The Bandiagara Cliff Dwellings in Mali
Long before there were high-rise buildings and residential skyscrapers, people still managed to live far above ground, at sometimes dizzying heights. Like modern city inhabitants, these ancestors of ours enjoyed pleasant breezes and great views, not to mention the feeling of safety that comes with living somewhere relatively inaccessible.
The Gila Cliff Dwellings in New Mexico
Cliff dwellings have existed in many different parts of the world, and it’s not hard to see why they might have appealed to people. Apart from the benefits just mentioned, in many cases basic homes could be made simply by utilizing the existing walls and roofs of caves. Rock could be tunneled into rather than having to be carved out in great quantities for use as building materials.
Let’s take a look at 10 places where these dwellings can be found, and while doing so learn a little about the people who chose to live there – and in some cases still do.
10. Bandiagara Escarpment, Dogon Country, Mali
There have been human inhabitants in this region of present-day Mali since Paleolithic times. It is now known as the “Land of the Dogons,” but among those who earlier made their homes in the steep Bandiagara Escarpment were the mysterious Tellem people. The Tellem were pygmies, sometimes called “small red people,” who built their abodes around the bottom of the cliff but also straight into the rock wall. Around the 1300s, the Tellem were replaced – or assimilated – by the Dogons, who still live along the cliffs and even use some original Tellem buildings such as the granaries. Some Mali people today say that the Tellem had magical powers and could fly; perhaps their lofty houses contributed to these stories.
9. Bandelier National Monument, New Mexico, USA
When noted anthropologist Adolph Bandelier (after whom the Bandelier National Monument is named) visited these New Mexican cliff dwellings in 1880, he exclaimed, “It is the grandest thing I ever saw.” Ancient peoples made these high locations their homes by tunneling further into the canyon walls where there were naturally occurring cavities in the volcanic rock, while other buildings were constructed along the bottom of the canyon. Ancestral Pueblo people had made permanent homes here by 1150 CE. Artifacts found also suggest that early inhabitants were involved in a trade network that extended down to Mexico. Interestingly, when enemies attacked, the people living in the dwellings could pull up ladders – a little like a drawbridge being lifted in a castle.
8. Uçhisar, Cappadocia, Turkey
It is believed that people began carving homes in the rocks of Cappadocia, Turkey as many as 4,000 years back. At Cappadocia’s highest point stands the town of Uçhisar. And the pinnacle of the town, known as Uçhisar Castle, contains within its rock a maze of rooms, passages and stairs, some of which are no longer accessible. It is hypothesized that towns such as Uçhisar had a network of hidden tunnels for defense purposes, although this has not been proven. Yet even without access to some secret passages, there are plenty of other underground nooks and crannies to explore in this beehive-like locale.
7. Manitou Cliff Dwellings, Colorado, USA
You might think that cliff dwellings would be impossible to move, built as they are into, or at least against, the side of rock faces. However, those dwellings at Manitou Springs, Colorado were transferred from their original site a few hundred miles away. Ancient Pueblo people built them at their former location in the Four Corners region, which they inhabited from 1200 BCE to 1300 CE. They could surely have never imagined that one day, in the early 1900s, their homes would be relocated to become an outdoor museum, which they remain to this day. They are well preserved at their current site and can be easily explored by the public.
6. Gila Cliff Dwellings, New Mexico, USA
Given its steep and rugged geography, the country around these cliff dwellings in the Gila Wilderness of southwest New Mexico may initially seem inhospitable. However, the Mogollon people who lived there at the end of the 13th century had access to water, farming and hunting land, wood, and shelter. The cliff here was volcanically formed, and the Mogollan people built their homes into five existing caves. The dwellings are all joined together, and 46 rooms have so far been distinguished. The site was discovered by a European emigrant in 1878, and in the early 20th century several mummified human bodies were also found. One of these, an infant mummy named “Zeke,” was put in the care of the Smithsonian, although the rest were taken by private collectors.
5. Mesa Verde Cliff Dwellings, Colorado, USA
The cliff dwellings at Mesa Verde are part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site and are considered among the best-preserved and most important sites of their kind in North America. As with the Bandelier and Manitou cliff dwellings, the Mesa Verde villages were inhabited by Ancestral Pueblo peoples. Here, between 1190 and 1300 CE, the Puebloans built a variety of structures and villages, ranging from the 200-chamber Cliff Palace, to single-room storage spaces. The dwellings were constructed underneath the overhangs of the cliffs, and the people lived in them while continuing to farm the land on top. The occupants also enjoyed the advantages of natural climate control: the structures were warmed by the sun in the colder months but were prevented from getting too hot in the summer because they were shielded from direct sun.
4. Puye Cliff Dwellings, New Mexico, USA
Puye Cliffs was also home to the Ancient Puebloans, who lived here from the 10th century to 1580 CE. The site consists of two distinct levels of cave and cliff dwellings set into the rock face, plus additional structures at the top of the drop. The first level runs along the bottom of the mesa and is more than a mile long, while the second measures roughly 2,100 feet in length. Originally containing approximately 740 chambers, the cliff dwellings were part of the biggest Ancient Pueblo settlement on the Pajarito Plateau – also the location of the Bandelier dwellings. The descendants of the Puye Cliffs occupants are still around to this day, living 10 miles from the site, in Santa Clara Pueblo.
3. Guyaju Cave Dwellings, Yanqing District, China
The origins of China’s Guyaju cliff dwellings are shrouded in mystery, as there are no records of the people who created them. However, they are thought to be over 1,000 years old and may have been the work of the ethnic Xiyi people, of whom little is known. The dwellings were carved into existing rock and are easily the biggest ruins of their kind ever discovered in China: the precipitous cliff features 170 caves with more than 350 chambers. Relics such as stone bedding, air vents and rainwater collection devices have been found, as well as caves that housed horses.
2. Kandovan Village, East Azerbaijan, Iran
Unlike the other dwellings so far on this list, some of the cave homes in Kandovan are still inhabited today, over 700 years after they were built. The area’s distinctive formations, which look a bit like termite mounds, are naturally occurring – volcanic debris having been shaped by the elements to form the cone-shaped, cavity-filled formations. The caves were hollowed out further to make the homes, with the rock sufficiently soft to be carved into yet solid enough to be structurally sound. As with the Mesa Verde dwellings, those at Kandovan remain warm in the winter yet cool in the warmer months. But you can see for yourself: there’s a five-star hotel here, so tourists can gain a sense of what life was like in the dwellings, albeit laced in luxury.
1. Sassi di Matera, Basilicata, Italy
The name “Sassi di Matera” means “stones of Matera” and refers to the cave dwellings spread out below the rim of a ravine in the southern Italian city of Matera. People have been living in the caves here since the Paleolithic era, and it may even be among Italy’s earliest human settlements. The dwellings are dug directly into the rock, and the higher-quality tools of the Bronze and Iron Ages made it even easier for the homes to be shaped. Over the years, walls were sealed off, and rainwater and sewage were regulated by nearby canals – yet living here remained an unsanitary experience until as recently as the 1950s. These days, a number of the caves have been renovated and converted into restaurants and hotels as well as comfortable housing.
The Uçhisar Cliff Dwellings in Turkey
Nowadays, many of the ancient cliff dwellings around the world have been abandoned in favor of modern accommodation. But for those with an interest in archaeology or history, their ruins make for very interesting exploration.