What You Need To Know
Asmara known locally as Asmera, is the capital city and largest settlement in Eritrea. Home to a population of just over 800,000 inhabitants, it sits at an elevation of 2,325 metres (7,628 ft). 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. In 2017, the city was declared as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
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.
Area: 17.37 mi²
The Eritrean Nakfa is the currency of Eritrea. The currency code for Nakfa is ERN. Nakfa coins are made entirely of Nickel clad Steel. Each coin has a different reeded edge, instead of consistent reeding for all denominations. The 1 nakfa coin carries the denomination “100 cents”. Coin denominations: 1, 5, 10, 25, 50 cents, 1 nakfa. The nakfa banknotes were designed by Clarence Holbert of the United States Bureau of Engraving and Printing in 1994. Banknotes come in denominations of: 1, 5, 10, 20, 50, 100 nakfa.
Asmara features a somewhat rare version of a steppe climate, with warm, but not hot summers and mild winters. Asmara’s climate can also be considered arid to semi-arid. Due to its 2,325-metre (7,630 ft) altitude, temperatures are relatively mild for a city located not particularly far from deserts. This climate is characteristic of rainy, wet seasons and dry seasons. Asmara averages about 500 millimetres (20 in) of precipitation annually. Frost, however, is extremely rare in the city. The long rainy season of the year extends from June until September. The short rainy season occurs from March until April. On average, about 60% of Asmara’s annual precipitation is seen during the months of July and August. In contrast, December to February are typically Asmara’s driest months, where on average only 8 millimetres (0.31 in) of precipitation falls in the three months combined. Due to variable rainfall, Asmara’s climate is also characterized by drought. Several prolonged droughts in this region have occurred beginning in the 1960s and have recurred each decade since then. During periods of drought, temperatures are high and little rainfall occurs. As temperatures of a region increase, the rate of evaporation of water from the soil also increases. These combined processes result in the desertification of the soil. In order to obtain nutrient rich and moist soil for farming purposes, populations rely on deforestation to make use of the underlying ground. The most serious environmental issues Asmara faces are deforestation and desertification. Other issues Asmara faces are soil erosion and overgrazing. All of these environmental issues produce soil degradation.
The South Semitic (North Ethopic) languages spoken in Eritrea are Tigrinya, Tigre, and Dahlik (formerly considered a dialect of Tigre). Together, they are spoken by around 70% of local residents: Tigrinya, spoken as a first language by the Tigrinya people.
As the capital city and largest settlement of Eritrea, most Eritrean businesses have their headquarters in Asmara. The city was once a factory town.
During the colonial period, Asmara was an administrative and commercial center of Italian East Africa. When the British entered the country in 1941, many businesses were closed down or relocated outside of the city. This trend continued under Ethiopian occupation.
Nasair and the Eritrean Telecommunications Corporation are headquartered in the city. In addition, country’s national television station Eri-TV has many studios located in various areas in the capital.
The city of Asmara is a center for agricultural products and tanning hides. The primary industrial products of Asmara are: textiles, clothing, footwear, processed meat, beer, soft drinks, and ceramics.
Asmara is very diverse when it comes to religion. Four big landmarks of the city are the Church of Our Lady of the Rosary and the Kidane Mehret Cathedral of the Catholic faith, the Enda Mariam Cathedral of the Eritrean Orthodox Tewahedo Church and the Al Khulafa Al Rashiudin Mosque of the Islamic faith. Christians and Muslims have lived peacefully together in Asmara for centuries. The religion with the most believers in Asmara is the Eritrean Orthodox Tewahedo Church (53%), Sunni Islam (28%) and Catholicism (19%). The towns and villages surrounding the city in the highlands are predominantly Christian (most places being all Christian). Further, towards the lowlands, a few Muslim towns and villages are found. The Asmara Synagogue is the last piece of physical evidence of the Jewish community that once resided in Eritrea. Asmara also has the St George Greek Orthodox Church, Asmara on Selam St.
Asmara is home to the majority of colleges and universities. The city has always been a national centre of education, and is home to many elementary and high schools. Until the recent opening of universities at Mai Nefhi and Sawa, it was the seat of the only university in the country, the University of Asmara. During the period of Ethiopian Federation and annexation, the college was also linked with what was then the nation’s largest tertiary institution, Addis Ababa University. Many campuses have been opening up across the country since independence, mainly for medicine and engineering.
University coursework in Eritrea is, for the most part, four years of academic study followed by one year of university national service in a relevant Eritrean Ministry. Once these five years are completed, students are then awarded their degree.
So far, this strategy has been rather successful in adding to the country’s human capital. Despite challenges in trying to equally balance human resources, most Eritreans want their career to help further their country’s success. In other words, most accept their university assignment as their social obligation to serve a bigger purpose.
Eritrean achievements in the area of health care is impressive. Medical care is improving rapidly in Eritrea, new hospitals and health centers are opened every year. Modern facilities may not always available outside Asmara.
Qualifications of a drugstore owner are not always clear. In case of doubt consult a doctor. Basic non-prescription medicines are available in Asmara, but the selection is not large. Supplies of medicine can be irregular. Visitors should bring a supply of any necessary drugs and prescriptions. The pharmacy with the widest selection of medicine is Pharmacy No1 near the central post office of Asmara.
Tampons are not always available and the sanitary napkins often are of poor quality. It is advisable to bring your own supply.
Asmara has 10 downtown bus-lines on distinctive Red Mercedes Benz buses, with a sign in the front saying where they’re headed (oftentimes in Latin script). The bus stops are easily identifiable (there are signs and an obvious shelter with a bench), but the buses stop running quite early in the evening (about 7PM). They run on 15-30 minute intervals during the day (every day), but there is no fixed or published schedule. The roads get pretty jammed at rush hours (in the morning, midday and around 4PM in the evening). The fare is 1 Nakfa, and the entrance is in the back where one buys the ticket. It is not necessary to have exact change, but one should try to pay in lower denominations.
Line number 1 goes between the airport, 3 km south of the city, and the zoo in Biet Ghiorghis, 2 km (1 mi) east of the city on the eastern escarpment (the windy road to the Red Sea begins after Biet Ghirogis). Number 1 also passes through the main streets in downtown Asmara (Independence and Martyrs Avenues). All bus lines that begin with 2 (e.g. 21, 22, etc.), run between the marketplace downtown and the surrounding villages, but there are only a few a day. Therefore, plan to leave early in order to be able to return the same day. Only the locals know the schedule (through word of mouth). If you’re lucky one of them speaks English and will be very helpful. Some villages like Embaderho and Tselot are well worth visiting for their scenery and traditional lifestyle.
There also white minibus-lines running on the main streets of the city, which run on fixed routes but without fixed stops or signs. They usually stop at the bus stops, but you still have to hail them when you see them, just like a cab. Before boarding, ask them where they’re headed, unless the ticket-seller (called fottorino) doesn’t beat you to it by announcing it loudly. Then, let them know when you want to get off (“Stop!” is a universally understood command).
Finally there are the yellow taxis, most of which also run on fixed routes on the main streets like the white minivans. They have a similar system to the minivans, and the fare is 5 Nakfa. You’ll most likely be sharing the ride with 3 other people. Since some cabs do not use fixed routes, some will take you personally to where you want to go. This is called kuntrat (koon-tratt), and you will have to negotiate the price with the driver. These cabs usually wait outside the airport when a plane is coming in, the city’s main hotels (Asmara Palace Hotel, Nyala, Ambassador etc.), the road to the right of the main cathedral downtown and other obvious spots. They can also be hailed on any street, but many cabs are on a fixed route with passengers already in them.
Renting a car is insanely expensive and fuel prices are higher than in Europe. Renting a cab to drive you around town is equally extortionate, but it could be worthwhile on a longer trip outside of town.