Culture at a Crossroads

A bedded sandstone ridge that rises some 500 meters above the parched sands of Western Sahara, the Bandiagara Escarpment has served as a cultural crossroads for more than 2,000 years. The eroded remnants of a Precambrian massif, the 200-kilometer-long formation snakes its way across the landscape from southwest to northeast.

The plateau atop the escarpment slopes down to the Bani and Niger Basins to the northwest. Beneath it is a scree field littered with sizable sandstone blocks that have broken off the cliff face, creating a network of natural pathways and lush pockets of vegetation nourished by groundwater and seasonal rains trapped and channeled by fissures in the rock. A steady line of dunes marks the edge of the scree, beyond which is the vast sandy Seno Plain, stretching over the horizon toward the Burkina Faso border. Each twist, turn, and fold in the rock harbors a unique environment, not only in its flora and fauna, but in the cultural traditions and architectural forms that have developed there. Considered one of West Africa’s most impressive sites, the escarpment has witnessed nearly 100,000 years of human occupation.

Among its more recent inhabitants have been the Toloy, a little-known people who took shelter in the numerous natural caves pocking the upper reaches of the cliff face sometime between the third and second centuries b.c. The eleventh century a.d. witnessed the arrival of the Tellem, a Subsaharan group who occupied the escarpment prior to the arrival of the Dogon in the fifteenth century a.d.

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