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Beauty and Crime – Asmara (Eritrea) in the UNESCO’s World Heritage List

Harald Bodenschatz, Technische Universität Berlin,
Piero Sassi, Bauhaus-Universität Weimar,


By drawing, children and youngsters deal with the Italian built heritage in Asmara. The exhibition “Asmara. Afrikas heimliche Hauptstadt der Moderne” (Munich 2012) presented the impressive drafts. Photograph: Harald Bodenschatz, CC BY-NC-ND 4.0.

Last week the city of Asmara, Eritrea, was added to the UNESCO’s World Heritage List. A great news. From now on the city and its architectural and urbanism legacy will be better preserved for the coming generations. An increasing attention will be drawn to the city and its built heritage. But what is the message behind Asmara’s new UNESCO designation?

UNESCO’s explanatory statement is: “[Asmara] is an exceptional example of early modernist urbanism at the beginning of the 20th century and its application in an African context.” Such a motivation is insufficient and shows meaningful deficits both in the argumentation concerning the urbanism product and in the explication of the production conditions under which the World Heritage was built.

Asmara is presented as an example of „early modernist urbanism“. Indeed, a part of its architectural legacy can be considered as belonging to the rationalism, but not its urban design. Asmara distinguishes itself through its combination of (frequent) modern architecture and traditional urban design. This combination can also explain – to a certain extent – Asmara’s attractiveness nowadays.

UNESCO’s summary doesn’t consider the reasons and actors. The description mentions the “Italian colonial power”, but neglects racist and segregating ideas behind Asmara’s urban design and architecture. The fact that Asmara was built as a part of the expansion programme of Fascist Italy in Eastern Africa, a deciding aspect, is here completely forgotten. The city was supposed to become a “bridge head” for Abyssinia’s aggression (1935/1936) and part of the Fascist Empire, proclaimed in 1936. In that cruel war, condemned by the League of Nations, fascist troops made also use of poison gas.

In our opinion, UNESCO has not just the responsibility to motivate its designations to World Heritage by looking at the form, but also, in doing so, to enrich the knowledge about the background of its heritage. In the case of Asmara, this is not fulfilled. This aspect becomes even more clear when reading the press commentaries of the last days. By commenting the new UNESCO designation, they were enthusiastic about Asmara’s wonderful architecture, but they completely neglected to mention the war crimes that paved the way to its construction.

Thus, we think it is misleading to aknowledge the value of Asmara’s built heritage without discussing the dictatorial production conditions that made its implementation possible. Therefore, we hope that the UNESCO designation will become a chance to consider the construction of Asmara as a part of the imperial and criminal project of the Italian dictatorship. This would be a significant step towards a critical discussion of this forgotten chapter of 20th Century European history.

UNESCO official description (UNESCO page)
Asmara: a Modernist City of Africa

Located at over 2000 metres above sea level, the capital of Eritrea developed from the 1890’s onwards as a military outpost for the Italian colonial power. After 1935, Asmara underwent a large scale programme of construction applying the Italian rationalist idiom of the time to governmental edifices, residential and commercial buildings, churches, mosques, synagogues, cinemas, hotels, etc. The property encompasses the area of the city that resulted from various phases of planning between 1893 and 1941, as well as the indigenous unplanned neighbourhoods of Arbate Asmera and Abbashawel. It is an exceptional example of early modernist urbanism at the beginning of the 20th century and its application in an African context.