Date: Monday, 10 July 2017
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LONDON — The capital of Eritrea, a country with a repressive government that many of its citizens have fled as refugees, has been designated a World Heritage site by Unesco, the United Nations cultural organization.
The capital, Asmara, is sometimes called “Africa’s Miami” because of its many Art Deco buildings. The city flourished when Eritrea was an Italian colony, from 1889 until World War II, and it became a paradise for Italian architects, who could try out their boldest ideas there, away from Europe’s conservative cultural norms. In the 1930s, nearly half of Asmara’s residents were Italian, earning the capital another nickname, “Little Rome.”
In announcing its decision on Saturday, Unesco called the city “an exceptional example of early modernist urbanism at the beginning of the 20th century and its application in an African context.”
The Eritrean government lobbied extensively for Asmara to join the World Heritage List, which recognizes sites that have cultural, historical or social significance.
Hanna Simon, the country’s representative to Unesco, said the recognition brought the city “tremendous pride and joy” as well as “a profound sense of responsibility and duty.” Critics of the government say it lacks the financial resources to maintain the historic structures.
The city’s Modernist buildings include an Art Deco bowling alley and the Fiat Tagliero building, a service station shaped something like an airplane, with a central tower supporting a pair of 60-foot cantilevered wings. There is also a garage, built in 1937, that resembles the hull of a ship with porthole windows. The Bar Zilli building looks like an old-fashioned radio set, with windows like tuning buttons.
The Fiat Tagliero building, by the architect Giuseppe Pettazzi, is often called one of the most beautiful in the world, but its design, radical for the time, was met with some skepticism. When it opened in 1938, Mr. Pettazzi is saidto have pulled out a gun, and either pointed it at a builder who expressed doubts, or threatened to kill himself if the structure collapsed when the temporary supports used to build it were removed.
In addition to Asmara, Unesco named two other World Heritage sites in Africa on Saturday: Mbanza Kongo, the remains of the former royal capital of the Kingdom of Kongo, in present-day Angola, and the ancestral lands of the Khomani San people, in South Africa near the borders of Botswana and Namibia.
On Sunday, the organization added three sites on other continents: the ancient Hellenic city of Aphrodisias in southwestern Turkey; the Lake District in northwestern Britain; and the Valongo Wharf in Rio de Janeiro.