Yurts have been a distinctive feature of life in Central Asia for at least three thousand years (see “Yurts in History and Art” photo album). The first written description of a yurt used as a dwelling was recorded by Herodotus of Halicarnassus, who lived in Greece between 484 and 424 BC. Herodotus, who is regarded as the father of history, was the first person in the world to record an accurate account of the past. He described yurt-like tents as the dwelling place of the Scythians, a horse riding-nomadic nation who lived in the northern Black Sea and Central Asian region from around 600 BC to AD 300. Thus, the yurt was described in the first historical document in the world.
Yurts have been continually in use since this time as habitation for the Mongolian nomadic peoples of the Central Asian Plateau. Archeological evidence proves that the first empire of steppe warriors in Central Asia, the Huns, who were active from the 4th to the 6th century AD, used yurts as their principal dwellings.
“The Secret History of the Mongols,” the classic account of the life of the famous Mongolian empire-builder Chinggis Khaan, known in the West as Genghis Khan, described a number of events related to yurts. For example, when Temujin was crowned as Chinggis Khaan:
…And so, when the people of the felt-walled tents had been brought to allegiance, in the Year of the Tiger (1206) they all gathered at the source of the Onan River. They hoisted the white standart with nine tails and there they gave Chinggis (Genghis) the title of Great Khaan.
…Great Chinggis (Genghis) Khaan gave the following order:
“…Formerly, I had eighty men to serve as dayguards, Now, by the strength of Eternal Heaven, my power has been increased by Heaven and Earth and I have brought the entire people to allegiance, causing them to come under my sole rule, so now choose men to serve on roster as dayguards from the various thousands and recruit them for me.”
…”The nightguards at night lie down all around the Ger [Yurt] Palace; you, nightguards who stand guarding the door, shall hack any persons entering at night until their heads are split open and their shoulders fall apart, then cast them away. If any persons come at night with an urgent message, they must report to the nightguards and communicate the message to me while standing together with the nightguards at the rear of the Ger[Yurt].”
…”Entering into and going out from the Ger [Yurt] Palace must be regulated by the nightguards. At the door, the doorkeepers from the nightguards shall stand right next to the ger [yurt]. Two from the nightguards shall enter into the ger [yurt] and oversee the large kumis pitchers.”
…”The campmasters from the nightguards shall go before Us and set up the Ger [Yurt] Palace. When We go falconing and hunting, the nightguards shall go falconing and hunting with us; but exactly one half of them shall stay at the carts.”
Other accounts related to ger (yurt) include:
Altan Huchar, and Saca Beki, all of them having agreed among themselves, said to Temujin, “We shall make you khan. When you Temjin become khan, we
As vanguard shall speed
After many foes: for you
Fine-looking maidens and ladies of rank,
Palatial gers (yurts), and from foreign people
Ladies and maidens with beautiful cheeks,
And geldings with fine crops
At the trot we shall bring ….”
After they made Temujin Chinggis (Genghis) Khan … Subetei baatar (warrior Subetei) spoke:
…I shall be a felt covering,
And with the others
I shall try to make a cover for you;
I shall be a felt windbreak,
And with the others
I shall try to shelter you
From the wind on your Ger [Yurt].
…Carpenter Gukuchur spoke
“I shall not let the linchpin slip
Off a lock-cart;
I shall not let an axle-cart collapse
On the road
I shall manage the tent-carts”
…Cilaun Qayichi with this two sons Tungge and Qasi also came to pay homage to Chinggis(Genghis) khan and spoke thus
“Let them guard
Your golden threshold”, so saying
I give you these sons of mine;
If they depart from your golden threshold,
Put an end to their lives and
Cast them away
“Let them lift for you
The wide felt door”, so saying,
I give them to you;
If they desert you wide door,
Kick them in the pit of the stomach and
Cast them away”
John of Pian de Carpine, an Italian priest leading the mission to deliver a letter from Pope Innocent IV to the Mongolia Emperor, describes Mongols and their habitations in 1246:
“Their habitations are round and cunningly made with wickers and staves in manner of a tent. But in the middest of the top thereof, they have a window open to convey the light in and the smoke out. For their fire is alwayes in the middest. Their wall are covered with felt. Their doors are made of felt also. Some of these [yurts] may quickly be taken asunder, and set together again, and are carried upon beasts backs. Other some cannot be taken insunder, but are stowed upon carts. And wherever they go, be it either to war, or to any other place, they transport their [yurts] with them. They are very rich in their cattles, as in camels, oxen, sheep, and goats. And I think they have more horses and mares then all the world besides.”
William of Rubruck, French missionary and explorer 1253 provided similar and but more detailed account:
“Their houses wherein they sleep, they ground upon a round foundation of wickers artificially brought and compacted together: the roof whereof consists of wickers, meeting above into one little roundell, out of which roundell assends upward a neck like into a chimney, which they cover with white felt, and oftentimes lay morter or white earth upon the felt, with the powder of bones what it may shine white. And sometimes they cover it with black felt. The felt on the neck of their house, they do garnish over with beautiful variety of pictures. Before the door likewise, they hang a felt curiously painted over. For they spend all their coloured felt, in painting vines, trees, birds, and beasts thereupon. They make their houses so large that they contain thirty feet in breadth. For measuring once the breadth between the wheel-ruts of one of their carts, I found it to be 20 feet over: and when the house was upon the cart, it stretched over the wheels on each side few feet at the least. I counted 22 oxen in one team, drawing an house upon a cart, eleven in one order according to breadth of the cart, and eleven more before them: the axletree of the carte was of an huge bigness like into the mast of a ship. And a fellow stood in the door of the house, upon the forestall of the cart drawn forth [by] the oxen.”
The Italian merchant Marco Polo was another Westerner to visit the Mongolian Empire in the 14th century. He wrote, “…They [the Mongols] have circular houses made of wood and covered with felt, which they carry about with them on four-wheeled wagons wherever they go. For the framework of rods is so neatly and skillfully constructed that it is light to carry. And every time they unfold their house and set it up, the door is always facing south.” This south-facing orientation is still prevalent today, there being obvious advantages to this for people living well north of the Equator.
Yurts are still the most common type of habitation in Mongolia and even in the capital city of Ulaanbaatar (sometimes known as Ulan Bator) more than half the population lives in yurts. A high percentage of the Mongolian population retains a nomadic lifestyle and yurts can be seen throughout the country, whether on the steppes, the Gobi Desert, or the mountainous regions in Central and Western Mongolia.
The practicality, comfort, and portability of the yurt allow these people to live in the time-honored way, moving every few months together with their herds, which often include the sheep that provide wool for insulation of their yurts, and yaks and horses that provide long hair for the ropes holding together the parts of the yurt.