War is over in Eritrea - but the legacy of an earlier invasion endures. Jim Whyte visits the futurist villas and Italian ice cream parlours of the capital, Asmara
I may share a birthday with Benito Mussolini, but otherwise I like to think we have nothing in common. Il Duce's eyes must, though, like mine, have scanned the map of Africa and settled on a thin strip of territory bordering the Red Sea trade routes and extending up a steep escarpment into lush highlands. I saw a chance to explore a fascinating and little-visited country, seemingly forgotten by the world and only now emerging from decades of isolation. Benito, on the other hand, dreamed of creating a new Roman Empire.
The Italians arrived off the coast in the 1880s. The barren and inhospitable shoreline was fringed with uncharted reefs and inhabited by the Afars, famed for being even less hospitable than their surroundings. Landing at the beautiful Arab port of Massawa, the first governor of Eritrea, Ferdinando Martini, thought the coast was no place to locate his centre of command. The combined effect of the intense heat and the sight of the Afars' vicious-looking curved jile knives made him feel decidedly uncomfortable and so the capital of Italian East Africa became Asmara, high up in the mountains.
The city of Asmara became a personal project for Mussolini, who continued its development with the same flamboyance and extravagance that he put into choosing his military uniforms. In the 1920s and 30s a fortune was spent creating a showcase city. Art deco, cubist, rationalist, moderne, futurist and expressionist gems were constructed and Asmara became the envy of the continent. Unfortunately, another of Mussolini's pet projects was the second world war, and in 1941 the British invaded from the Sudan. The dream was over just as quickly as it had begun. When the British left in 1945 they took everything that wasn't nailed down - including the Italians.
If the Eritreans thought they were free of foreign meddling, however, they were mistaken. Their union with neighbouring Ethiopia, forced by the United Nations, quickly sparked civil war. Eritrea's ethnic groups had little in common except a genius for guerrilla warfare and a love of espresso. Abandoned by the international community, facing overwhelming odds, they kept going on a potent mixture of sheer determination and caffeine, finally achieving independence in 1991. But after so many decades of isolation and conflict would anything be left of "Piccola Roma"?
Like the Italians I arrived in Massawa, which had once bustled with the trade in myrrh, ivory, slaves, ostrich feathers and giraffes. Understandably the port is a lot quieter these days. The "Pearl of the Red Sea" had taken a battering during the war, but no amount of damage could erase the beauty of the city. The streets are lined with old Ottoman and Arab merchants' houses, their ornate arcades providing welcome shade from the midday heat. Nor had the conflict reduced the warmth of the locals' welcome, whose dreaded reputation seemed wildly misplaced.
"This is the winter," said the smiling Tadesse, who had joined me in the stifling shade of a teashop. "In a few months it will be much hotter." I found that difficult to accept, but Tadesse pointed to the Saho men by the roadside. These Muslim cattle herders bring their livestock down to the coastal plain for the "winter". Swathed in flowing white robes, they showed an impressive disdain for the heat, preferring to seek out the blazing sunlight wherever possible. I decided to follow in the footsteps of Governor Martini and head for the hills.
Heading up to Asmara, Tadesse's driving showed an undeniable Italian influence. I clung to the dashboard as he flung coins in the direction of the roadside shrines. "It will keep us safe," he assured me, his foot glued to the accelerator. Soon we were climbing steeply up into the mountains; the heat and dust of the coastal plains were gradually replaced by green fields and the scent of wild flowers.
The encampments of the Saho gave way to the farming villages of the Tigrinya with their white shawls and plaited hair. The Tigrinya are Christian (many of the women have crucifixes tattooed on their foreheads) which meant the number of roadside shrines began to increase: Tadesse continued to dispense a shower of coins and we continued to stick to the road. At just over 2300m it levelled off and plunged into a thick grove of fragrant eucalyptus trees. We emerged into the outskirts of a quite breathtaking city.
It seems miraculous that Asmara survived so many years of war unscathed. Just as the Eritreans were preparing for the final assault on the city in 1991, the Ethiopian garrison decided to leave without firing a shot. We turned into Liberation Avenue, once called Viale Mussolini, lined with majestic palms, striking architecture and busy cafes. Cut off from the outside world by decades of conflict, everything appeared unchanged since 1945, when the British had marched out of town. Paint was peeling from the facades but the immaculate streets showed the Eritreans took great pride in their city.