A yurt is a portable, circular dwelling made of a lattice of flexible wood and covered in felt.
5 - 12+
Arts and Music, Geography, Human Geography, Social Studies, World History
A yurt is a portable, circular dwelling made of a lattice of flexible poles and covered in felt or other fabric. They are a sturdy, reliable type of tent. Yurts have been the primary style of home in Central Asia, particularly Mongolia, for thousands of years. Yurts take between 30 minutes and 3 hours to set up or take down, and usually house between five and 15 people. They are usually a little over 2 meters (6 feet) high, with a slightly domed top rising another meter. A wood-burning iron stove sits in the middle of a traditional yurt, with a long chimney reaching up past the roof. Constructing a Yurt A yurt is essentially a tent constructed on top of a flat piece of earth, often covered by carpets. The traditional yurt is white with a red door. The lattice of a traditional yurt is divided into sections, called khana. Each khana is a collapsible series of crisscrossed wooden poles. The poles are made of light wood, such as willow, birch, poplar, or even bamboo. Khana are attached to each other with ropes made of leather or animal hair. The roof of a yurt is the most complex part of the structure. The central part of the roof is called the crown. The crown is a ring to which roof poles, called uni, are attached. The crown’s pattern of wood, reeds, or fabric can be handed down for generations. The khana and fabric of a yurt may be replaced, but the crown may last for years. The crown is partially open, allowing air to circulate and a chimney to penetrate the structure. The circular ceiling window formed by the crown is called the toono, and the columns that sometimes support the heavy crown are called bagana. Yurt communities are often herding cultures, and the felt that covers the yurt is usually made of wool collected from domesticated sheep, goats, or yaks. Most yurts have three to five layers of felt, and, often, an outer layer of waterproof fabric such as canvas. There are two main types of yurts: gers and bentwood yurts. The only difference is their roof. A ger is the older, traditional style of yurt. In fact, "yurt" is a Russian word for what the Mongolian people call ger. The roof of a ger is made of straight poles (uni) attached to the circular crown. Gers have a very gently sloping roof. Bentwood yurts, sometimes called Turkic yurts, are more common in western Central Asia. Makers of bentwood yurts use steam to bend the roof poles before attaching them to the crown. Uni serve as both the top of the walls as well as the roof of a bentwood yurt. Bentwood yurts usually have a taller, steeper shape. Modern yurts are popular in North America and Europe, especially in “backcountry” or camp settings. Some consumers choose to use native hardwoods, such as ash or chestnut, for their yurts. More consumers use high-tech material, such as aircraft cables, for a more secure construction. Unlike traditional yurts, these modern yurts are usually meant to be relatively permanent. Geography of Yurts Yurts have existed for thousands of years in Central Asia, in virtually the same form as they exist today. They are ideal dwellings for the nomadic cultures of the formidable Central Asian steppe. The dry, flat grassland of the steppe is a study in extreme weather. It is a very windy biome because no trees, shrubs, or tall grasses serve as windbreaks. Spring winds can regularly blow up to 9 kilometers per hour (6 miles per hour). The steppe also has an enormous temperature range, from about 24° Celsius (75° Fahrenheit) to -28° Celsius (-19° Fahrenheit). Yurts are ideally suited to this biome. The circular shape of yurts makes them able to resist winds from any direction. Only the door of the yurt is vulnerable, and yurt doors are usually very strong and modern. They often have a wooden frame, and sometimes the door itself is made of wood, as opposed to a flap opening in the felt. This strengthens the door, and the yurt, against the strong winds of the steppe. The sloping, aerodynamic shape of the roof also means winds are unlikely to tear off roof beams. The circular shape of yurts also allows them to be easily and efficiently heated and cooled. The toono, or crown opening, ensures that fresh air is continually circulated. A central stove provides heat evenly, and extra layers of felt can further insulate against the frigid winter of the steppe. During the rainy season, it is not unusual for families to dig a trench around the yurt, similar to a moat. This catches the rain and prevents the yurt from becoming too muddy or unstable. The traditional orientation of a yurt is with the door to the south. The yurt’s most sacred space is to the north. This is where an altar would be placed, if the residents were Christian or Buddhist, and would serve as the traditional seating area for village elders or respected leaders. A yurt’s interior design had some significance, too. The western half of the ger was considered the “male” part of the dwelling, while the eastern was where women lived and worked. Yurt History Yurts are a part of Central Asian identity. Central Asian nomads historically moved several times a year. Not only did gers make moving easy by being so fast to set up, they were also very light. Large family gers could be entirely dismantled in an hour and hauled on two or three pack animals, such as horses, camels, or yaks. (Farther west, in what is now Afghanistan and Pakistan, nomads were more likely to use donkeys as pack animals.) Because the steppe has no trees, nomads had to trade with residents of river valleys (and, later, the Silk Road) for wood. Merchants and skilled woodworkers would sell or trade ger construction materials in different forms. For the least amount of goods or services, they would trade logs of willow or birch. For a medium price, consumers could trade pre-cut poles. For the highest price, they could buy complete khana. The thick felt, or non-woven wool, used to cover gers came from the nomads’ own animals. Central Asian nomads had herds of sheep, yak, and goats. (Cashmere, for instance, one of the softest, lightest, and most valuable wools, comes from Mongolian goats.) The wool of all these animals could be felted. The traditional method of felting wool among steppe communities was to thoroughly wet it, roll it around a pole, wrap it in yak hide, and drag it behind a galloping horse. This efficiently compressed the wool fibers to tough, sturdy felt. Yurts have been well-documented through history. The Buryat Mongolian community of Siberia claim their land as the birthplace of the ger, and the earliest known depiction of the structure comes from a bronze bowl unearthed in the Zagros Mountains of Iran. The bowl dates to about 600 BCE. The Greek historian Herodotus wrote about yurts used by the Scythian people around 440 BCE. Scythians were nomadic people from the land surrounding the Black and Caspian Seas. Italian explorer Marco Polo detailed the gers used by Mongols in the time he lived with them, between 1274 and 1291. Mongolian leader Genghis Khan commanded his entire empire from a large ger. That empire stretched throughout all of Central Asia, from the Korean Peninsula in the east; through China, Tibet, and Iran in the southwest; and through Georgia and Russia in the north. According to legend, Genghis Khan’s ger was never entirely dismantled. Instead, it was mounted on a huge, wheeled cart pulled by 22 oxen. The ger was 9 meters (30 feet) in diameter and guarded at all times by Mongolian soldiers and cavalry. As the Mongol Empire expanded, it eventually reached Eastern Europe. The steppe of what is now Turkey, Hungary, and Romania was conquered by the successors of Genghis Khan. As the Mongols expanded their empire, they brought yurt culture with them. Yurts remained very common in Turkey until the 1960s and 1970s, and they are still found in rural areas of Hungary. Yurts Today Yurts are still most often associated with the country of Mongolia. In fact, the word “ger” itself means home or household in Mongolian. Today, more than half of Mongolians live in gers, including about 61% in the capital of Ulaanbaatar and 90% of the rural population. Large cities, like Ulaanbataar, have "yurt quarters" separated from other development zones by tall fences. The yurt quarter lifestyle is much more communal than traditional city life. Large families share dwelling spaces and meals. Gers or other dwellings in yurt quarters are rarely connected to the city’s water supplies, so saunas, spas, and bathhouses are shared by the community. Ulaanbaatar’s yurt quarters are becoming more crowded, and more controversial. In a scant three decades, more than 20% of Mongolia’s population has moved to Ulaanbaatar. These former nomadic herders come seeking a more stable economic future, as well as greater access to health care and education. Many rural Mongolians are also forced due to natural hazards. The city’s sprawling yurt quarters provide huge infrastructure challenges—roads and transportation networks, health care, schools, and connections to the city’s water and sewage lines. The yurt quarter is a huge contributor to the city’s pollution. Although most yurt quarters have sufficient access to the electrical grid, most residents prefer to use coal for heating and cooking. This contributes to air pollution. Ulaanbaatar suffers from some of the worst air pollution in the world, and as much as 80% of it is directly caused by coal-burning stoves. A lack of connection to the city’s sewage lines leads most yurt quarters to use pit latrines, which contribute to water and soil pollution. As more Mongolians move from gers to houses and apartments, pollution is decreasing. Yurts are a key part of the cultural geography of Central Asia. Ger stays are part of the rustic charm of Inner Mongolia, a popular tourist destination in Northern China. The Tuva, Siberian nomads of Russia, also use gers as they follow the reindeer herd throughout the year. Bentwood yurts are more prevalent farther west in Central Asia. Nomads in the dry steppes of Iran and Iraq use bentwood yurts. The yurt has also become a unifying symbol of “the Stans”: Afghanistan, Pakistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan. The flag of Kyrgyzstan features the pattern of a yurt crown in the center of its design. The coat of arms of Kazakhstan is built around a knotted yurt crown.
Impacts of Climate ChangeClimate change has influenced the weather in Mongolia to the point that it’s threatening traditional yurt cultures. Climate change has contributed to an increased chance of a dzud hitting Mongolia. A dzud describes a local weather pattern in which a particularly dry summer is followed by a harsh winter. Dry summers make it harder to grow and harvest grass, and harsher winters require an even bigger supply of fodder. As many as 10 million livestock perished during the dzud of 2009. Nomadic herders are forced to abandon their gers and move to Ulaanbaatar.
Inspirational Nat GeoThe man who introduced yurts to the U.S., William Coperthwaite, was inspired to pursue his interest by an article on Mongolia in a 1962 issue of National Geographic magazine.
Intangible Cultural HeritageIn 2013, the “traditional craftsmanship of the Mongol Ger and its associated customs” was recognized as a part of our Intangible Cultural Heritage by UNESCO.
Go to Your Corners?
Large yurts are usually divided into many separate spaces, and sometimes have a discrete second “floor” or cupola near the crown.
Tipis and WigwamsMany nomadic cultures of North America developed dwellings similar to yurts. Tipis and wigwams are, like yurts, easy to set up and take down, and a few pack animals can carry the entire dwelling from one place to another. A tipi is a cone-shaped structure made of tall wooden poles tied together in a point at the top and covered in animal hides. A wigwam looks more like a yurt: It’s short, circular, and has a rounded roof. Wigwams, like yurts and tipis, are made with wooden poles. However, unlike the other dwellings, wigwams are usually not covered in animal material such as hides or wool. Wigwams are most often covered in reeds, tall grasses, or cloth, such as cotton.
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October 19, 2023
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