“Dante Cinema”, “Villa Venezia”: The Frozen City of Asmara by Jean Robert

Jean Robert

Did you know that Eritrea – that little country in the Horn of Africa – was an Italian colony from the 1880s to 1940s? I didn’t – until I discovered a wonderful collection called “Asmara, the Frozen City” by French photographer and journalist Jean Robert. Going through the pictures, I found a villa named Venezia, a cinema called Dante, macchiatos and cappuccinos…all in a most interesting mingling of cultures.

“Have you ever heard of Asmara before?” asks Jean. “In the 1930s, this capital of Erythrea, that tiny and secret country of the African Horn, was the most modern city of Africa and it’s still one of the most entrancing cities of the Black Continent. For many travellers it’s a big surprise to discover a slick city crammed with architectural gems, a showcase of the Art Deco, Cubist, Expressionist, Functionalist, Futurist and Neoclassical architectural styles.”

The photographer shares some history: “Mussolini and his fascist government who aimed to annex the neighbouring country of Ethiopia developed Asmara between 1934 and 1940, expending enormous funds. The city, which is situated at an altitude of 2400 m, was even called ‘Piccola Roma’. The most developed city of the continent emerged as a result of large scale urban planning and the latest architectonic inventions built by talented young Italian architects. The Italian population was increased from 4000 to 70,000 at this period and the native population doubled to 200,000.

“Isolated for nearly 30 years during its war against Ethiopia, Asmara escaped both the trend to build postcolonial piles and the push towards developing world urbanisation. Today Asmara remains a model Art Deco town. Since 2005, an official application for status as part of the UNESCO World cultural heritage programme was under assessment [finally granted in July 2017]. In Erythrea, one of the poorest countries in the world, times are hard but good-natured hedonism inherited from Italia has not vanished in Asmara. As in Italy, the Asmarinos (inhabitants of Asmara) hardly miss the daily ritual of ‘passeggiata’. All terraces and cafés fill up with chattering locals, sipping cappuccinos and macchiatos and promenading up and down Harnet Avenue. Women are dressed to kill and the elegant, classy gentlemen are wearing well-cut suits, sunglasses and Borsalino hats!”

Jean Robert has been capturing the Earth’s natural diversity on film for the past 20 years. He has visited over 100 countries in the past ten years. He is currently in charge of the travel section of Terre Sauvage, the biggest French magazine about nature. He travels more than 10 days each month in a different country looking for nature, ecotourism or outdoor subjects. He has reported on the effects of Chernobyl on the environment, worked on the problems of arsenic poisoning in Bangladesh and climbed Mount Kilimanjaro, Mount Kenya and Mount Rwenzori to shoot the last snows of Africa. Jean is also the author of the two books Les plus beaux voyages nature and 25 Stunning Journeys in Nature “which allow armchair travellers to join his planetary odyssey”.

Links: Website (www.jeanrobert-photo.com) | Facebook (www.facebook.com/Jean-Robert-Photographer-273028237310/)

Images used with permission.

 

Cafeteria in Capitol cinema, the largest cinema of Asmara (1800 seats) built in 1938 by Ruppert Saviele

 

Garage and service station Fiat Tagliero, one of Asmara’s icons, built in 1938 by Guiseppe Pettazzi

 

Irga Factory – built in 1961 during the late Italian period by Carlo Mazetti. The small Fiat 500 cars are still visible on the streets of Asmara.

 

Strolling up and down Liberation Avenue or sitting in the pavement cafes, sipping a macchiato are favourite pastimes of Asmarinos – the inhabitants of Asmara.

 

Factory of red hot chili in Medebar Market (1915)

 

Impero cinema, one of Asmara’s largest on Harnet Avenue, built in 1937 by Mario Messina

 

Asmara swimming pool built in 1944 by Arturo Mezzedimi. This architect was the most favoured architect of the late emperor Haile Selassie during the 50s and 60s.

 

Pallazo Falleta, built in 1937-1938 by Guiseppe Cano, Carla Marchi and Aldo Burzagli. One of the largest commercial and residential buildings.

 

Children in the Pallazo Falleta, built in 1937-1938 by Guiseppe Cano, Carla Marchi and Aldo Burzagli. One of the largest commercial and residential buildings.

 

Art deco building

 

Director of Roma cinema, built in 1937 by Roberto Cappallano and Bruno Sciafani was originally intended to be named “Cinema Duche” after Mussolini’s name.

 

Roma cinema, built in 1937 by Roberto Cappallano and Bruno Sciafani was originally intented to be named “Cinema Duche” after Mussolini name.

 

Asmara theatre, constructed in 1920 and designed by Oduardo Cavagnari. It contains three galleries and a fine painted cellar.

 

Old regulars wearing Borsalino hats sip wonderful macchiatos in lively surrounds.

 

Dante cinema, oldest cinema of Asmara, built in the 1910s.

 

Aquila bar with vintage billiards and old advertisements.

 

St Mary’s Catholic Cathedral with its 52m high campanile and Lombardi frontage. Built in 1895 and 1922.

 

St Mary’s Catholic Cathedral with its 52m high campanile and Lombardi frontage. Built in 1895 and 1922.

 

Nda Mariam Orthodox Cathedral, built in 1938

 

View of Asmara from the 52m high campanile of St Mary’s Catholic Cathedral.

 

Bowling alley built in the 60s. Today it operates as it did in the 1960s, on a fully manual system with young boys loading the pins for a small earning.

 

Medebar market built in 1915. Thousands of recyclers are working in small shops.

 

Cattle market of Asmara

 

The old Italian railway, which climbed from Massawa 2128m up the escarpment to Asmara, passing trough 30 tunnels and 65 bridges is a masterpiece of civil engineering. At the end of the war, Eritreans pulled the old railway workers, metal forgers and blacksmiths out of retirement, called for volunteers and set to work. The great line reopened in 2003 and ranks among the world’s great scenic railways.

 

Stucco plasterwork on the outside of a building, 1956

 

Villa Venezia built in 1938. The patterned stairwell with its mosaic lion is the most distinctive element of the building. It was occupied by the Venice insurance company.

 

 


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