History of Asmara, Eritrea

Asmara (English) (Tigrigna: ኣስመራ Asmera, formerly known as Asmera, or in Arabic: أسمرة ‎Asmara, meaning “Made them United” in Tigrigna) is the capital city and largest settlement in Eritrea, home to a population of around 579,000 people. At an elevation of 2,325 metres (7,628  ft), Asmara is on the edge of an escarpment that is both the northwestern edge of the Great Rift Valley and of the Eritrean highlands.Asmara is in fact one of the richest cities in Africa.

Asmara Roman Catholic Cathedral (St Joseph’s Cathedral)

Although it would be easy to think of Asmara, the Eritrean capital, solely as an Italian built colonial city, its origins actually reach back some 700 years. The Tigringa and Tigre people live around there. Originally, it is said, there were four clans living in the Asmara area on the Kebessa Plateau: the Gheza Gurtom, the Gheza Shelele, the Gheza Serenser and Gheza Asmae. Encouraged by their women, the men united the four clans and defeated the bandits who preyed on the area. After the victory, a new name was given to the place, Arbaete Asmara which literally means, in the Tigrinya language, “the four are united.” Eventually Arbaete was dropped and it has been called Asmara, though there is still a zone called Arbaete 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. Another legend tells that in this region the Queen of Sheba gave birth to the son of Solomon, Menelik I.

Panorama of modern Asmara

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

Asmara, which was part of the independent kingdom of Medri Bahri, would briefly come under the occupation of the British backed and supported Yohannes IV of Ethiopia. He gave his trusted Ras Alula the title of governor of Medri Bahri.

Asmara acquired importance when it was occupied by Italy in 1889 and was made the capital city of Eritrea in preference to Massawa by Governor Martini in 1897. In the early 20th century, a railway line 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.[2] In the late 1930s the Italians changed the face of the town, with a new structure and new buildings: Asmara was called Piccola Roma (Little Rome).

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