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Yurt Construction on the Go (Central Asia)

Credits: ©2010 Yurt Info

Nomadic Mongolians, Turkomen, Kazakhs, Uzbeks and Kyrgyz wander and dwell in an area of the Asian steppe that stretches from the Caspian Sea to Mongolia. Living in tent-like dwellings called yurts, these people adapted to conditions of scarcity, using materials at-hand such as animal fur and willow saplings. These yurt structures have a single-room circular plan, created with a lattice frame of willow wands that expand to form the wall but which retract to a compact shape. Light-weight poles arc towards a ring at the crown to form a roof structure. Once the wood frame is erected, the structure is covered with woolen felt mats. Typically, at the center of the dwelling, directly below the ring crown/smoke hole, is the cooking hearth. The Mongols live in yurts year round, but some other cultures have adopted modern housing and use yurts for ceremonial purposes such as weddings.

 

Yurt Illustration Interior

Illustration showing an interior of a typical Mongolian yurt.

Mongolian Yurts
by Becky Kemery 2010 YurtInfo.org
Centuries ago, in ancient grasslands at the top of the world in central Asia…. trees were scarce, so herders drew from their animals to create shelter. They layered sheep's wool, sprinkled it with water and worked it into felted mats. Roof struts made from saplings were slipped into a central wooden ring, then tied to the top of circular lattice walls and covered with the felted mats. The herders tied the felt to the roof and walls with ropes and belts made from animal hair. In the winter, extra mats were added for warmth; in the summer fewer layers were used. Sections could be raised or even completely removed in hot weather to allow for airflow through the shelter.

The original word for "nomad" came from a word for felt, making the nomads "felt people". These felt people called their circular, lattice-walled shelters "home," ger (rhymes with "air") or uy (oo-ee). It was a shelter that enabled them to live sustainably in the harshest of climates, to move with their herds, to live in tribal communities and raise their families century upon century in a manner that was simple yet comfortable and in balance with the world around them.

We don't know exactly where the yurt originated. The Buryat Mongols of Siberia claim their land as the birthplace of the Mongol tribes and also of the ger. Wherever it began, use of the ger spread with the conquests and empire of Genghis Khan in the 13th and 14th centuries.

The Turkic nomads west of Mongolia call their yurts by the name eu, oy or uy (meaning "dwelling", or "home"). These nomads include numerous tribes inhabiting the steppe-lands from Iran in the west, as far east as Western Mongolia and south to Afghanistan. Common factors are language (all speak dialects that are Turkic derivatives) and religion (most are Muslim).

There are a number of differences between the Mongolian and Turkic versions of the yurt. The Mongolian roof poles are straight, where the Turkic poles are bent so that they serve as both the top of the wall and the roof. The Mongolian tono, or central roof ring, requires an artisan with carpentry skills and tools to produce it. It is so heavy that Mongolian gers usually use supports for the tono, called bagana. The Turkic roof ring is lighter and simpler to fabricate than the Mongolian version, and does not require supports.

Mongolian doors, considered a symbol of status, are heavy wooden single doors. If a Turkic yurt has doors, they are two-piece and open inward. Many Turkic yurts, however, use flaps of felt or colorful rugs to cover the doorway. These felted doors are often quite beautiful, with stitched or appliqued patterns on them.

Another variation common in parts of western Central Asia is the use of a reed wall instead of (or in addition to) felt. On hot summer days the felts may be raised, and the reed wall allows for airflow while keeping animals out. Kirghiz yurts, in particular, use a lot of color and design motifs in both felted and reed work.

In both Mongolian and Turkic tribes, it is the women who are responsible for a major part of the creation and upkeep of shelter (this is common in nomadic cultures worldwide). The women are in charge of the felting process, usually a community event, and of patching the felt when it wears thin. They weave the rugs that become floor coverings and wall hangings, and the belts that go around the yurt, holding the lattice wall together and the coverings in place.

The circularity of the yurt is perfect for nomadic uses. The circle encompasses the greatest space possible internally for the amount of materials used. At the same time, the circular shape leaves the least amount of exterior surface exposed to the elements (thus making it more efficient to heat) and leaves fewer surfaces exposed to wind, which very naturally moves around it since there are no corners.

Inside the Ger: The Sacred Circle
For Mongolians, the ger is more than their traveling shelter on the Asian steppes; it is their centering point in a moving universe. The internal floor plan of the ger is based on the four directions, much like the Native American Medicine Wheel or the Navajo hogan. The door always opens to the south. Opposite the door, sacred space is to the North. If the family is Buddhist, this is where the altar sits. It is also the place of the seat of honor for guests.

Yin and yang, ancient symbols for feminine and masculine and the balance of life, hold space to the east and west. The western half of the ger is the male area and the eastern half, the female domain. Men's possessions (riding tack, hunting gear, and whiskey) are hung on the western wall sections. Men and male guests usually sit on this side. Women's tools, such as pots and pans and looms and felting equipment, are stored on the east side of the ger, where women, children and female guests usually sit. One proceeds around the ger in a clockwise or "sunwise" direction.

In the ancient Shamanist tradition, it is the ger that holds the balance and flow of yin and yang, and of worlds above and below. All of this is centered around the sacred fire, entryway to the sacred world below and provider of warmth and light and the smoke that rises to the world above. In this way the ger expresses the balance of all things in the one, the circle.

What is a Yurt?
from ChainGang
Yurt is the name commonly used to refer to a Mongolian Felt Tent or Ger. Mongolians do not usually appreciate the term because it is most often used by Western invaders. So, in spite of this page's title, we will attempt to use Ger where ever possible.

A Ger is really more than a tent. The Mongols live in them year round and tend to prefer them to other forms of housing. The design has been developed for generations to suit the needs of its inhabitants. It can be warm in arctic cold, yet cool in summer. The structure can collapse small enough to fit on one draft animal and can be set up again in a half an hour.

What are the different elements of a ger?
Lattice Walls (qana)

These walls are formed by several individual sections of cris crossed lattice work, much like baby gate. These wall sections were constructed of wooden poles joined together with leather lacing at the crossings. The number of crossings along the top would usually be from ten to fifteen. The number of crossings along the length of a pole would usually be thirteen, a number of spiritual significance. The wall sections are usually butted, meaning they end square with the use of shorter poles.

Each wall section can obviously be collapsed to take up very little room.


Door The door, with the two ends of the qana coming to meet on either side of its wooden framing, can be strikingly modern in appearance. It is usually constructed completely of wood but sometimes incorporates felt as well. The door's threshold is believed to contain the spirit of the house and it is forbidden, and a great offense to the ger's owner, to step on it.


Roof Ring (toghona)

The roof ring is the most complex element in ger construction. It is usually a hoop of wood containing slots or holes that the roof poles can lock into. The interior of the ring can contain many different designs but must be relatively open to allow smoke and air flow. During bad weather is it covered with a piece of felt or hide (called an eruke).


Roof Poles (uni)

Roof poles are simply the wooden beams that form the roof skeleton. They are usually shaved down on one side to allow them hook into the roof ring. The other end of a roof pole is laid against the top of the qana or its lashings.


Felt (isegei)

Like all ger materials, this is manufactured local to Mongolia. In the states, we'd probably call this canvas. During really cold times of year, many layers might be used, including animal hides. This covering is secured using ropes. The ropes and felt are made from hair, human and other.

Relevant books:
Circle Houses
Yurts: Living in the Round


Documents

  Build Yourself a Mongolian Yurt (2,697 kb)

  Construction of a Yurt (45 kb)

  Building a Mongolian Yurt (360 kb)


Resources

Build Your Own Yurt (Free Online Book)

Mongolian Nomadic Life