Most steppe horsemen lived in gers (yurts) which are made of animal skins or felt and have a wooden frame that can be easily taken apart and reassembled and loaded onto wagons or sledges. A ger is weather-resistant, collapsible dwelling consisting of a wooden frame surrounded by felt. Used by the armies of Genghis Khan and found throughout Eurasia, Mongolia and 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. Gers are known as yurts in Russia and Central Asia. Yurt is a Turkic word more familiar to Westerners than ger but one Mongolians may take offense to.
Gers 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. Gers are designed be taken apart and carried on the back of a pack animals such as a Bactrian camel and are thus suitable for nomadic life. Larger ones were traditionally carried in carts. Genghis Khan's reportedly could be moved using 22 oxen or horses. Today they are mostly transported by trucks.
Nomads, semi-nomads and sedentary people in Mongolia, Central Asia, Turkey and Western China still use them. Most gers are fairly uniform in size. But sometimes some really huge ones are made. Small ones can be as small as 3.6 meters (4 yards) in diameter. Larger ones may house hundreds of people. Stationary ones made of wood and adobe can be found but they are not really gers. The conquering Mongols had enormous ceremonial ones they used in court functions. A three story one was built in Kyrgyzstan for a ceremony honoring a famous epic poem. Families often have more than one yurt.
Gers reflect the aesthetic views of Mongolians. They are are white and roundish on the outside and feature a sunroof connected to spoke-like poles that extend in all directions. It is said these characteristics signify a Mongol's high regard for circles, the sun, and the moon. In addition, the roundish shape of a ger creates little wind resistance and is less prone to water and/or snow accumulation. Yurts are normally white for aesthetic purposes and practical reasons — they are easy to see, allowing neighbors to watch out for one another against various dangers. Furniture is generally red and yellow to generate a warm feeling. [Source: National Palace Museum, Taipei]
In recent years, the structures and materials of the ger have been modernized. Steel frameworks are now available. You can also get windows that open both in the front and the back that improve the lighting in the otherwise dark ger. These days you can find many gers with bed, televisions, computers, stereos and satellite dishes.
Parts of a Ger
Important parts of a ger: 1) The sunroof allows lighting and ventilation. The sunroof is covered with felt so that it can be opened or shut. 2) The hanging rope is bolted to the center of the sunroof to stabilize the yurt. At times of strong winds, the hanging rope can be fixed to the ground to prevent the yurt from moving. 3) Both single and double doors are employed (double doors are used for large gers). 4) The stove serves a variety of purposes. [Source: National Palace Museum, Taipei]
The walls of a ger 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" (hana, qana), are usually 230 centimeters long. The larger the number of the lattices, the larger the ger. The average ger has six to eight khana, with the door frame as a separate unit, but can have many more.
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 ger. 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. There are no windows. Len 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 ger. A typical roof is supported by 10 to 15 uni. The exterior is covered with large pieces of felt tied together by ropes. Only a round skylight and a doorframe toward the southwest are left open. As many as three layers of felt may be placed over the walls in the winter, whereas only one layer of felt is used in the summer, making the yurt warm in the winter and cool in the summer. The lower edge of the wall is solidified using earth. The bottom of the felt may be rolled up for ventilation.
The roof ring is a usually a large hoop to which the wall sections and roof poles are attached. 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 gers have a pipe-like chimney from a stove at the apex of the roof. The threshold is believed to hold the spirit of the household. It is considered a great insult to the ger owner to step on the threshold.
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 |+|]
“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 ger’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 Gers
The size of a ger 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 gers. Commonly, most nomads live in the six-leaf or eight-leaf gers. Len Charney wrote: “The number of sticks in each hana would vary according to the size desired for the erected ger. Smaller gers 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 gers...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 ger’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 gers. 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.]
Orientation and Weathering of a Ger
Gers are usually set up so the door faces south or southeast. This is in accordance with feng shui laws and meteorology (bad luck and fierce winds usually come from the north or northwest).
Outside the ger is an outhouse, barrel, water containers and a tethered sheep or some other animals. The family relieves themselves outside the ger in the open or in an outhouse. A typical suburban outhouse has wooden walls and roof. The toilet is usually a hole in the ground surrounded by concrete. People squat instead of sit.
Gers often look white when they are new ad turn a yellowish, brown when they get older. Inside they often blackish, the result of smoke from the stove fires. The outer most layer of felt is waterproofed with a layer sheep fat. The inner most layers are lined with mats woven from grass to block the wind. The bottom of the felt is arranged so that it be raised about 30 centimeters from the ground to allow more ventilation. During the winter wood is stacked against the ger to prevent cold air, snow or rain from entering.
Felt and Gers
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 ger 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 gers 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 ger 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 ger 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 ger. Felt is an ideal building material in the grasslands because they are no trees.
Setting Up a Ger
The process of setting up a ger is very simple: 1) select a flat area and clear away stones of other impediments; 2) set up the gate, door or door frame of the ger; 3) prop up the plaiting-walls (hanas) and tie up the inside waistband; 4) prop up the round wooden rooftop hole or wooden centerpiece; 5) insert the roof pole; 6) enclose the plaiting-walls and cover the roof poles with carpet-like pieces and keep these in place with ropes tied securely outside of the ger,; 7) hang up the curtain of the skylight, enclose the felt at the bottom; and 8), lastly tighten firmly the whole structure with a hair-rope. [Source: Liu Jun, Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities, Science of China, kepu.net.cn ~]
The doorway of a ger always faces to the southeast. Inside the ger, there are places for cooking in the middle for cooking, drinking and keeping warm. A chimney empties smoke through the skylight. A cowhide, a woolen felt or a carpet is usually spread round the cooking area. The living rooms at the right and the western side are for seniors, while the eastern side rooms are for younger people. The furniture consist mainly of wooden cupboards, cabinets, trunks and desks, which are generally characterized by smallness, lowness, durability and convenience. They are designed to take up as little space as possible and with stand rough journeys in trucks or on camel back. Although gers look relatively small from the outside they can be surprisingly spacious on the inside. To aid the circulation of air, the layer of felt spread at the bottom of the plaiting-wall can be lifted up for ventilation in summer and in the middle of the day when it os relatively warm. [Source: Liu Jun, Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities, Science of China, kepu.net.cn ~]
Stefano Carboni and Qamar Adamjee of the Metropolitan Museum of Art wrote: The ger “ has not undergone substantial change since ancient times. The interior of the tent becomes a home when wool rugs are spread on the floor, colorful textiles are hung on the walls, and a stove is placed in the center, its vertical pipe piercing the circular aperture in the roof. [Source: Stefano Carboni and Qamar Adamjee, Department of Islamic Art, Metropolitan Museum of Art metmuseum.org \^/]
“A Mongol royal tent was the epitome of luxury and allowed the ruler to reconcile semi-nomadic and sedentary lifestyles. This tent was exceptionally large and was transported, fully assembled, by placing it on a wheeled contraption pulled by oxen. Its interior was lined with sumptuous textiles made by the best weavers of Iran, Central Asia, and China. Its floor was covered with the warmest and most comfortable Persian rugs. Gold and silver cups, ewers, and bowls were placed on low red-lacquered wooden tables and trays. A large number of smaller and slightly less luxurious tents belonging to the traveling members of the retinue made the entire caravan a grand sight. In this way, the Ilkhanid rulers would travel from their summer capital at Tabriz in northwestern Iran to the winter capital at Baghdad in Iraq.\^/
“The Mongols, however, never lost their taste for lavish objects related to their ancestral nomadic roots. Their love of the horse and of personal adornment associated with the nomadic life continued even after they adopted the urban concept of the court. Horses were bedecked with gold saddles and trappings, probably only for parading. Sumptuous silk coats, flamboyant hats decorated with eagle and owl feathers for men and with gold plaques and pearls for women, richly embroidered leather boots, and ostentatious belts were part of daily fashion.” \^/
William of Rubruck on Tartar and Mongol Yurts
William of Rubruck (c. 1220 – c. 1293, or ca. 1210-ca. 1270) was a Flemish Franciscan missionary, monk and explorer. His account is one of the masterpieces of medieval geographical literature comparable to that of Marco Polo and Ibn Battuta and is the most detailed and valuable of the early Western accounts of the Mongols. Born in Rubrouck, Flanders, he is known also as William of Rubruk, Willem van Ruysbroeck, Guillaume de Rubrouck or Willielmus de Rubruquis. He travelled to various places of the Mongol Empire in Asia before his return to Europe. [Source: Wikipedia]
William of Rubruck wrote: “Nowhere have they fixed dwelling-places, nor do they know where their next will be. They have divided among themselves Cithia [=Scythia], which extendeth from the Danube to the rising of the sun ; and every captain, according as he hath more or less men under him, knows the limits of his pasture land and where to graze in winter and summer, spring and autumn. For in winter they go down to warmer regions in the south: in summer they go up to cooler towards the north. The pasture lands without water they graze over in winter when there is snow there, for the snow serveth them as water. [Source: “The Journey of William of Rubruck to the Eastern Parts of the World, 1253-55" by William of Rubruck, translation by W. W. Rockhill, 1900; depts.washington.edu/silkroad /~]
“They set up the dwelling in which they sleep on a circular frame of interlaced sticks converging into a little round hoop on the top, from which projects above a collar as a chimney, and this (framework) they cover over with white felt. Frequently they coat the felt with chalk, or white clay, or powdered bone, to make it appear whiter, and sometimes also (they make the felt) black. The felt around this collar on top they decorate with various pretty designs. Before the entry they also suspend felt ornamented with various embroidered designs in color. For they embroider the felt, colored or otherwise, making vines and trees, birds and beasts. /~\
“And they make these houses so large that they are sometimes thirty feet in width. I myself once measured the width between the wheel-tracks of a cart twenty feet, and when the house was on the cart it projected beyond the wheels on either side five feet at least. I have myself counted to one cart twenty-two oxen drawing one house, eleven abreast across the width of the cart, and the other eleven before them. The axle of the cart was as large as the mast of a ship, and one man stood in the entry of the house on the cart driving the oxen. /~\
“Furthermore they weave light twigs into squares of the size of a large chest, and over it from one end to the other they put a turtle-back also of twigs, and in the front end they make a little doorway; and then they cover this coffer or little house with black felt coated with tallow or ewe's milk, so that the rain cannot penetrate it, and they decorate it likewise with embroidery work. And in such coffers they put all their bedding and valuables, and they tie them tightly on high carts drawn by camels, so that they can cross rivers (without getting wet). Such coffers they never take off the cart. /~\
“When they set down their dwelling-houses, they always turn the door to the south' and after that they place the carts with coffers on either side near the house at a half stone's throw, so that the dwelling stands between two rows of carts as between two walls. The matrons make for themselves most beautiful (luggage) carts, which I would not know how to describe to you unless by a drawing, and I would depict them all to you if I knew how to paint. A single rich Mongol or Tartar has quite one hundred or two hundred such carts with coffers. Batu has twenty-six wives, each of whom has a large dwelling, exclusive of the other little ones which they set up after the big one, and which are like closets, in which the sewing girls live, and to each of these (large) dwellings are attached quite two hundred carts. And when they set up their houses, the first wife places her dwelling on the extreme west side, and after her the others according to their rank, so that the last wife will be in the extreme east ; and there will be the distance of a stone's throw between the yurt of one wife and that of another.
"The ordu of a rich Mongol seems like a large town, though there will be very few men in it. One girl will lead twenty or thirty carts, for the country is flat, and they tie the ox or camel carts the one after the other, and a girl will sit on the front one driving the ox, and all the others follow after with the same gait. Should it happen that they come to some bad piece of road, they untie them, and take them across one by one. So they go along slowly, as a sheep or an ox might walk. /~\
Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons
Text Sources: National Geographic, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wikipedia, BBC, Comptom’s Encyclopedia, Lonely Planet Guides, Silk Road Foundation, “The Discoverers “ by Daniel Boorstin; “ History of Arab People “ by Albert Hourani (Faber and Faber, 1991); “Islam, a Short History “ by Karen Armstrong (Modern Library, 2000); and various books and other publications.
Last updated October 2022