“They put their houses on wheels, and woven rods are used as walls for their homes. The walls are enclosed on the top, forming the roof of the house. They are covered with white felt and it is often coated with lemon or bone powder to make it sparkle. They sometimes put on the roof opening a black felt decorated with beautiful designs on different themes. At the entrance of the house, they hang a felt covered with colorful fabrics, and vines, trees, birds, and animals are reproduced in colored felt.” is how the Flemish Franciscan missionary and explorer William of Rubruck described the yurt in his Travels in the Eastern Countries in the 13th century.
The history of the yurt begins with rock etchings found in Siberia, dating from as early as the Bronze Age. The yurt was a movable and semi-permanent home to the nomadic Scythian people who populated the land surrounding the Black and Caspian Seas, according to the Greek historian Herodotus’ writings from about 440 BC. The Italian explorer Marco Polo experienced this type of dwelling first hand while living with the Mongols in the late 13th century.
As the Mongol Empire expanded under the rule of Genghis Khan and his successors, yurt culture spread throughout what is today the territory of Turkey, Hungary, and Romania. Torn by numerous wars of conquest, the everyday life of herders was a nomadic one, as they followed, on horseback or camel, the herds of sheep, goats, and yaks for milk and meat across a land of bitter extremes, where long winters melted into short grassy summers.
Known as ger in Mongolia and as a yurt in Turkey, this circular type of dwelling was an easily movable home made of a lattice of flexible wood covered with felt mats. The lattice is divided into sections, called khana, each of them being a collapsible series of crisscrossed poles made of light wood. The khana are attached to each other with leather ties and covered with thick felt mats, or non-woven wool, that came from the nomads’ own animals. Since trees were scarce across the steppes, the nomads had to trade with residents of river valleys for wood.
The most recognizable and most complex part of the structure is the roof. Roof poles are hooked to the roof’s central ring-shaped part, also known as crown or tono. Left partially open to let the stove’s smoke out and the sunlight in, the crown was made of a more durable wood and passed down for generations. The sloping aerodynamic shape of the roof and the circular form of the yurt as a whole made the entire structure completely wind-proof.
The nomads tied the felt to the roof and the walls with ropes and belts made from braided horsehair. Felt was used because of its insulating properties. Covered with an outer fabric of white cotton, felt mats were extremely efficient against cold, heat and wind. In hot weather, they could be raised and even completely removed, allowing for airflow through the shelter. Tribes living in parts of western Central Asia used a reed wall instead of or in addition to felt mats. When raised, these motif-decorated walls served as an air-conditioner, too, but also kept the animals out.
A richly decorated wooden door led inside to a bright single circular room where several generations lived together. A wooden floor and carpets isolated the inhabitants from the cold and soil moisture. Two orange-colored pillars, known as bagana, always stood in the middle of the room, where the wood stove – the center of the family life – was traditionally placed, with a long chimney reaching up past the roof. Each of the symbols adorning these posts represented one aspect of their beliefs. All items and furniture were also painted in orange, with colorful symbolic designs inspired by nature. Beds were arranged nearby the wall, left and right of the door, and meals were served on a low table.
In Mongolia, the door always opened to the south, looking toward the sun at its zenith. Once inside the ger, one would proceed around in a clockwise i.e. “sun-wise” direction. Traditionally, the sacred place where the Mongols prayed and worshiped their ancestors was set to north, opposite the wooden entrance. It is where guests were always seated as well. Mongolian doors were heavy single-panel ones and were considered a status symbol. Turkish yurts used beautifully patterned felt flaps or colorful rugs to cover the doorway, but those that did have wooden entrances usually used a two-piece door that opened inward.
The western half of the ger was considered male area and the eastern half was the female’s one. Men’s possessions such as riding equipment, hunting gear, and whiskey hung on the western walls; men and male guests usually sat on this side. The opposite side was reserved for women, children and female guests, and for women’s possessions, including pans, pots, and felting equipment. In both Mongolian and Turkic tribes, women were the ones responsible for maintaining the home, as well as for felting, patching, weaving, and braiding horsehair ropes.
An average yurt consisting of three to five walls had a floor area of approximately 15-30 m2 and was a little over 2-meter-high. Regardless of their size, yurts were very light structures that could be mounted or dismounted within an hour, hauled on camels or yaks – or on donkeys in Afghanistan and Pakistan – thus well-suited to the nomadic lifestyle of Mongols who moved 3-4 times a year to find food for their cattle. The yurts enabled the tribes not only to move easily with their herds but also to live sustainably in a harsh climate while raising their families within the tribal community.
Nowadays, this ancient nomadic shelter remains associated mainly with the country of Mongolia. More than three-quarters of its population still live in gers. Still regarded as a cultural symbol, yurts are widely used throughout the Central Asian grasslands, in China, across Siberia, and are gaining in popularity in North America and Europe as well.
Modern versions use hardwoods and high-tech material for greater security and are built as more permanent structures. However, even they evoke the versatility, beauty, and community of the yurt.