hutsa, May Serwa or Beit Ggergish. We used to take with us mouth watering delicacies and soda drink which was a rarity reserved only for such esteemed, and other very special occasions.
Then there were the churches. Asmara comprises of 13 Administrative Areas. Each area had its own church and thereby its own Patron Saint. The Enda Maryam Church was the biggest since it comprised of several neighbouring congregations. Then there was the Medhanie Alem Church of the Gezabanda area. Other well-visited churches included Ghbriel Akria, Abune Tekle Hazhaz etc.
Apart from Christmas, Easter and other universally recognised festivities, each congregation organised its annual feast called Neghdet during which one visited friends and relatives. Every household one graced with a visit offered food in abundance and of course the classic traditional brew, Suwa. We the school children made it a tradition to visit schoolmates and devoured the niceties with great gusto. The saying goes that “All Roads lead to Rome” but in Asmera the same is very true of the Park of Temqet; that is where we Asmarinos celebrated the Baptism of Christ each year.
You can’t live and grow up in Asmera or Eritrea for that matter between 1943 and 1977 without having been influenced one way or the other by Kagnew Station. It was a United States Army Installation. Kagnew Station filled the airwaves 24 hours a day for the benefit of American Military personnel based in Asmara. We the younger generation could enjoy the latest pop music that were hitting the charts in the US and Europe.
Eritrea has always been known as a country of harmonious religious tolerance where Orthodox Christians, Catholics and Muslims live in amicable co-existence. I have always had friends, neighbours and schoolmates of the Muslim Faith. Muslims have always joined Christian friends and neighbours in celebrating Christian festivities and vice versa. The Islamic religious festivities have always been followed with very keen interest by us kids of the Christian Faith. I fondly remember the Ramadan periods of my youth especially. Although we the Christian kids did not observe the fasting, we enjoyed the special delicacies of the holy month as much as our Muslim brethren, if not even more. I remember well the Edgha Cenen (ዕዳጋ ጭንን) Market of Asmera where these special Ramadan delicacies were sold. I used to wonder who enjoyed these special Ramadan delicacies; we the Christian kids or our Muslim counterparts who had to observe fasting between dawn and dusk which set around 6 pm. My favourite was Sambusa. Other delicacies included Meshebek, TeAmaia, TeHnia, etc. On Eid al Fitre day at the end of Ramadan Christian kids were treated to candy and cookies at any Muslim home they visited.
Weekends were for football, cycling and all other forms of athletic competition. The popular football grounds included Frovia and Cicero. The National Team played at the biggest stadium, the Asmara Stadium. Bociofila and YMCA were also popular sports retreats. Weekends were also for long walks and widow-shopping at Campo Estato (now Ghodena Harnet). Weekends were also a time for family reunion. That’s when we got to visit our grandparents. I really used to look forward to weekends and the chance for those visits because they gave me the opportunity to meet all my cousins and we were treated to eggs, fresh milk, and above all, Berah! (ብራሕ).
We Eritreans are proud to have this startling collection of futuristic Italian architecture from the 1930s as our capital city, Asmera and are now even prouder that the world now wants to preserve its magnanimity for all posterity to enjoy.