Asmara (/ˈæsˈmɑːrə/ əs-MAHR;or Asmera is the capital and most populous city of Eritrea, in the country's Central Region. It sits at an elevation of 2,325 metres (7,628 ft), making it the sixth highest capital in the world by altitude. The city is located at the tip of an escarpment that is both the northwestern edge of the Eritrean Highlands and the Great Rift Valley in neighbouring Ethiopia. In 2017, the city was declared as a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its well-preserved modernist architecture.[3][4] Asmera was first settled in 800 BC with a population ranging from 100 to 1000. The city was then founded in the 12th century AD after four separate villages unified to live together peacefully after long periods of conflict.[5]


Clockwise from top:
cityscape, Zerai Deres Square, bus terminal and Kidane Mehret Cathedral, University of Asmara training center, Fiat Tagliero Building, Church of Our Lady of the Rosary


Coat of arms
Interactive map outlining Asmara
Location within Eritrea
Location within Africa
Location on Earth
Coordinates: 15°19′22″N 38°55′30″E
Country Eritrea
Settled800 BC
  Mayor of AsmeraMajor General Romodan Osman Awliyay
  Mayor of ZobaMajor General Romodan Osman Awliyay
  Capital45 km2 (17 sq mi)
2,325 m (7,628 ft)
  Rank1st in Eritrea
  Density19,911/km2 (51,570/sq mi)
Time zoneUTC+03:00 (EAT)
HDI (2017) 0.615[2]
medium · 1st
Official nameAsmera: a Modernist City of Africa
CriteriaCultural: ii, iv
Inscription2017 (41st Session)
Area481 ha
Buffer zone1,203 ha


Originally, according to Eritrean Tigrinya oral traditional history, there were four clans living in the Asmera area on the Kebessa Plateau: the Gheza Gurtom, the Gheza Shelele, the Gheza Serenser and Gheza Asmae. These towns were frequently attacked by clans from the low land and from the rulers of "seger mereb melash" (which now is a Tigray region in Ethiopia), until the women of each clan decided that to defeat their common enemy and preserve peace the four clans must unite. The men accepted, hence the name "Arbate Asmera". Arbate Asmera literally means, in the Tigrinya language, "the four (feminine plural) made them unite".[6] Eventually Arbate was dropped and it has been called Asmera which means "they [feminine, thus referring to the women] made them unite". There is still a district called Arbaete Asmera in the Administrations of Asmara. It is now called the Italianized version of the word Asmara. The westernized version of the name is used by a majority of non-Eritreans, while the multilingual inhabitants of Eritrea and neighboring peoples remain loyal to the original pronunciation, Asmera.

The missionary Remedius Prutky passed through Asmera in 1751, and described in his memoirs that a church built there by Jesuit priests 130 years before was still intact.[7]

Italian Asmera

Asmera, a small village in the nineteenth century, started to grow quickly when it was occupied by Italy in 1889.[8] Governor Ferdinando Martini made it the capital city of Italian Eritrea in 1900.[9]

In the early 20th century, the Eritrean Railway was built to the coast, passing through the town of Ghinda, under the direction of Carlo Cavanna. In both 1913 and 1915 the city suffered only slight damage in large earthquakes.[10]

A large Italian community developed the city.[11] According to the 1939 census, Asmera had a population of 98,000, of which 53,000 were Italian. Only 75,000 Italians lived in all of Eritrea, making the capital city by far their largest centre.[12] (Compare this to the Italian colonization of Libya, where the settler population, albeit larger, was more dispersed.)

The capital acquired an Italian architectural look. Europeans used Asmera "to experiment with radical new designs".[13] By the late 1930s, Asmera was called Piccola Roma (Little Rome).[14] Nowadays more than 400 buildings are of Italian origin, and many shops still have Italian names (e.g., Bar Vittoria, Pasticceria moderna, Casa del formaggio, and Ferramenta).

The Kingdom of Italy invested in the industrial development of Asmera (and surrounding areas of Eritrea),[15] but the beginning of World War II stopped this.

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation made Asmera a World Heritage Site in July 2017, saying "It is an exceptional example of early modernist urbanism at the beginning of the 20th century and its application in an African context".[16]

Federation with Ethiopia

In 1952, the United Nations resolved to federate the former colony under Ethiopian rule. During the Federation, Asmera was no longer the capital city. The capital was now Addis Ababa, over 1,000 kilometres (620 miles) to the south. The national language of the city was therefore replaced from Tigrinya language to the Ethiopian Amharic language. In 1961, Emperor Haile Selassie I ended the "federal" arrangement and declared the territory to be the 14th province of the Ethiopian Empire.[17] Ethiopia's biggest ally was the United States. The city was home to the US Army's Kagnew Station installation from 1943 until 1977. The Eritrean War of Independence began in 1961 and ended in 1991, resulting in the independence of Eritrea. Asmera was left relatively undamaged throughout the war, as were the majority of highland regions. After independence, Asmera again became the capital of Eritrea.


The city lies at an elevation of 2,325 metres (7,628 feet) above sea level. It lies on north-south trending highlands known as the Eritrean Highlands, an extension of the Ethiopian Highlands. The temperate central portion, where Asmera lies, is situated on a rocky highland plateau, which separates the western lowlands from the eastern coastal plains. The lands that surround Asmera are very fertile, especially those to the south towards the Debub Region of Eritrea. The highlands that Asmera is located in fall away to reveal the eastern lowlands, characterized by the searing heat and humidity of the Eritrean salt pans, lapped by the Red Sea. To the west of the plateau stretches a vast semi-arid hilly terrain continuing all the way towards the border with Sudan through the Gash-Barka Region.


Asmera features a somewhat rare version of a steppe climate, with warm, but not hot summers and mild winters. According to Köppen's classification, Asmera has a cold semi-arid climate (BSk). Asmera's climate can also be considered (arid to) semi-arid.[18] Due to its 2,325-metre (7,628 ft) altitude, temperatures are relatively mild for a city located not particularly far from deserts. This climate is characteristic of rainy, wet seasons and dry seasons.[19] Asmera averages about 518 mm (20.4 in) of precipitation annually. Frost, however, is extremely rare in the city. The long rainy season of the year extends from June until September. The short rainy season occurs from March until April.[19] On average, about 60% of Asmera's annual precipitation is seen during the months of July and August. In contrast, December to February are typically Asmera's driest months, where on average only 9.1 mm (0.36 in) of precipitation falls in the three months combined. Due to variable rainfall, Asmera's climate is also characterized by drought.[20] Several prolonged droughts in this region have occurred beginning in the 1960s and have recurred each decade since then.[20] During periods of drought, temperatures are high and little rainfall occurs. As temperatures in a region increase, the rate of evaporation of water from the soil also increases. These combined processes result in the desertification of the soil. In order to obtain nutrient rich and moist soil for farming purposes, populations rely on deforestation to make use of the underlying ground.[20] The most serious environmental issues Asmera faces are deforestation and desertification. Other issues Asmera faces are soil erosion and overgrazing. All of these environmental issues produce soil degradation.[20]

Climate data for Asmara (1961–1990, extremes 1903–2012)
Month Jan Feb Mar Apr May Jun Jul Aug Sep Oct Nov Dec Year
Record high °C (°F) 29.0
Average high °C (°F) 22.3
Daily mean °C (°F) 13.8
Average low °C (°F) 4.3
Record low °C (°F) −4.5
Average rainfall mm (inches) 3.7
Average rainy days (≥ 1.0 mm) 0 0 2 4 5 4 13 12 2 2 2 1 47
Average relative humidity (%) 54 48 46 49 48 48 76 80 59 63 66 61 58.2
Mean monthly sunshine hours 291.4 260.4 275.9 264.0 257.3 219.0 151.9 158.1 213.0 272.8 276.0 282.1 2,921.9
Mean daily sunshine hours 9.4 9.3 8.9 8.8 8.3 7.3 4.9 5.1 7.1 8.8 9.2 9.1 8.0
Source #1: NOAA[21]
Source #2: Meteo Climat (record highs and lows)[22]


The city is home to the Eritrean National Museum.


The city is known for its early 20th-century buildings, including the Art Deco Cinema Impero (opened in 1937 and considered by the experts one of the world's finest examples of Art Déco style building[23]), Cubist Africa Pension, eclectic Eritrean Orthodox Enda Mariam Cathedral and former Opera House, the futurist Fiat Tagliero Building, the neo-Romanesque Church of Our Lady of the Rosary, Asmara, and the neoclassical Governor's Palace. The city is adorned by Italian colonial villas and mansions, one prominent example being the World Bank Building. Most of central Asmara was built between 1935 and 1941, so the Italians effectively managed to build almost an entire city in just six years.[24] At this time, the dictator Benito Mussolini had great plans for a second Roman Empire in Africa. War cut this short, but his injection of funds created the Asmara of today, which supposedly was to be a symbol that fascism worked and is an ideal system of government.

The city shows off most early 20th-century architectural styles. Some buildings are neo-Romanesque, such as the Church of Our Lady of the Rosary, some villas are built in a late Victorian style. Art Deco influences are found throughout the city. Essences of Cubism can be found on the Africa Pension Building, and on a small collection of buildings. The Fiat Tagliero Building shows almost the height of futurism, just as it was coming into big fashion in Italy. In recent times, some buildings have been functionally built which sometimes can spoil the atmosphere of some cities, but they fit into Asmara as it is such a modern city.

Asmara is also the see of the archbishop of the Eritrean Orthodox Tewahedo Church, which became autocephalous in 1993. The archbishop was elevated in 1998 to the rank of Patriarchate of Eritrea, on a par with the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church.

Asmara was known to be an exceptionally modern city, not only because of its architecture, but Asmara also had more traffic lights than Rome did when the city was being built.[24] The city incorporates many features of a planned city.

The city has more than 400 examples of Italian-style architecture,[25] wide streets, Piazzas and coffee bars. While the boulevards are lined with palms and local shiba'kha trees, there are numerable pizzerias and coffee bars, serving cappuccinos and lattes, as well as ice cream parlours and restaurants with Italian Eritrean cuisine.[25]

Asmara was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in July 2017, becoming the first modernist city anywhere to be listed in its entirety.[26]

The Historic Center of Asmara was placed on the World Monuments Fund's 2006 Watch List of 100 Most Endangered Sites. The listing was designed to bring more attention to the city to save the center from decay and redevelopment and to promote restoration.

Following CARP (a World Bank initiative on Cultural Heritage), the European Union Delegation in Asmara has engaged into a Heritage Project pertaining to building's restoration and archive management. Launched in 2010 the EU/Eritrea Cultural Project was expected to be completed in 2014 (Pierre Couté – Edward Denison, Project Design Report, EUD Asmara 2009).


Four big landmarks of the city are the Church of Our Lady of the Rosary and the Kidane Mehret Cathedral of the Catholic faith, the Enda Mariam Cathedral of the Eritrean Orthodox Tewahedo Church, and the Al Khulafa Al Rashiudin Mosque of the Islamic faith. Christians and Muslims have lived peacefully together in Asmara for centuries. The religious majority in Asmara are Orthodox Christians. The population in the Central Region is 89 percent Christian (almost 84 percent Orthodox, 4 percent Roman Catholic, and more than 1 percent Protestant) and 5 percent Muslim.[27]


Nasair[28][29] and the Eritrean Telecommunications Corporation are headquartered in the city.[30] In addition, country's national television station Eri-TV has many studios located in various areas in the capital.


After Eritrean independence, the roads of Asmara underwent extensive construction projects. Old roads were renovated and new highways were also built. There are only five primary roads out of Asmara, giving it its status as one of Africa's most isolated capitals.[31]

Asmara International Airport serves the city with many international flights. Massawa International Airport is an alternative airport nearby.


Asmara is home to the majority of colleges and universities. The city has always been a national centre of education, and is home to many elementary and high schools. Until the recent opening of universities at Mai Nefhi and Sawa, it was the seat of the only university in the country, the University of Asmara. During the period of Ethiopian Federation and annexation, the college was also linked with what was then the nation's largest tertiary institution, Addis Ababa University. Many campuses have been opening up across the country since independence, mainly for medicine and engineering.

So far, this strategy has been rather successful in adding to the country's human capital. Despite challenges in trying to equally balance human resources, most Eritreans want their career to help further their country's success. In other words, most accept their university assignment as their social obligation to serve a bigger purpose.[32]

Universities and colleges

Primary and secondary schools

International schools


Asmara is divided into 13 districts or administrative areas. These districts are subdivided into North, North-West, North-East, South-East, South-West, East, West and Central areas. The thirteen districts (or Neous Zobas) are:

  • Acria District
  • Abbashaul District
  • Edaga Hamus District
  • Arbaete Asmara District
  • Mai Temenai District
  • Paradiso District
  • Sembel District
  • Kahawuta District
  • Godaif District
  • Maakel Ketema District
  • Tiravolo District
  • Tsetserat District
  • Gheza Banda District
  • Gejeret District


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  3. Mark Byrnes An African City's Unusual Preservation Legacy 8 February 2012 Atlantic Cities
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  7. J.H. Arrowsmith-Brown, ed. (1991). Prutky's Travels to Ethiopia and Other Countries. Translated by J.H. Arrowsmith-Brown. London: Hakluyt Society. p. 78.
  8. Asmara italiana
  9. Britannica, Asmara,, USA, accessed on 8 September 2019
  10. Ambraseys, Nicolas; Melville, C.P.; Adams, R.D. (1994). The Seismicity of Egypt, Arabia and the Red Sea: A Historical Review. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-39120-2.
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  15. Italian Eritrea industries
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  18. Semere, Soloman (23 December 2005). "Groundwater study using remote sensing and geographic information systems (GIS) in the central highlands of Eritrea". Hydrogeology Journal. 14 (5): 729–741. doi:10.1007/s10040-005-0477-y.
  19. Semere, Soloman (23 December 2005). "Groundwater study using remote sensing and geographic information systems (GIS) in the central highlands of Eritrea". Hydrogeology Journal. 14 (5): 729–741. doi:10.1007/s10040-005-0477-y.
  20. Ghebrezgabher, Mihretab (7 September 2015). "Extracting and analyzing forest and woodland cover change in Eritrea based on Landsat data using supervised classification". The Egyptian Journal of Remote Sensing and Space Science. 19 (1): 37–47. doi:10.1016/j.ejrs.2015.09.002.
  21. "Asmara Climate Normals 1961–1990". National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Retrieved 13 January 2015.
  22. "Station Asmara" (in French). Meteo Climat. Retrieved 22 October 2016.
  23. Gianluca Rossi, Renzo Martinelli inviato de La Nazione, 2009.
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  27. Hsu, Becky (ed.), Eritrea: Religious Distribution (PDF), p. 3, retrieved 22 December 2011
  28. "World Airline Directory." Flight International. 23–29 March 2004. 68.
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  30. Welcome to the Telecommunication Internet Service Provider – TSEiNET, archived from the original on 20 July 2011, retrieved 8 July 2011
  31. Stevis, Matina (21 October 2015). "What It's Like Inside Asmara, One of Africa's Most Isolated Capitals". Wall Street Journal. ISSN 0099-9660. Retrieved 14 November 2016.
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Further reading

  • Peter Volgger and Stefan Graf: "Architecture in Asmara. Colonial Origin and Postcolonial Experiences", DOM publishers, Berlin 2017,ISBN 978-3-86922-487-9
  • Stefan Boness: "Asmara – Africa´s Jewel of Modernity". Jovis Verlag, Berlin 2016, ISBN 978-3-86859-435-5 (photo book; German, English)
  • Stefan Boness: "Asmara – The Frozen City". Jovis Verlag, Berlin 2006. 96 pages. ISBN 3-936314-61-6 (photo book; German, English)
  • Edward Denison, Guang Yu Ren, Naigzy Gebremedhin, and Guang Yu Ren, Asmara: Africa's Secret Modernist City (2003) ISBN 1-85894-209-8
  • Gianluca Rossi, Renzo Martinelli inviato de "La Nazione", 2009, ISBN 978-88-7255-356-5
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