• yurt
    Yurts are common on the steppes of central Asia.

    Photograph by Philip Arneill, My Shot

    Go to Your Corners?

    Large yurts are divided into many separate spaces. Men, women, and children each have their own section of the yurt. The cooking is done in one kitchen area near the central stove. In larger yurts, there is also a space for work, such as repairing khana or mending clothes.

    Tipis and Wigwams

    Many nomadic cultures of North America developed dwellings similar to the yurt. 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.

    The 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: Its 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.

    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.

  • Term Part of Speech Definition Encyclopedic Entry
    aerodynamics Noun

    the study of how air moves.

    aircraft cable Noun

    type of very strong wire rope.

    air pollution Noun

    harmful chemicals in the atmosphere.

    Encyclopedic Entry: air pollution
    ash Noun

    type of hardwood tree.

    bathhouse Noun

    facility often featuring hot springs, spas, medicinal treatments, or swimming pools.

    bentwood yurt Noun

    Central Asian dome-shaped tent dwelling made of bent wooden poles.

    biome Noun

    area of the planet which can be classified according to the plant and animal life in it.

    Encyclopedic Entry: biome
    birch Noun

    type of lightweight hardwood tree.

    Bronze Age Noun

    time period between the Stone Age and the Iron Age. The Bronze Age lasted between 3000 BCE and 500 BCE.

    camel Noun

    type of large pack animal with one or two humps on its back.

    cashmere Noun

    type of fine, soft material made from wool of the cashmere goat.

    cavalry Noun

    military unit that serves on horseback.

    chestnut Noun

    type of hardwood tree with an often edible nut.

    chimney Noun

    narrow structure that transports smoke or other airborne material from an indoor structure to the air outside.

    circulate Verb

    to move around, often in a pattern.

    cloth Noun

    fabric made by weaving or otherwise manipulating material such as cotton, wool, or other fiber.

    communal Adjective

    shared.

    cone Noun

    shape that is circular at its base and narrows to a point, often looking triangular.

    cotton Noun

    cloth made from fibers of the cotton plant.

    crown Noun

    partly open central part of the roof of a yurt.

    cultural symbol Noun

    structure that represents the traditional beliefs, behavior, and identity of a group of people.

    dismantle Verb

    to take apart.

    document Verb

    to keep track of.

    dome Noun

    shape that is half of a sphere.

    Encyclopedic Entry: dome
    donkey Noun

    type of domesticated mammal used as a pack animal. Also called an ass.

    dwelling Noun

    a place to live.

    empire Noun

    group of nations, territories or other groups of people controlled by a single, more powerful authority.

    etching Noun

    design produced by cutting into, but not through, a surface, such as rock, metal, or glass.

    felt Noun

    type of fabric made by applying moisture, heat, and pressure to wool.

    Genghis Khan Noun

    (1162-1227) founder of the Mongol empire.

    ger Noun

    Mongolian circular tent dwelling.

    goat Noun

    hoofed mammal domesticated for its milk, coat, and flesh.

    grassland Noun

    ecosystem with large, flat areas of grasses.

    hardwood Noun

    the strong, dense wood, of flowering trees.

    herder Noun

    person who controls and takes responsibility for a group of animals such as sheep, cattle, or horses.

    Herodotus Noun

    (about 484 BCE to 425 BCE) Greek historian.

    hide Noun

    leather skin of an animal.

    high-tech Adjective

    having to do with advanced technology.

    horse Noun

    type of domesticated mammal used for riding and hauling.

    khana Noun

    section of the lattice wall of a yurt.

    lattice Noun

    strips of wood or other material assembled in a crisscross pattern.

    Marco Polo Noun

    (1254-1324) Italian explorer.

    merchant Noun

    person who sells goods and services.

    Mongol Empire Noun

    (1206-1368) area of Asia and Europe conquered and ruled by Mongolian leaders. Largest contiguous land empire in history.

    nomad Noun

    person who moves from place to place, without a fixed home.

    pack animal Noun

    domesticated animal used by humans for transporting goods.

    penetrate Verb

    to push through.

    poplar Noun

    type of lightweight hardwood tree.

    population Noun

    total number of people or organisms in a particular area.

    prairie Noun

    large grassland; usually associated with the Mississippi River Valley in the United States.

    Encyclopedic Entry: prairie
    primary Adjective

    first or most important.

    reindeer Noun

    type of large arctic deer. Also called caribou.

    reliable Adjective

    dependable or consistent.

    roof Noun

    the top of a building.

    roof beam Noun

    strong, straight piece of wood or metal used as a main support for the top of a building.

    sauna Noun

    room in which steam causes visitors to sweat.

    savanna Noun

    type of tropical grassland with scattered trees.

    Scythia Noun

    prehistoric land stretching from the eastern Black Sea to what is now Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan.

    sheep Noun

    type of mammal with thick, strong wool used for cloth.

    shrub Noun

    type of plant, smaller than a tree but having woody branches.

    Siberia Noun

    region of land stretching across Russia from the Ural Mountains to the Pacific Ocean.

    slope Noun

    slant, either upward or downward, from a straight or flat path.

    smoke Noun

    gases given off by a burning substance.

    spa Noun

    facility, usually with mineral hot springs, offering health benefits.

    steam Noun

    water vapor.

    steppe Noun

    dry, flat grassland with no trees and a cool climate.

    Encyclopedic Entry: steppe
    stove Noun

    device that supplies heat for warmth, cooking, or other purposes.

    successor Noun

    person who comes next.

    tall grass Noun

    type of grass that stands an average of 1.5 meters (5 feet) tall, such as switchgrass.

    the Stans Noun

    collective term for the Central Asian countries of Afghanistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan.

    tipi Noun

    type of conical tent dwelling used by Native Americans of the Great Plains.

    tree Noun

    type of large plant with a thick trunk and branches.

    Tuvans Noun

    people native to the region surrounding northern Mongolia, including parts of Russia and China.

    valley Noun

    depression in the Earth between hills.

    vulnerable Adjective

    capable of being hurt.

    wigwam Noun

    Native American hut made of a rounded frame covered with mats, hides, or other material. Also called a wickiup.

    wool Noun

    thick, soft hair of some animals, such as sheep.

    yak Noun

    Central Asian ox.

    yurt Noun

    portable circular dwelling made of a criss-crossed wooden frame covered in felt and popular in Central Asia.

    Encyclopedic Entry: yurt
    yurt quarter Noun

    section of an urban area made up largely of yurt dwellings.

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