When the Italians arrived in the 1880's, Asmara consisted of little more than a few huts along a river. The colonists built a Catholic church with a red brick campanile and a main street lined with palm trees. Then, in the 1930's, the tiny city bloomed into a playground of Italian Modernism.
"Mussolini decided that he was going to establish a second Roman Empire and thought he'd start it here," says Naigzy Gebremedhin, a dapper man with a white goatee who heads the country's Cultural Assets Rehabilitation Project (CARP).
Under Il Duce, Italian architects let their imaginations soar. They built a city of streamlined contours: here a factory with an illuminated glass tower, there a cinema with a retractable roof, there a bar with a triangular "prow" and round portholes. Some architects adhered to classical fascist lines, but many adopted futuristic themes, designing buildings that resembled locomotives, planes, or boats. Walking through the city, we encounter architectural grace notes everywhere, from the aluminum piping along a marble café counter to a spiral staircase that, from below, looks like the crown of a conch shell.
The Modernist boom lasted until World War II, when the British ousted the Italians. Luckily, during the Armed Struggle Asmara experienced little demolition—or new construction. Like Havana, it became a city of faded beauties, threatened by decay but also protected from the soulless, boxlike developments that have overtaken so many Third World cities.
Inevitably, soulless boxes began sprouting in Asmara once the war ended. A plan to demolish one block of the historic center and erect a 14-story tower was averted after protest by preservationists, but other projects went ahead, such as a sprawling nine-story office building (a colossus for Asmara) that dwarfs the finely wrought Modernist buildings nearby. "This was a wake-up call," says Naigzy. In 2001, CARP created a historic zone and halted all development there until preservation guidelines were drawn up. The embargo ends later this year.
As a result, walking through Asmara still feels oddly like strolling through a midsize European city on the eve of World War II. There are few cars, and the villas and apartment buildings have room to breathe. Naigzy's passion for the city is infectious; he sighs rapturously at an old Alfa Romeo office being converted into an arts center, and he cringes and mutters "Leprous, leprous building!" at a stone wall painted a shiny black and white. He proudly shows us what is perhaps Asmara's most famous structure: the Fiat Tagliero. A former petrol station, it was built in 1938 to resemble an airplane, with a rounded glass-paneled nose and cantilevered white wings.
When the government asked Naigzy to head CARP, the job posed difficult questions. Some people wanted to remove all colonial-era buildings. "Is this really Eritrean?Is it fascist?Is it Italian?" Naigzy asks, stopping at a villa with a grand curved entryway and clean steel balconies. "I am at peace with myself. There may have been a few Italian architects overseeing it, but it was the sweat and blood of Eritreans that built this."
Judging from the literature I pick up at the Ministry of Tourism, Eritrea is eager for visitors. Glossy brochures show prehistoric cave paintings, spectacular mountains, ancient archaeological sites, and a pristine coastline with 300islands. But the government does not seem to have thought through coastal development as carefully as it has architectural preservation. Offering me sweet tea, the minister of tourism tells me that Eritrea's door is open for any investor to build anything, anywhere along the coast. A few areas, including the country's last virgin forest, are marked for protection, she says, but the coast and many islands are available to the highest bidders.
Eritrea has yet to excavate promising archaeological sites such as the ancient port of Adulis and the mountaintop city of Quhaito. However, one development already attracting travelers from abroad is the Eritrean Railway. Built by the Italians, it used to crisscross the country, but during the Armed Struggle the tracks were pulled up to build trenches. Once peace was declared, retired railway workers in their seventies, eighties, and nineties—the only people old enough to remember how it all worked—emerged from retirement and began to refurbish the aged locomotives and restore the tracks.
British and German railway buffs, obsessed with the steam engines that most industrialized countries junked decades ago, make pilgrimages here each year. According to Amanuel Ghebreselassie, manager of the Eritrean Railways Rehabilitation Project, they arrive at the airport in a frenzy. "Without going to sleep they just wash and come straight to the train yard and say 'Where is the locomotive?'" he says, laughing.
We see why when we take our own ride, in an open car propelled by an old Soviet diesel truck. The track hugs the mountains or breaks across them with tunnels and bridges that even today are marvels. We stand at the helm, exhilarated. Fog drops down the mountain and chills the eucalyptus-scented air. Children wave from the embankments, and a teenage boy races along till we let him on, then shyly wedges up front with us to watch the cliffs shear off into oblivion.
The city of Massawa looks like an elaborate wedding cake from afar, with cream-colored mosques and Moorish houses. When we arrive at midday, its pointed arches and carved balconies shimmer in the heat. At our hotel, families are splashing around in the Red Sea. We chat with an anthropologist from Asmara and an Eritrean businessman who now lives in Virginia. The anthropologist's young son squeals delightedly as a local man in a turban leads him around the beach on a camel. Not until after dark does anyone muster the energy to go into town.
Nighttime is when Massawa awakens. The city was built by the Ottomans on a small island connected to the mainland by causeways; most of its buildings were constructed from coral blocks. The coral held up beautifully for centuries, unaffected by the humid salt air; then, in 1990, Ethiopian bombers accomplished what the elements could not. Now many buildings show gaping holes and piles of pulverized coral. CARP plans to rebuild part of the old section, and developers have their own plans for large resorts with casinos and tennis courts, which could start springing up as early as next year.