Quick History: Yurts

Quick History: Yurts

Anna Hoffman
May 11, 2012

This week, Maxwell posted about how he raised a yurt in his garden in only 4 hours. For modern Westerners, a yurt is a kind of refined tent, both primitive and sophisticated. But the yurt is a type of structure that has been around for thousands of years. Let's take a look at the history of yurts.

Yurts are round, wood-framed dwellings designed to be easily collapsed, transported and erected. The invention of nomadic peoples, they originated in Asia, and are most commonly associated with Mongolian and Turkic nomadic tribes.

There are some substantial differences between Mongolian and Turkic yurts, but the fundamentals are the same: the walls are made from lattice sections (images 2 & 3) that can expand and contract like accordion hinges. The center of the roof is open to the sky to allow for smoke ventilation and air circulation, and is comprised of a wheel-type ring (which, btw, is much heavier and more elaborate in Mongolian yurts than in the Turkic variety, for those of you keeping score at home) (image 4). This roof ring is connected to the lattice walls via straight (Mongolian) or curved (Turkic) beams, and the whole skeleton is covered with felt traditionally made from fleece. Many Central Asian yurts (of the Turkic variety) have a woven reed covering, as well (eg. image 1). Doors are often highly decorative woven rug-curtains, and the interiors of authentic yurts are typically hung with textiles for decoration and insulation.

The oldest extant yurt was found in a grave in Northern Mongolia from the 12th century. The following century, Genghis Khan created the Mongol Empire across most of Eurasia. He and his soldiers traveled with yurts — some of which were collapsible and some transported intact on special carts — providing one explanation for how the form can be found all the way from modern Turkey to Eastern Mongolia. But other archaeological evidence suggests a much longer history.

The earliest evidence of the existence of yurts comes from a bronze bowl found in a tomb from the 6th century BCE in what is now Southern Iran. The bowl was decorated with engraved scenes, including one taking place in what is clearly a round, ribbed structure with a hole at the top, an early yurt (image 5). Other evidence corroborates the existence of yurts among nomadic people in the same region just a few centuries later. Drawings from Northern China from the 6th century CE show yurts covered with tiger skins instead of felt (fancy!).

So yurts were clearly around more than 1000 years before Genghis Khan and his Empire brought them to the attention of the West (thanks, Marco Polo). But why have they been so enduring?

Yurts were a natural choice for nomadic tribes living across the plains and steppes of Asia. Obviously there's the portability factor, which is paramount when you're a nomad. But the low, round shape of the yurt makes it aerodynamic — the fierce winds of Siberia flow over it with less resistance than if it had corners or peaks. Moreover, the yurt form with its ventilation hole at the top yields natural climate control. In winter, cold air comes in at the bottom, gets warmed by the fire and then rises out the top. In summer, the felt and/or reed coverings can be raised to allow for more airflow.

This 9th-century CE poem by Chinese poet Bai Juyi (772-846) extols the virtues of the yurt he erected on the grounds of his villa. You'll see he values his yurt for its superior comforts but also its exotic origins — made by nomadic people from the North, the yurt offered a comfortably rustic respite from Bai Juyi's modern urban life:

The finest felt from a flock of a thousand sheep, stretched over a frame shaped like the extended bows of a hundred soldiers.
Ribs of the healthiest willow, its color dyed to saturation with the freshest indigo.
Made in the north according to a Rong invention, it moved south following the migration of slaves.
When the typhoon blows it does not shake, when a storm pours it gets even stronger.
With a roof that is highest at the center, it is a four-sided circle without corners.
With its side door open wide, the air inside remains warm.
Though it comes from far beyond the passes, now it rests securely in the front courtyard.
Though it casts a lonely shadow during nights brilliantly illuminated by the moon, its value doubles in years when the winter is bitterly cold.
Softness and warmth envelop the felt hangings and rugs; the tinkling of jade enfolds the sounds of pipes and strings…
When I have leisure time I lift open the curtain and enter the yurt, and when I am drunk I wrap myself up in a cover and sleep there…
An orchid canopy will barely attract a hermit and a thatched hut is inferior for meditating. (But invited to my yurt) an impoverished monk responds with praise, and a threadbare scholar stays in place, unwilling to leave.
Guests are greeted with it, descendants will hand it down to posterity.
The Wang family boasts of their antiques, but they have nothing to equal this Sky-Blue Yurt.*

*This poem comes via my favorite online source for yurt history, archaeologist David Stronach's piece, "On the Antiquity of the Yurt: Evidence from Arjan and Elsewhere," from the Silkroad Foundation Newsletter.

Images: 1 Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii portrait of a Turkic woman from 1905-1915, via the Library of Congress; 2 Yurts in Kyrgystan via woodlandyurts.co.uk; 3 Close-up of the lattice of a Western Mongolian yurt, 2005 photo by Anna Portisch via Around the Yurt; 4 Mongolian Yurt roof via mongolian-yurt.com; 5 Rendering of a detail of the Arjan bowl from a paper by Javier Alvarez Mon in The Circle of Ancient Iranian Studies; 6 A yurt near Lake Karakol, China, photo by Jörg Schmiedmayer via Around the Yurt; 7 A yurt in Tajikistan, photo by Vincent Pardieu via Around the Yurt; 8 Yurts in Ulan Bator, Mongolia, 2009 photo via Wikipedia.

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