Cliff of Bandiagara (Land of the Dogons)

The Cliff of Bandiagara is an outstanding example of a traditional human settlement, representative of the Dogon culture, which has become vulnerable under the impact of tourism. The complex ritual relationships of the Dogon people with the environment include the use of curative and medicinal wild plants and the sacred associations with pale fox, jackal and crocodile.

The zone stretches from Gani-do in the south-south-west to Koudianga in the north-north-east, along the road linking Bankas, Koporo, Madougou and Diankabou. The sanctuary lies at the southern limit of the Sahara in an arid Sahelian region with averages of 580 mm of rainfall per year. It exhibits three distinctive geomorphological features: Bandiagara plateau, Bandiagara escarpment, and the Plaine du Sìno. The landscape consists of an ancient eroded terrain of flat tablelands, mesa and sandstone buttes. The rock substrate is predominantly upper sandstone of the Cambrian and Ordovician periods, formed into horizontal strata and characterized by a great variety of facies. Exposed horizontal strata periodically result in rock polygonation. In some areas the plateau is crowned by laterite, ironstone shield or impervious conglomerates. The escarpment has formed into numerous irregularities, indentations, promontories and is pierced by thalweg ravines, gorges or rocky passages connecting the plain and plateau. Thalwegs maintain a humid and shaded microclimate able to support dense vegetation. Water is also retained in rock fissures, resulting in seasonal boggy areas on horizontal or gently sloping rock strata.

The predominant vegetation type is Sudano-Sahelian open wood savannah with mosaics of steppe and chasmophytic flora. The plateau of Bandiagara is covered in a typically Sudanian savannah vegetation. A wide range of animal species is found in the region. The cliff and rock habitats support a diversity of species including fox-kestrel, Gabar goshawk, yellow-billed shrike, scarlet-cheated sunbird, abundant cliff chats and rock doves. Mammal species occur in the region and probably also in the Bandiagara escarpment.

The region is one of the main centres for the Dogon culture, rich in ancient traditions and rituals, art culture and folklore. The village of Sangha or Songo is celebrated for its triennial circumcision ceremonies and its rock carvings. The Dogon subsistence farmers did not arrive until the 15th and 16th centuries, yet the region is rich in unique architecture, from flat-roofed huts to tapering granaries capped with thatch, and cliff cemeteries. Symbolic relationships occur with the environment such as with semi-domesticated crocodiles, pale fox and jackal, and the development of elaborate masks, headdresses and ritual dances.

The large family dwelling was generally built on two levels. The facade was windowless but had a series of niches and two doors, often decorated with sculptured rows of male and female characters which symbolized the family's successive generations. The size of the house was almost exactly half that of the ginna and generally was on one floor. Women were temporarily excluded from the domestic group during their menstrual period, one or two circular-shaped women's houses being built at one end of the village for their use at this time. A distinction between the sexes was also made in the size of the granaries. Special areas were reserved for traditional shrines of which a great variety can be found. Some, in the caves, probably perpetuated the ritual sites of the Tellem cult. Others, built from banco, conform to several types of architecture. The most venerated are the responsibility of the Hogon, the priest who works for several villages. Living alone, his source of inspiration is the snake, whose totem is often sculpted near the door to his dwelling. The oldest mosques (Islam developed strongly in Dogon country during the 19th century) were built by local masons alongside the togu-na on the village common.

The integration of new elements in the traditional architecture is clear proof of the strength of Dogon civilization in the face of external contributions. However, it must stress the precarious preservation of these traditional habitats and handicraft techniques, lifestyles and way of thinking which helped the Dogon people to survive.