The great pyramids at Giza, EgyptElephants crossing the Zambezi river in Mana Pools National Park world heritage site, ZimbabweThe great mosque in the Old Towns of Djenne world heritage site, MaliBlack and white ruffed lemur, Rainforests of the Atsinanana world heritage site, Madagascar

Traditional Cultural Landscapes

Map showing the locations of the eleven cultural landscapes designated as UNESCO world heritage sites

The concept of ‘Cultural Landscapes’ was developed as a means of recognising areas that combine the works of man and nature under the World Heritage Convention.  These are the places of people’s livelihoods, identities and belief systems, where the landscape is shaped by people, and nature’s bounty is managed and harvested on a sustainable basis to satisfy people’s material and spiritual needs.

‘Cultural Landscapes’ were first recognised under the Convention in 1992, some 20 years after the Convention began.  They provide, in a sense, a ‘missing link’ between the two ‘sides’ of heritage – the natural and cultural.  But, in Africa especially, where many of the continent’s people still live a very traditional lifestyle close to nature, they present some difficulty in judging what constitutes ‘Outstanding Universal Value’, the underlying tenet of the Convention and ultimate test of whether an area qualifies for listing as a world heritage site. Not only that, but ‘cultural landscapes’ are inevitably changing fast as economic development gathers momentum, areas are opened up through road construction and communications advances, and traditional belief systems give way to new ideas. The extent that world heritage listing can – or should – affect the course of such development remains an open question.

Nevertheless, Africa’s world heritage ‘cultural landscapes’ (and we’ve included here a couple of places that were listed before the ‘cultural landscape’ concept was developed) are all fascinating, vibrant, scenic places that are prime examples of traditional cultures that are still very much alive today.  They all demonstrate life-styles, building techniques and customs that have remained largely unchanged for centuries.   At Djenne, around the inland delta of the mighty Niger River in Mali, are found a collection of towns where all the buildings are constructed from river clay and plastered in mud, including the famous Djenne mosque, the largest mud-built structure in the world.  Nearby, the Cliff of Bandiagara is home to the Dogon people, whose close association with nature and animist beliefs are entwined in a rich culture expressed through dance, the intricate carving and decoration of buildings, and rock art. 

The mud-tower houses of the Batammariba people at Koutammakou in Togo are quite unlike anything found elsewhere, and a fascinating reflection of cultural adaptation to local conditions.  In Nigeria, along the rocky hills not far from the Cameroon border, the people of the isolated Sukur area pioneered the smelting of iron, and developed a system of land terracing that is very uncommon elsewhere in Africa.  Meanwhile the people of the Saloum delta in Senegal, have managed to exploit the mangroves and mudflats of their area for centuries, living (and burying their dead) on mounds built from shellfish.  Across the continent in Ethiopia, the Konso people have adapted to the ever-present threat of conflict with neighbouring tribes by developing a system of living in tightly packed villages, with their fields some distance away outside the village area.


In many African cultures patches of forest on the edge of villages have been kept as special sanctuaries for ritual purposes (such as rain-making ceremonies) or as ‘hide-outs’ for secret meetings of community elders or those about to undergo initiation.  Two such places have been listed as world heritage cultural landscapes in recent years – one in Nigeria (the Osun-Osogbo Sacred Grove), the other a serial site comprising a number of different sacred ‘kaya’ forests along the Kenya coast.

In southern Africa, the Matobo Hills area, with its rolling hills and numerous rock outcrops, has been occupied from the early Stone Age.  The area has an abundance of rock art and was the centre of the Mnari religion, the most powerful oracular tradition in southern Africa.  Not far from Matobo, Mapungubwe was the centre of one of Africa’s earliest and most powerful civilisations.  Meanwhile, the Richtersveld area, in the arid lands close to South Africa’s border with Namibia, is an area where people have adapted to the vagaries of uncertain rainfall by adopting a transhumance lifestyle, moving with their livestock as the availability of grazing dictates.

To read more about each of the world heritage sites featuring traditional cultural landscapes, and see a slideshow of each place, follow these links:

Dogon elder at a ceremony at the Cliffs of Bandiagara (Land of the Dogons) UNESCO world heritage site (Mali), one of Africa’s traditional cultural landscapesThe Great Mosque at Djenne UNESCO world heritage site (Mali) is the largest mud-built building in the worldThe mud-tower houses of the Batammariba people at the Koutammakou UNESCO world heritage site (Togo)The erection of carved ‘waga’ are an intricate part of traditional beliefs and customs in the Konso cultural landscape (Ethiopia)

To read more about each of the world heritage sites featuring traditional cultural landscapes, and see a slideshow of each place, follow these links:




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