Unesco is currently evaluating Asmara’s bid to be made a World Heritage site. The Eritrean capital’s argument is strong. It lays claim to some of the finest Futurist architecture on earth, built during the period of Italian colonial rule. Many of these buildings – and Asmara’s infrastructure more generally – are threatened by neglect, a resource-poor economy, and the effects of time.
World Heritage status would bring positive attention to a country in need of good press. Western media coverage of Eritrea tends to be flatly negative, sometimes for good reason. The government’s provocative foreign policy hasn’t done the country any favours on the international stage, while its domestic programme of forced conscription raises concerns with human rights organisations and the United Nations. Some, citing the stories of refugees and expats, have labelled Eritrea the ‘North Korea of Africa’, a description at once silly and unfair. Yet no one doubts the harshness of the regime.
Rare positive coverage centres on the capital. Its modernist gems – slightly worn, sometimes abandoned – are remarkable. The Fiat Tagliero, a flamboyant old service station on the main road into town, receives more attention from foreigners than other buildings in Asmara, though it is just one of many remarkable sites. Elegant movie houses, apartment buildings and government offices can be found throughout the downtown area and off the beaten track in other parts of the city. Despite the hardships faced by Eritreans, the markets are busy, and the cafés do a brisk trade.