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About Yurts

A yurt is a moveable, circular dwelling made of a lattice of flexible wood and covered in felt. They are a sturdy, reliable type of tent. Yurts have been the primary style of homes 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 2 feet. A wood-burning iron stove sits in the middle of a traditional yurt, with a long chimney reaching up past the roof.

The lattice of a 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, or poplar. Khana are attached to each other with leather ties.

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 are attached. The crown is partially open, so air can circulate and a chimney can penetrate. The crowns pattern of wood, reeds, or fabric can be handed down for generations. The khana and felt may be replaced, but the crown may last for years. The felt that covers the yurt is usually made from wool from sheep, goats, or yaks.

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 attached to the circular crown. Gers have a very gently sloping roof.

Bentwood yurts are a later development. Makers of bentwood yurts use steam to bend the roof poles before attaching them to the crown. Bentwood yurts have a steep roof and a taller, domed shape.

Modern yurts are popular in North America and Europe. 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 meant to be relatively permanent.

Yurt History

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 Central Asian steppe. A steppe is dry, flat grassland with no trees and a cooler climate than other types of grasslands, such as savannas and prairies.

The steppe is a very windy biome because no trees, shrubs, or tall grasses serve as windbreaks. 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 very strong and modern. Theyre often made of 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.

Mongolian nomads historically moved three to four times a year. Not only did gers make this 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 used donkeys as pack animals for gers.

Because the steppe has no trees, nomads had to trade with residents of river valleys for wood. Merchants would sell ger construction materials in different forms. For the least amount of money, they would sell logs of willow or birch. For a medium price, consumers could buy pre-cut poles. For the highest price, they could buy complete khana.

The thick felt, or non-woven wool, used to cover the ger came from the nomads own animals. Central Asian nomads were herders. They had sheep, goats, and yak. Cashmere, for instance, one of the softest, lightest wools, comes from Mongolian goats.

Yurts have been well-documented through history. The earliest evidence of yurt dwellings is found in Bronze Age rock etchings in Siberia. 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. Genghis Khans ger 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 their yurt culture with them. Yurts were 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. This makes sense, as more than three-quarters of the population of Mongolia live in gers today.

Even large cities, like the Mongolian capital of Ulaanbataar, have "yurt quarters." Ulaanbataars yurt quarter has about 40 percent of the citys population. Yurt quarters have more dwellings than just gers, although the lifestyle is shared. 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 citys water supplies, so saunas, spas, and bathhouses are shared by the community.

Mongolias yurt quarters are becoming more controversial because they contribute to air pollution. The traditional iron stoves that sit in the middle of gers release large amounts of smoke into the air.

Mongolia isnt the only country for which yurts are important. Nations throughout the Central Asia steppe regard the yurt as a cultural symbol. A region in northern China is called Inner Mongolia. (The country of Mongolia itself is Outer Mongolia.) Mongolians and Chinese who live there use gers. The Siberian nomads of Russia, the Tuva, also use gers as they follow the reindeer herd.

As you travel farther west in Central Asia, you are less likely to find gers and more likely to find bentwood yurts. 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 also built around a knotted yurt crown.

source National Geographic

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