The Bandiagara Escarpment slices across the hot and dusty lands of the Sahel in Mali for over 160km. Bandiagara is a wonder of nature, where the cliffs rise almost 500 meters in the sky and range in geographic diversity from desert to cascading waterfalls plummeting into the plains below.
We are in central Mali, about 90 km to the east of Mopti, where we can see an incredible sandstone cliff with a high plateau above and sandy semi-desert plains below. It’s known as the Bandiagara Escarpment, this cliff stretches for about 150 kilometers, and is recognised since 1989 by the UNESCO as “an outstanding landscape of cliffs and sandy plateaux with some beautiful architecture.” The Bandiagara site is considered one of West Africa’s most impressive sites, for its geological and archaeological features but also for its ethnological importance.
The site is inhabited for at least 2,000 years. Since the last five hundred years it was the home of an ethnic group known as Dogon. Before they migrated to this area from their homeland far to the south-west, in today’s Burkina Faso and Ghana, the Dogons were frequently raided by neighboring Islamic tribal groups. Men, women and children were captured and thrown into the slave trade. Probably around the 15th century or perhaps earlier, the Dogons started to arrive to this region and settled in the cliffs of Bandiagara, taking advantage from the cliff’s natural refuge like defense against potential invaders. When they arrived, they found the escarpment already inhabited by the “little red people”, who were the Tellem tribes, a pygmies that built dwellings around the base of the escarpment and carved burial caves high up on the cliff-face. The apparently impossible-to-access location of these buildings made the Dogons believe that the Tellem people could fly.
Originally, the Dogons shared the site with the Tellem, but gradually the indigenous people were pushed out and the Tellem disappeared. It’s possible that the Tellem people were assimilated into the Dogon culture or migrated to nearby Burkina Faso, but many of the buildings and structures they left behind survived for centuries and are still visible in all this area. Some Tellem buildings, especially the granaries, are still today used by the Dogon. The first Dogon settlement was established in the extreme southwest of the escarpment, and over time, they moved north along the escarpment, over the plateau, and the plains of the Seno-Gondo to the southeast. Today, in the “Land of the Dogons” there are over 400,000 hectares and includes nearly three hundred villages scattered along the length of the Bandiagara Escarpment. The most villages are located on the plateau at the top of the escarpment or at the foot of the cliffs, beneath the older Tellem structures on the cliff face.
The Dogon people carving everything from simple rectangular homes into the cliff walls to detailed Mosque’s made out of mud and stick. The entire concept of their villages is incredible, with their homes that hang from the cliffs defying all natural bounds of the traditional city. Some of the villages can hardly even be seen, because blend seamlessly with the rocky cliffs that surround them, and others are only noticeable from their thatched roofs, protruding from the sand and rock.
The Dogons were practically unknown in the West until the early 1930s, when a young French anthropologist, Marcel Griaule, embarked on a fifteen-year long research trip across West Africa. After years of questioning the Dogon elders about their religion and tradictions, he was finally granted a series of interviews with a blind Dogon hunter named Ogotemmeli, who taught him the religious stories in the same way that Ogotemmêli had learned them from his father and grandfather. Later this was turned into a fascinating book titled “Conversations With Ogotemmeli”. Much of the Dogon’s original cultural traditions exist still today, including mask rituals and cave shrines.
Today The Bandiagara Escarpment and the Dogon culture it’s the destination of a large number of tourists who visits Mali each year. Visitors can also stay directly in the Dogon villages along the escarpment, for a really unique experience.