YURTS

YURTS

A yurt is weather-resistant, collapsible dwelling consisting of a wooden frame surrounded by felt . According to UNESCO: The yurt is a round structure of walls, poles and a peaked roof covered with canvas and felt, and tightened with ropes. It is light enough for nomads to carry; flexible enough to fold and pack; and sturdy enough to be dismantled and reassembled. The yurt can withstand Mongolia’s fierce spring winds.

Used by the armies of Genghis Khan and found throughout Central Asia, they have a distinctive circular shape and broad dome-like conical roof and are 150 centimeters to 180 centimeters high. Their precursors have been used since 3000 B.C. Yurts are known as yurts in Russia and Central Asia and gers in Mongolia. Ger means “dwelling” in the Mongolian language. Yurt, or yurta, is a Turkic word widely used by Russians and Soviet people — more familiar to Westerners than yurt but one Mongolians may take offense to.

Yurts are warm in the winter, cool in the summer and resist the fiercest winds. The walls are made of felt pads covered with white canvas which provides insulation and wind protection. In some places, the felt is still made the traditional way by dousing fluffed wool with water and rolling it around a pole inside a freshly killed yak skin and then dragging all that around behind a horse.

Nomads in Mongolia, Central Asia, Turkey and Western China still use them. Most yurts are fairly uniform in size. But sometimes some really huge ones are made. The Mongols in the Genghis Khan era used enormous ceremonial ones for in court functions. A three story one was built in Kyrgyzstan for a ceremony honoring famous epic poem, the Manas.

Book: “The Land of the Camel, Tents and Temples of Inner Mongolia” by Schuyler Cammann (New York: The Ronald Press Company, 1951).

Yurts in Central Asia

Even today, many traditionally people in Central Asia and Mongolia still live in yurts. They make sense for nomads that live on the steppe, where stones and timber and other building materials are in short supply but animal skins and wool and other materials needed to make felt, rope and tent parts are in relatively abundant supply.

Yurts also make sense because they can easily be picked up and moved to the most favorable conditions. Even though yurts are resistant to winds they are often set in valleys, next to hills of cliffs for protection from the wind. Even though most Central Asian are no longer nomads, they still like yurts. When asked why she prefers her yurt to a permanent house, one Mongolian woman told Mike Edwards of National Geographic, "You can't move a house... You can't take it here and here and here."

Kazakh yurts tend to be larger and darker than Mongolian omes. The Kazakhs are famous for decorating the interior with brightly-colored carpets and wall hangings.

Why Yurts Are Ideal for Central Asia

Len Charney, author of a guide on building your own yurt, wrote: “Looking at the yurt’s structure one begins to see why it was such an appropriate form of housing for these people. The Mongol required a home that was very portable. When the grazing became inadequate, he needed to be able to pack his belongings quickly and move on to a place where his animals could have a better chance of surviving. The traditional yurt was perfect, for it could be erected in half an hour and disassembled in about as much time. The entire yurt, consisting of all the wood pieces, canvas, and felt could be loaded on the back of a camel, or other animal of burden, and transported to the next destination. [Source: Len Charney, eng.surag.net |+|]

“The climate was another factor that had to be taken into consideration when selecting the proper shelter. It called for a structure that would be easy to heat and have a great capacity for thermal retention in the bleak winters, the Mongolian yurt also standing up against winds that would at times approach ninety miles an hour. In the summer when the sun would beat down and scorch the unprotected earth, this same dwelling would have to be able to breathe and offer protection for its inhabitants. Once again the yurt was ideal in meeting these demanding requirements. The streamlined shelter was such that high winds would not threaten to blow the building over, as is sometimes the danger with its square or rectangular rivals. |+|

“Rather they would slip around the curved walls, leaving the yurt and its residents unaffected. The circular, uncluttered design would prevent the warm air from getting lost in tiny corners while its flow would not be impeded by obstructive beams or supports. The small fire in the center hearth would be more than adequate, even with the small hole at the top of the conical roof open to allow the passage of the smoke and cooking fumes. |+|

“I recall one account I read of a cold winter night in the Mongol’s tent that demonstrated the ease with which those inside were kept warm. As the sun fell, so did the outside temperature. Members of the household entered the yurt, also letting in their baby yaks, calves, and lambs, as well as a pregnant sheep. In this particular instance the place became so warm that the family had to sleep nearly naked, shedding their warm fur coverings. Even when the winds would howl and the temperature would drop to fifty or sixty below zero, the family would be quite comfortable sleeping on piles of rugs, wrapping themselves with furs and quilts. |+|

“When summertime rolled around, the yurt was adaptable enough that it could easily conform to the changes in the natural environment. What was done quite simply was that several of the outer layers of felt were removed to create a more permeable surface. The part of the canvas and felt closest to the ground was rolled up, leaving the latticework walls exposed, also making for more substantial ventilation. One other alteration for their warm season was the excavation of a trench ringing the yurt to prevent the home from becoming inundated with water during periods of heavy rainfall... Because of the flexible latticework skeleton and the tremendous degree of weight and tension distribution, the yurt dweller need never worry about the consequences of an earthquake. |+|

“Another feature of the yurt that seemed to lend itself beautifully to the nomad’s existence was the relative ease with which the yurt could be cleaned. Certainly this was a consideration, once you stop to imagine the condition of the yurt after so many humans and various animals mingled in the same space over a period of time. The way in which the yurt was dusted and tidied is probably a novel one as seen through the eyes of the Westerner. The procedure was concise and efficient. The family would peel the felt covering from the wooden framework and move all of the yurt’s furnishings to the outside. Everyone would take up a position somewhere around the wall and carry the yurt skeleton bodily fifty or so feet windward. From here it was a question of placing all the quilts and boxes in their designated positions inside and once again attaching the felt and canvas skin.” |+|

Yurts and Central Asian Culture

Mongolians have a deep affection for their yurts, which are celebrated in songs, stories and poems. One ancient folk song of the eastern grassland of Mongolia goes: [Source: Liu Jun, Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities, Science of China, kepu.net.cn ~]

Imitating the shape of the blue sky,
It has a round-round top;
Coping the color of the white cloud,
It is made of woolen felt blanket.
That's the vault---
The family of our Mongolia.

Imitating the shape of the sky,
The skylight became the symbol of the sun;
Imitating the constellations of celestial bodies,
The droplight became the round shape of the moon.
That's the vault---
The family of our Mongolia.

Speaking of the religious aspects of her yurt, an old woman s in Inner Mongolia said: “The tent is the sky...The hole in the roof is the Sun in the Sky, the Eye of Heaven, through which comes light..and when in the morning, we … pour the tea offering on the hearth iron the vapor goes up with the smoke to Burkhan (God).’” [Source: Len Charney, eng.surag.net]

“Breaking the slumber of the earth” in the form of digging the soil or ploughing has traditionally been considered bad luck by Mongols. This is offered by some as one reason why Mongolian nomads are reluctant to building permanent houses or practice agriculture.

Great Mongol Caravans and Yurts

Soldiers and their families of the great armies of Genghis Khan and other Mongol Khans slept in yurts carried on the backs of pack animals. When the Mongols were making war, they traveled in tumens, great caravan that Ibn Battuta described as "a vast city on the move." A large 50,000-person tumen sometimes extended for 50 miles across the steppe. It moved at a rate of about five miles a day, stopping four times a day to milk the animals. In wartime several tumens could converge, forming an army of 100,000 or more.

A 50,000-person tumen and its logistical support embraced 75,000 oxen and camels; 2,000 collapsible yurt; 10,000 infantrymen; 30,000 family members; a cavalry of 10,000 men that surrounded the caravan in a screening formation; 40,000 fresh horses; and domestic herds of 100,000 sheep and 10,000 goats to provide milk meat and wool for the moving army. "The do not need a baggage train or stores, since they have with sheep, horses, and other animals, and live exclusively off their meat," wrote Ibn-al-Athir. The milk of the animals was their primary source of nourishment. When food was particular scarce they could drink their animal's blood.

At the front of the great khan's tumen was a golden yurt where great khan held court. Mounted on a cart pulled by two dozen oxen, it served as an administrative center where the Khan met foreign dignitaries and held meetings with his generals. The yurts of his wives were also generally carried in one piece on a cart rather than taken apart for transport like other yurts. The wooden wheels on the massive carts were constantly lubricated with animal fat.

The golden yurt was always positioned so that its door faced south. The great khan sat on golden throne with his principal wife on the north side. The khans sons sat on the east side along with lesser wives and children. Visitors and ministers were always required to stand on the west wall. A brazier stood at the center of the yurt and guests were usually served fermented mare's milk. Guards were stationed outside the door of the yurt. "Entering into and going from the palace tent," said Genghis Khan, "must be relegated by the night guards.".The night guards watch over my golden life."

Parts of a Yurt

The walls of a yurt are supported by a collapsible frame that is often made of five to eight sliding, trellised birch or willow sections held together by leather strips. These walls resemble the accordion-like fences used for vines in gardens and fold up when collapsed. The lattice sections, known as khana (hanas), are usually 180 centimeters wide and 230 centimeters long. The larger the number of the lattices, the larger the yurt. The average yurt has six to eight khana, with the door frame as a separate unit, but can have many more. There are no windows.

In order to complete the circular wall, a door and frame are hinged to the wall and a wooden board about one foot high acts as a threshold. The door frame is placed in a break between the lattices. The door fold is almost always painted bright blue or another bright color. The door is the only opening to the yurt. It can be a single wooden door that opens outward or a double door that opens inward. Sometimes in poor weather it is covered by a flap. Charney wrote: “ The door, known as a haalga, was a paneled piece, distinctively colored with bright inlaid patterns on front and back. In addition, a felt flap would be hung over the entrance and put into use when the door was left open during the day.”

When assembled, the frame is tied together to form a circular base that is about 16 feet in diameter. The roof is supported by long, curved poles, called uni, that run like the spokes of a wheel from the top of the lattice to a single pole that rises from the ground in the middle of the yurt. A typical roof is supported by 10 to 15 uni.

A cartwheel-like hoop with two three-ply struts supports the roof. The sharper ends of the poles are placed in the hoops. Long woven wool strips secure the walls to the poles. Bags that hang down from these are used for storage. A flap of felt is folded back at the apex of the roof to form an opening. The roof slopes down towards the wall frame. The hole, the toon, allows smoke to escape and lets in fresh air and sunlight. The supporting poles are often painted orange to symbolize the sun. Many yurts have a pipe-like chimney from a stove at the apex of the roof.

Yurt Roofs

Len Charney wrote: “I have come in contact with two different arrangements for the joining of the roof pieces (called uni) and the crown or smoke-hole frame (tooni). In the first case, which would probably be considered the more basic design, the roof pieces were singular strips of wood, either straight or slightly curved downward, usually brightly colored, tapered at one end and looped at the other. The tapered end would fit into the crown, which was shaped like a saucer and was about 4 feet in diameter. The hoop would be socketed on its outer rim and it would fit over the top of the wall pieces. [Source: Len Charney, eng.surag.net |+|]

“The alternative configuration was a bit more sophisticated, most likely the type of innovation that I mentioned earlier. In this case, the slots of the crown would hold hinged sticks. These sticks could either radiate out to meet the wall, or collapse, not unlike the ribs of an umbrella, for transport. In both instances the number of roof pieces would correspond to the number in the wall hana, supplemented by four to six extra pieces suspended between the door and the crown. |+|

“The Mongolian herdsman is not usually viewed as being someone well versed in the art of woodworking. His vocation simply did not demand this of him. He would therefore depend on the inhabitants of the forested mountain areas, whose daily exposure to wood naturally enabled them to be fine carpenters. One item in the yurt’s design that the nomad could not produce himself was the crown, since it required a high degree of skill in bending and shaping. This circular wooden frame was filled with inner braces for support.” |+|

Different Sizes and Types of Yurts

The size of a yurt is determined by the number of wall frame pieces, or hanas. There are four-leaf, six-leaf, eight-leaf, ten-leaf, twelve-leaf, eighteen-leaf and even twenty-four-leaf yurts. Commonly, most nomads live in the six-leaf or eight-leaf yurts. Len Charney wrote: “The number of sticks in each hana would vary according to the size desired for the erected yurt. Smaller yurts might have only 18 pieces or 9 pairs, while some of the larger varieties would range from 24 to even 32 sticks for large ceremonial “halls.” [Source: Len Charney, eng.surag.net |+|]

“The size of the yurt would also vary as the number of wall sections were increased or diminished. The average Mongol household would have a 4-hana yurt, while the wealthier members of the community and some lama priests might have 6-, 8-, or even 12-hana yurts...More permanent models, which are often seen in the urban settings, would have wooden floors and foundations, similar to those that will be described in later chapters. These stationary dwellings might also be made the Mongolian yurt from harder, heavier varieties of wood. |+|

“One begins to recognize the yurt’s flexibility by recalling a few interesting accounts that I came by in the course of research. In 1927, in Ulaanbaatar, the capital city, a small People’s University was started and dormitory accommodations were actually large yurts. But perhaps the most amazing story that I read of was the construction of a 16-hana yurt which had been erected for a large gathering. According to this report, the yurt was so large that a loaded camel was able to walk through the door and six hundred people attended the meeting, only partially filling the yurt.* [Source: *Herbert Harold Vreeland, Mongol Community and Kinship Structure, note 39, p. 45.]

Felt and Yurts

The open weave of wool tents allows sunlight to come in and smoke to pass out, the loose fibers repel rain. It estimated that the air in a yurt is changed 100 times in one hour, In a stone house the air is only changed two or there times an hour. In the summer the yurts are covered with a light material and a waterproof covering. In the winter they are covered with layers of felt. The layers of felt block the wind and keep the inside warm.

The walls of a yurt are made of felt pads lashed over an inner layer of cloth and covered with white canvas which provides insulation and wind protection. The pieces of felt come in various shapes and sizes and are placed o the walls and roof. The coverings have traditionally been fastened to the frame with ropes made of braided horsehair. During he summer one layer of felt in sufficient. In the winter two or three layers is necessary. Felt is so common in Central Asia that Chinese in the 4th century called it the land of felt. Warriors carried felt shields and wore felt boots. Standard headgear for Persian soldiers was "felt in the shape of a tower."

The felt used to make the yurt walls is made from fluffed wool, which is doused with water, rolled around a pole and then wrapped with a freshly killed yak skin. This bundle, which looks sort of like a rolled up carpet, is dragged around behind a horse for hours until the wool fibers compress enough to become felt. If the wools is not washed properly felt smells like cattle dung. [Source: Nina Hyde, National Geographic, May 1988]

Nomads sometimes make the fluffed wool by twisting armfuls of loose wool onto a wooden a spindle using a technique known since the Stone Age, or simply beating it with a couple of sticks. It takes about two week to make enough felt for an entire yurt. Felt is an ideal building material in the grasslands because they are no trees.

Religious Significance of Yurt

Len Charney wrote: “When the shape of the yurt was originally devised, it is doubtful that this design was chosen for any other reason than its utilitarian characteristics. Such features as its circularity demonstrated sensible engineering, considering the ease of heating and protection against strong winds, while the built-in hole at the top allowed the smoke from the fire to leave the yurt effortlessly. But somewhere along the way, these nomadic, desert people who relied so heavily on the natural elements, began to recognize the symbolic connection between these simple dwellings and the larger universe. [Source: Len Charney, eng.surag.net |+|]

“For the yurt dweller alone in the desert, tending his animals and living his solitary existence, the world was a giant dome, at the top of which he found the bright sun. When he returned to his yurt he noticed that this was in fact the shape of his home. Light would come pouring through the opening atop his yurt, further proof that there was a connection between his small shelter and the outside world. These general impressions about the symbolism of his home led to actual modifications to accommodate this resemblance.|+|

“The smoke hole was later known as the “Sun Gate” and the “Sky Door,” and even the inner braces enhanced this idea. Schuyler Cammann, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, noticed on one of his trips through Mongolia that the eight-spoked inner braces of the crown were similar to the eight-spoked “Wheel of the Law,” a design often seen on the roofs of Buddhist temples. |+|

“According to ancient Asiatic custom, this originally symbolized the Sun Wheel, and it appeared to him that the presence of the eight-spoked design in the yurt’s the Mongolian yurtcrown was an extension of this idea. On the outside of the yurt, an extra piece of felt or heavy cloth was added to utilize the wind to draw the smoke from the yurt as well as close off the hole during inclement weather (similar in design to the flap in the American Indian tepee). Professor Cammann also found that this extra piece had an ornamentation similar to the Chinese “cloud collar,” an ancient symbol found on cosmic diagrams in China as early as 200 B.C.” |+|

In the center of the floor was a square fire pit. “In every Mongol yurt this was the standard design. The flames came to symbolize the gate to the Underworld while the components of the pit itself each held a special meaning as well. According to old Asiatic tradition, the five main elements of the cosmos were fire, wood, earth, metal, and water. These items were all contained in the hearth on the floor. The square-shaped frame was wood and sat on the earthen floor. The fire was always going inside, whether it was being used for cooking or heat. A heavy metal pot would sit on an iron grate, the pot usually filled with water or some other liquid. |+|

“Even today, where most of this significance has been all but forgotten, it is still forbidden for anyone to set anything inside the hearth. As the smoke coiled its way out of the yurt, it resembled a trunk of a tree and this tree was known as the “World Tree” moving from earth to heaven. Each morning an offering was made by pouring tea on the iron grate, the vapor moving along with the smoke to God. Another example of this symbolism was that the lama priest or shaman would sometimes climb a ladder to the smoke hole and return with an omen or message from above.” |+|

Yurts in America!

Len Charney, author of a guide on building your own yurt, wrote: “The yurt is sturdy, well-designed and organically beautiful. That is why it has been used by nomadic Mongolian herdsmen as an ideal structure for centuries. You only need a few hundred dollars to build it. You don’t even have to be mechanically talented. Compare the yurt to geodisic domes and A-frames: it is less expensive and easier to build than either. I laughed when I read this description in an old National Geographic and thought how much sense it made. If only life could be so uncluttered and precise in America’s humble homes. [Source: Len Charney, eng.surag.net. Charney graduated from Cornell University in 1971. He is a teacher by profession and has built many yurts |+|]

“The idea of the yurt for use in the United States as an alternative human dwelling was introduced by a fellow by the name of Bill Coperthwaite. In 1962, at a time when very few Westerners had ever heard of a yurt, let alone lived in one, Bill was a teacher at the Meeting School in Rindge, New Hampshire. While searching for practical projects to interest four students who enjoyed math but found the old courses inadequate and unchallenging, he came upon an article in the March 1962 National Geographic. Written by none other than Justice William 0. Douglas of the U.S. Supreme Court, it described his travels as a civilian through Mongolia. Among the illustrations accompanying the text were several of the portable felt tents employed by the nomadic population. Coperthwaite, who had always been fascinated with the space potential of circular structures, decided that he and his students would build a yurt, attempting to see, at the same time, whether they could improve upon the Mongolian design. |+|

“Once Bill had succeeded in his first project, he continued to look for ways to make the yurt a more durable structure. Looking at the pictures of the Mongolian yurts, one notices that the walls were vertical or perhaps even slanted slightly toward the center of the circle. One of the first revisions devised by Coperthwaite was to slope the walls gently outward, realizing that this would increase the rigidity of the yurt and subsequently offer greater strength. In addition, he and his students discovered a way to eliminate the heavy center crown, using the roof pieces themselves to create a self-supporting tension ring at the top of the roof.

Book: “Build a Yurt: The Low-Cost Mongolian Round House” by Len Charney, Illustrations by Margie Smigel and Barbara Anger, Collier Books, 1974.

Yurt Commune

Len Charney wrote: “I heard about a nearby commune and how the people on it were living in yurts. Several young people had joined together a couple of years prior to my search and bought one hundred acres of land in a nearby community. The only dwelling for human inhabitance at the time they made their purchase was a fine old log cabin. This served well as a communal kitchen and meeting place, yet each member wanted his or her own structure for sanity and solitude. The yurt, which had already been introduced to the area a few years back, was perfect to suit their needs. These circular latticework dwellings averaged 16 feet in diameter and utilized ordinary building supplies for construction. [Source: Len Charney, eng.surag.net |+|]

“It was a structure that was inexpensive to build, requiring relatively little expertise to erect. In this communal environment, the yurt could be put together in a short period of time, since the people worked collectively whenever extra hands were required. Here was an attractive, organic dwelling that blended in with any rustic setting. I was amazed on entering a yurt for the first time to find a building that looked quite tiny from the outside, yet provided spacious accommodations for a couple of people. |+|

“At the same time, it was perhaps one of the most congenial atmospheres I had ever encountered. Indeed there are few people who can step inside the yurt and not be moved by its coziness and almost immediate sense of security. As you can imagine, I was no exception. Once I had observed a few of the yurts and seen how each individual had introduction utilized the basic structure in various fashions to suit personal desires, it became quite obvious that I was going to have to find a place to build and call a yurt my home. |+|

“My friend opted for the slab cabin, yet when he would come to visit in the depth of winter, walking the few hundred paces from his electrically lit, bottled gas-heated cabin, he would always stay a while, talking by the shadows of the kerosene lamp and taking great pleasure in stoking the wood fire, his eyes wandering throughout the yurt up to the starlit skylight. When I would leave my home for extended periods of time, he would inevitably move from his cabin to stay in my yurt.” |+|

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated April 2016

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