Following two decades of research and the submission of a 1,300 bid document the city of Asmara, the capital of Eritrea, was inscribed in UNESCO’s list of world heritage sites at the organisation’s 41st meeting in Krakow in July 2017.
It is Eritrea’s first UNESCO listing and the first modernist city in the world to be inscribed in its entirety. For the small, reclusive nation the decision carries enormous national pride and brings this unique assembly of early 20th century Italian modernist buildings to the attention of a wider audience of intrepid travellers.
First conceived in the 1910s by the Italian administration that was extending its influence in the Horn of Africa at the time, Asmara’s building boom took on a new urgency with Mussolini’s invasion of Ethiopia in 1935 and the declaration of the birth of the Italian Empire in 1936. Combining various elements of Italy’s vibrant modernist style, the city became an experimental testing ground for audacious constructions that may have been rejected on Italian home turf.
Panos photographer Stefan Boness has spent the past decade documenting Asmara’s dazzling, if crumbling, modernist colonial architecture and the city’s inhabitants, or Asmarinos, who preserve some of the flare and glamour of a bygone era in a small piece of Italy preserved in the middle of Africa.
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