The Bandiagara site is an outstanding landscape of cliffs and sandy plateaux with some beautiful architecture (houses, granaries, altars, sanctuaries and Togu Na, or communal meeting-places). Several age-old social traditions live on in the region (masks, feasts, rituals, and ceremonies involving ancestor worship). The geological, archaeological and ethnological interest, together with the landscape, make the Bandiagara plateau one of West Africa's most impressive sites.
Outstanding Universal Value
The Cliff of Bandiagara, Land of the Dogons, is a vast cultural landscape covering 400,000 ha and includes 289 villages scattered between the three natural regions: sandstone plateau, escarpment, plains (more than two-thirds of the listed perimeter are covered by plateau and cliffs).
The communities at the site are essentially the Dogon, and have a very close relationship with their environment expressed in their sacred rituals and traditions.
The site of the Land of the Dogons is an impressive region of exceptional geological and environmental features. Human settlements in the region, since Palaeolithic times, have enabled the development and harmonious integration into the landscape of rich and dense tangible and intangible cultures, the best known of which are those of the Tellem, that are thought to live in the caves, and the Dogon.
This hostile milieu and difficult access has been, since the 15th century, a natural refuge that corresponded to the need for defence of the Dogons in the face of formidable invaders. Entrenched on the plateau and hanging to cliff faces, the Dogon were able to conserve their centuries-old culture and traditions, thanks to this defensive shelter. The architecture of the Dogon land has been adapted to benefit from the physical constraints of the place. Whether on the high plateau, the cliff-faces, or on the plain, the Dogon have exploited all the elements available to build their villages that reflect their ingenuity and their philosophy of life and death.
In certain cultural areas, the Dogon villages comprise numerous granaries, for the most part square with a thatched tapering roof. The gin’na, or large family house, is generally built on two levels. Its facade built from banco, is windowless but has a series of niches and doors, often decorated with sculptured motifs: rows of male and female characters which symbolize the couple’s successive generations.
One of the most characteristic forms of the Land of the Dogon is that of the togu-na, the large shelter, a long construction that provides shelter under a roof of branches supported by roughly-shaped wooden poles, for a platform with benches for the men.
The totemic sanctuaries (binu), privileged places, are of a great variety: some, in caves, keep alive the cult places of the Tellem; others, built of banco, resemble houses. The most venerated are the responsibility of the Hogon, the priest of one or several villages living alone, his source of inspiration being the snake, Lèbe, whose totem is often sculpted near the door of his dwelling.
The irruption of new « written religions » (Islam and Christianity) since at least the 18th century has contributed to the vulnerability of the heritage that today has suffered from the negative effects of globalization linked to the increasing development of cultural tourism and the phenomena of rural exodus, consequence of the drought of the last decades.
Criterion (v): The Land of the Dogon is the outstanding manifestation of a system of thinking linked to traditional religion that has integrated harmoniously with architectural heritage, very remarkably in a natural landscape of rocky scree and impressive geological features. The intrusion of new written religions (Islam and Christianity) since at least the 18th century has contributed towards the vulnerability of the heritage that today suffers from adverse effects of globalization.
Criterion (vii): The cliff and its rocky scree constitute a natural area of unique and exceptional beauty in West Africa. The diversity of geomorphological features (plateau, cliffs and plains) of the site are characterized by the presence of natural monuments (caves, secondary dunes and rock shelters) that bear witness to the continued influence of the different erosion phenomena. It is also in the natural environment that the endemic plant Acridocarpus monodii is found, its growth area being limited to the cliffs, and specific medicinal plants used by the Dogon therapists and healers. These plants suffer from gradual decline due to climate change (drought and desertification) and logging. The relationship of the Dogon people with their environment is also expressed in the sacred rituals associating spiritually the pale fox, the jackal and the crocodile.
Due to the socio-economic phenomena (exodus, scholarization, infrastructure development), human activities and the degradation of the environment (climate change causing droughts, desertification or also torrential rains; demographic pressure), the populations are leaving the villages located on the steep escarpments for the plain. Some intangible cultural practices undergo mutation linked to contact with other imported value systems (religions, cultural tourism...). The integrity of this very extensive property is, consequently, threatened as several sectors no longer contain all the attributes of the Outstanding Universal Value.
The social and cultural traditions of the Dogon are among the best preserved of sub-saharan Africa, despite certain important irreversible socio-economic mutations. The villages and their inhabitants are faithful to the ancestral values linked to an original life style. The harmonious integration of cultural elements (architecture) in the natural landscape remains authentic, outstanding and unique. Nevertheless, the traditional practices associated to the living quarters and the building constructions have become vulnerable, and in places the relationship between the material attributes and the Outstanding Universal Value are fragile.
Protection and management requirements
The property is listed in national heritage by Decree No 89 – 428 P-RM of 28 December 1989 as a natural and cultural sanctuary. The Law regulating forestry exploitation (No.68-8/AN-RN of February 1968) as well as the Ordinance No. 60/CMLN of 11 November 1969 concerning hunting are also applicable. The Ministry of Culture of Mali, the overall body responsible for the protection of the property, has delegated the management to the Cultural Mission of Bandiagara. The Cultural Mission of Bandiagara has prepared a management and conservation plan for the site (2006-2010). This plan requires the implementation of activities relating to integrated conservation programmes. It highlights the improvement of living conditions of the communities, bearers of the heritage values of the site.
For a sustainable and effective management of the site, priority is given to the implementation of programmes inscribed in the management and conservation plan of the site. This plan calls for the correlation of the management of heritage and development of the local economy. The Land of the Dogon is a living site, but fragile, and certain important values can only be preserved by taking into consideration the well-being of the local communities, translated by the implementation of targeted development and infrastructural projects (for example, the provision of water to high-perched sites and the economic enhancement of heritage resources).
It is essential to assess the implementation of the management plan to better pinpoint the concerns of the populations and those responsible bodies of the decentralized territorial communities.
Another concern is the need to revise the listing of the site. Any revision of the boundaries should reflect the vulnerabilities of certain parts of the property in terms of authenticity and integrity.
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. Source: UNESCO/CLT/WHC