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Old February 2nd, 2006, 07:06 AM   #1
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Eritrea Seeks Help to Save World-Class Architecture

Eritrea seeks help to save disintegrating world-class architecture

ASMARA, Sept 5 (AFP) - Home to a surprising wealth of ancient and art deco architectural treasures, many now threatened, the impoverished Horn of Africa nation of Eritrea is seeking urgent help to preserve disintegrating historic sites.

Years of neglect, decay, war and now pressure from modern development have imperilled a unique trove of largely overlooked and now highly endangered gems, including one of the world's highest concentrations of early modern architecture.

With three out of the planet's 100 most endangered sites listed by the World Monuments Fund (WMF), Eritrea has more threatened areas than any other country in sub-Saharan Africa and is on a par with Egypt for the entire continent.

Alarmed by the findings, contained in a report issued by the New York-based WMF in June, Eritrean authorities are now fighting time and funding shortages to restore and preserve the nation's heritage.

"Our aim is to rehabilitate all the cultural assets in Eritrea," said Gabriel Tzeggai of Eritrea's Cultural Assets Rehabilitation Project (CARP), which has been mandated to oversee restoration projects on the three WMF-identified sites.

"Rehabilitation requires you to be very careful," he told AFP in an interview last week. "It will take time. We don't only need funds but also technical assistance. We need guidelines and a management plan."

The work will be the first of its kind in Eritrea, which won independence from Ethiopia just 12 years ago and faces myriad social and economic pressures that are perhaps more pressing than architectural restoration.

"This report will be helpful for us," Gabriel said, referring to the WMF's placement of Eritrean sites on its "most endangered" list.

"I hope it will attract new funds because Eritrea is a poor country and so far it has had other priorities than its heritage," he said.

According to the WMF, Eritrea's capital, Asmara, boosts one of the world's highest concentrations of early modern architecture built during the occupation of Abyssinia by facist Italy between 1936 and 1941.

"The urban fabric of Asmaras city center represents a bold attempt to create a utopian city based on modernist planning and architectural ideals," it said. "The fusion of European modernism with African highland culture resulted in a unique urban environment that has survived remarkably intact."

More than 400 buildings -- representing such varied styles as Novecento, Neo-classicism, Neo-Baroque, Futurism and Rationalism -- remain from that period, but almost all are now in danger from development and decay, the WMF said.

At the same time, similar threats exist in the Red Sea port of Massawa, where numerous fortifications and governer's palace dating from the Ottoman Empire as well as a 16th-century Mosque are facing similar pressures, it said.

"Since (1991), little has been done to restore the citys historic buildings," the WMF said, noting damage done by bombings during the Eritrean independence struggle.

"Structures that have survived ... are now in danger of collapse," it said. "Others have been razed to make way for new development."

Gabriel acknowledged the problems.

"Construction of new buildings in Asmara and Massawa has sometimes negatively affected the existing heritage," he said. "We have to be very careful.

"It is important for the nation that there is a push for development for new housing, for new tourism facilities, but we also have to preserve our heritage."

Eritrea's third most endangered historical site, the medieval Orthodox Kidane-Mehret Church in the south, is the most imperilled, having lost its roof nearly a decade ago.

"Surviving roof beams are rotting, paintings on interior pillars are deteriorating and the building's structural integrity has been compromised," the WMF said.

Year-long emergency repair work is estimated to cost at least 100,000 dollars (80,000 euros) for which funding is severely limited, according to Gabriel, who said the WMF report had thus far sparked donations of 9,000 dollars (7,200 euros).
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Old September 19th, 2007, 07:40 PM   #2
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WITNESS-Africa's rebels take to tranquil Eritrea capital

ASMARA, Sept 16 (Reuters) - They're all around me. In cafes sipping sweetened tea, walking down the Eritrean capital's tree-lined boulevards, or in a local fair.

Rebels are in Asmara, and they're everywhere you go.

From Sudan to Somalia, insurgents have descended on tranquil Asmara, some looking to overthrow governments, some looking for change, but all seeing Eritrea as a home-from-home.

As I sit in a café drinking a cappuccino before meeting two Sudanese ex-rebels for lunch, some former Somali dissident lawmakers pass by in a taxi driven by an aging Eritrean.

Many taxi drivers in Eritrea are ex-rebel fighters themselves, and I wonder if the Somalis think that in a decade they will lead peaceful lives like him.

You never know who you're going to meet in Eritrea.

Riding through Asmara's thoroughfares on my Italian-made motorbike, I wave as I pass by Sheikh Sharif Ahmed, head of the Somali Islamists recently driven out of Mogadishu.

He's taking a stroll in his dark blue suit.

It's strangely fitting that Eritrea, which spent thirty, brutal years rising up against Ethiopia before gaining independence in 1991, should now host so many opposition groups.

The Red Sea state seems to be saying it's rebel-friendly, willing to take on world powers like the United States for having policies which Eritrea says are anathema to the region.

Eritrea's own rebels-turned-rulers have long, historic ties with many groups around Africa. Most Eritrean fighters travelled on Somali passports during their independence struggle, and many refugees took shelter in neighbouring Sudan.

But some in the West, including Washington which is threatening to put Asmara on its terrorism list, accuse Eritrea of not just hosting but also arming groups and thus destabilising one of the world's most fragile regions.

In more than a decade following independence, analysts say that Eritrea has tried to assert itself as a major regional power, getting involved in conflicts in such faraway places as eastern Democratic Republic of Congo.


Back at lunch with the two Sudanese ex-rebels, we're sipping liquorice-tasting alcohol and eating chicken with rice.

In the post-eating haze, we lounge around watching a movie called "The Truman Show" starring Jim Carey.

It wasn't a particularly memorable day. But two months later I hear that one of my fellow diners has been appointed a senior rebel commander fighting with one of Sudan's Darfur factions.

On another occasion, in a small office in Asmara, some rebels are talking about the kidnapping of a commander in Darfur. As we sip tea, conversation slowly turns to airplanes.

First, how, if you're lucky, a rocket-propelled grenade shot from underneath will only pierce the plane's skin and not kill you. Then how aesthetics affect our view of a plane's worth.

"The Hercules plane is much better than an Antonov," says one, referring to planes found throughout world hot spots.

"In an Antonov, you can see all the insides, the straps hanging down, all that stuff. It just freaks me out, but the Hercules is a beautiful plane," he says.

It's easy to forget that rebels have a past.

These men and women were once teachers, lawyers, scientists, presidents, ambassadors, army officers and the like.

But at some point, all chose to take up arms -- or just words -- for reasons as varied as their backgrounds.

Speeding by the pastel-coloured Art Deco buildings that have made this highland capital famous, I'm reminded that it's not just insurgents who've fled to this city.

Many architects came during the early part of last century to escape what they said was a stifling style in Europe, giving Africa one of its most architecturally unique cities.

So Eritrea is now a city of rebels, built by rebel architects. I like the sound of that.
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Old May 20th, 2008, 01:42 PM   #3
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FEATURE-Africa's "Miami" boasts Art Deco trove
By Andrew Cawthorne

ASMARA, May 19 (Reuters) - When Italian architect Giuseppe Pettazzi inaugurated Eritrea's plane-shaped "Fiat Tagliero" service station in 1938, he stunned onlookers by pulling out a gun.

There, the story behind Africa's finest piece of Futurist architecture goes hazy.

In one version, Pettazzi stood defiantly on one of his 18-metre (59 ft) concrete "wings" -- used as decorative shades for cars entering the garage -- and threatened to kill himself should the structure collapse as wooden supports were pulled away.

In another, the excitable architect held the gun to the head of a disbelieving builder, who had hesitated to pull away the struts for fear the long slabs would tumble down.

Either way, the wings stayed up, nobody was shot, and Pettazzi's design skills were vindicated.

Seven decades on, this extraordinary piece of Italian Art Deco, which resembles a plane at takeoff, is still standing in Asmara, the central capital of this former Italian colony.

The "Fiat Tagliero", named for the car firm and the old gas station's owner, is one of 400 buildings that make the remote Eritrean capital one of the world's most fascinating centres for Art Deco and other architectural styles.

One of a tiny number of books on the subject -- "Africa's Secret Modernist City" by three Asmara-based writers -- calls Asmara "the Miami of Africa" in reference to the U.S. city's fame for Art Deco, a design in the Modernism trend known for stylish geometric shapes, bold curves and soft colours.

"The Italians felt they would be here for hundreds of years, so they built and built, and left us this remarkable legacy," said Samson Haile Theophilos, who has written about Eritrean architecture, as he purred lovingly over the Fiat building.

"But I want to stress the workers, skilled and unskilled, were all Eritrean, so we consider this architecture ours."

Asmara's Art Deco boom came during 1935-41, the last six years of Italian colonial rule of the vast Horn of Africa region then known as Abyssinia.


Unrestrained by European norms, and confident they were laying foundations for the continued expansion of their African colony, Italian architects turned Asmara into an experiment.

A 1937 garage looks like the bottom of a ship with porthole windows. The distinctive "Bar Zilli" imitates a 1930s radio set with windows like tuning knobs. Office blocks are modelled on space rockets.

"Desperate to build quickly, the colonial government of the time allowed radical architectural experimentation that would not have found favour in the more conservative European environment," says "Africa's Secret Modernist City".

"Asmara therefore became the world's prime building ground for architectural innovation during the Modern Movement ... a blank canvas on which its Italian colonisers were able to design and build their own urban utopia in east Africa," adds the 2003 publication.

But Fascist leader Benito Mussolini's grand plans for an African empire with Asmara as capital crumbled with World War Two.

British forces overran the Italians, who were allied with Germany's Adolf Hitler at the time, in Eritrea. Asmara's architectural experiment came to an end.

Remarkably, in the intervening decades of near-constant turbulence for Eritrea, the buildings have remained untouched.

Neither the 30-year war for independence from Ethiopia nor a devastating 1998-2000 border war between the neighbours, brought major fighting to Asmara, a city of some 500,000 on a high plateau.

Compared to Miami by some, Asmara could also be likened to another city whose architectural style has stood relatively still since a seminal moment in its history: Havana after the 1959 Cuban revolution.

Like Havana, a few high-rise structures built after independence have tarnished Asmara's Art Deco aesthetic. The government has said it would like Asmara to be declared a world heritage site.


While Art Deco is perhaps the most eye-catching, two other "made in Italy" styles make Asmara a true architectural treasure trove: Neo-Classical designs brought by Rome-inspired architects from the 1890s, and the Monumental style that dovetailed with fascist ideas.

"Monumental buildings were meant to dwarf you when you go in and emphasise the power of the occupant," said Samson. "You could almost imagine 'Il Duce' (Mussolini) striding out."

Lying on the main Harnet (Liberation) Avenue, the former Fascist Party headquarters -- now Eritrea's education ministry - has a soaring main tower, jagged roofline and imposing entrance.

If an onlooker was in any doubt about the structure's purpose, a twist of the head to the left would reveal that this Monumental building was shaped - on its side - as the letter F.

Not surprisingly, Asmara residents are ambivalent towards their architectural heritage.

On the one hand, they are proud of their forefathers' workmanship, enjoy strolling around a city considered by many the most beautiful in Africa, and know the architecture could be a major tourist draw in the future.

But the buildings also remind the residents of Africa's youngest nation of their colonial subjugation.

"I remember well all this building around 1935 when so many Italians were coming and they were preparing to invade Ethiopia," said 101-year-old Eritrean Zeray Kidanemariam, who said he worked as a porter for Italians for decades.

"But they did it for themselves. We were forced to live in poor areas. To them we were just ******s, nobodies."
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Old August 26th, 2008, 05:45 AM   #4
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Travel Postcard - 48 hours in Asmara

ASMARA, Aug 22 (Reuters) - Not many travellers end up in Asmara, one of Africa's least-known and most beautiful cities. But if you ever have 48 hours to spend in the Eritrean capital, here are some tips on how to make the best of a short stay.

Given Eritrea's turbulent history, including a 30-year independence war until 1991 followed by a 1998-2000 border conflict with Ethiopia, tourism remains underdeveloped.

Those who make it -- among them, plenty of Italians exploring their former African colony -- are stunned by Asmara, especially its architecture.


6 p.m. Join the locals in a "passeggiata", or stroll, down Harnet (Liberation) Avenue, the wide main street where residents gather in the early evening to meet and greet. With its pavement cafes and extraordinary buildings from the Italian colonial era -- art deco to neo-classical -- you feel you are in the Mediterranean, rather than Africa.

Older Eritreans will greet you in Italian, the young in English. You can have no fear of being robbed.

8 p.m. Choose from an array of restaurants round the small city to enjoy a traditional meal of "injera", a spongy pancake served on a tray with stew on top. If you are less adventurous, the menu will have plenty of pasta dishes, too. As you go home, observe soldiers on street corners checking the papers of the residents in a sign of Asmara's stricter undertones.

12 p.m. Before you go to sleep, listen to the midnight church bells in the distance, breaking the silence in this tranquil city of half a million people on a plateau 2,500 feet (76) metres) up from the Red Sea coast. Remember half of the Eritrean population is Muslim, so get ready to be awakened by the call to prayer!


6 a.m. Feeling energetic? Before the heat comes, take a jog or a walk up one of the hills around Asmara. The views of the city are stunning -- only a couple of post-independence high-rises spoil an otherwise early 20th-century panorama, dotted with mosques and a couple of cathedrals. Looking the other way across the countryside, women in white shrouds begin daily chores while boys with sticks take sheep and goats out in almost biblical landscapes. Mountains disappear into a misty distance. Wave at the soldiers on guard on the hilltops in case they think you're up to no good.

10 a.m. If invited by local hosts, join them in a coffee ceremony. The bean was discovered centuries ago by a monk not far away in north Ethiopia, and it is in this part of the world that they really know how to enjoy coffee. Watch the beans being washed and roasted as incense is burned before boiling. It might take an hour and the coffee will be strong.

1 p.m. Take some time at lunch to talk to Eritreans about their history. The oldest will remember the Italian occupation, the British defeat of Benito Mussolini's troops in 1941, then the ever-controversial federation with Ethiopia. All Eritreans will talk about the 30-year "struggle" for independence that ended in 1991 -- some still carry the physical scars: a missing limb, a bullet lodged in the ribs -- and has defined their modern history. Present-day politics are a sensitive subject -- President Isaias Afwerki was a successful guerrilla leader and initially praised by the West. He is now heavily criticised by human rights groups.

3 p.m. Spend a couple of hours walking around the city to enjoy its Italian-era architecture. Don't miss the plane-shaped futurist "Fiat Tagliero" service station on the roundabout of Sematat Avenue. Its concrete wings are so long nobody believed they would stay up when wooden struts were pulled away at its inauguration in 1938, but it's still standing. At the Education Ministry on Harnet Avenue, which used to be the Fascist Party headquarters, turn your head to the left and see how the building's jagged roof spells an "F".

5 p.m. English Premier League football is an obsession throughout Africa. Head to the Mocambo bar to join several hundred young Eritreans whistling and shouting as they watch their favourite teams live -- different matches on different screens.

8 p.m. Go for pre-dinner drinks to the trendy Zara bar, full of young Eritreans. It's next to Sandal Square, so-called because of a monument to the independence war shaped like the fighters' simple footwear. The sandal structure has gone for repair at the moment -- as has beer, because of a shortage of ingredients.


8 a.m. Have breakfast on the courtyard terrace of the elegant Albergo Italia, Asmara's first hotel, built in 1899.

9 a.m. Take the two-hour drive down the mountains to Massawa port on the Red Sea. Don't forget to get a travel permit first from the tourist office. The hairpin bends afford dramatic views -- and churn the stomach.

1 p.m. Enjoy freshly caught fish in the rundown but atmospheric old town of Massawa, whose crumbling architecture reflects more of an Arab influence.

2 p.m. Take a boat to nearby Green Island for snorkelling.

7 p.m. Back safely in Asmara, freshen up at Asmara Sweet cafe with a juice or tea. Given that the city has become a refuge for exiled rebels from the region -- notably Darfur guerrillas and Somali Islamists -- you may find the men on the next table are interesting to chat to.
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Old December 30th, 2008, 11:26 PM   #6
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About 400 buildings in Asmara need saving and if we are going to save these buildings, we must restore them. Most of these buildings are decaying to the point where they need to be destroyed and redeveloped. Decaying buildings are typical in third-world countries like Eritrea.
I honestly think all development projects must be sustainable and futureproof.

You support the good projects... and oppose the bad.
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Old January 1st, 2009, 11:10 AM   #7
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I'd have never expected that to be in Eritrea. Those are some really wonderful buildings.
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