Asmara (Asmera), known locally as Asmera (meaning "The four (feminine plural) made them unite" in Tigrinya), is the capital city and largest settlement in Eritrea. Home to a population of around 649,000 inhabitants, it sits at an elevation of . 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.
Asmara is situated in Eritrea's central Maekel Region. It is known for its well-preserved colonial Italian modernist architecture. The city is divided into thirteen districts or administrative areas: Acria, Abbashaul, Edaga Hamus, Arbaete Asmara, Mai Temenai, Paradizo, Sembel, Godaif, Maekel Ketema or Downtown, Tiravolo, Gejeret, Tsetserat and Gheza Banda.
Although it would be easy to think of Asmara, the Eritrean capital, solely as an Italian built colonial city, its origins actually reach back to between 800 BC and 400 BC. The Tigrinya 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. These towns fought each other until the women of each clan decided that to preserve peace the four clans must unite. The men accepted, hence the name Arbate Asmera. Arbaete Asmara literally means, in the Tigrinya language, "the four (feminine plural) made them unite". Eventually Arbaete was dropped and it has been called Asmara which means "they [feminine, thus referring to the women] made them unite". Although 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. An Ethiopian legend tells that in this region the Queen of Sheba gave birth to the son of Solomon, Menelik I.
Asmara, which was part of the kingdom of Medri Bahri (later Republic of Hamassien), would briefly come under the occupation of the British-backed and -supported Egyptians. Later Emperor Yohannes IV of Ethiopia briefly occupied the area and gave his trusted Ras Alula the title of governor of Medri Bahri. Alula moved the capital of the province to Asmara, which then had about 150 inhabitants. At this time, the largest city in the Eritrean highlands was Debarwa, now located in the Debub Region. This was the historical capital of the Bahri Negash of Medri Bahri. Within four years, the town's population numbered more than three thousand. Its commercial importance also grew considerably with increased trade with Massawa, which at the time was the largest city in Eritrea.
Asmara acquired importance as a result of Alula's choice for the capital of his province, and 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. 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).
While Eritrea was under Italian colonial rule, architecturally conservative early-20th-century Europeans used Asmara "to experiment with radical new designs." Nowadays the major part of buildings are of Italian origin, and shops still have Italian names (e.g., Bar Vittoria, Pasticceria moderna, Casa del formaggio, and Ferramenta).
Asmara was populated by a large Italian community and consequently the city acquired an Italian architectural look. The city of Asmara had a population of 98,000, of which 53,000 were Italian according to the Italian census of 1939. This fact made Asmara the main "Italian town" of the Italian empire in Africa. In all of Eritrea the population of Italians was only 75,000 in total in that year, making Asmara by far their largest centre.
Italy was defeated in 1941, and the British administered the city and the rest of the country from 1941 to 1952. During this time, many industries were shipped out of the city to other, long-standing British colonies such as India and Kenya. The British maintained initially the Italian administration of Eritrea. Eritrea was joined with Ethiopian in 1952. Asmara was one of the cities (along with Addis Ababa and Gondar) that Queen Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom visited in 1965, at the invitation of the then-Emperor of Ethiopia, Haile Selassie I.
Federation with Ethiopia
In 1952, the United Nations resolved to federate the former colony under Ethiopian rule. During the federation, Asmara was no longer the capital city. The capital was now Addis Ababa, over 1000 kilometers 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. Ethiopia's biggest ally was the USA. 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. Asmara was left relatively undamaged throughout the war, as were the majority of highland regions. After independence, Asmara, again became the capital of Eritrea.