Yurts have been a distinctive feature of life in Central Asia for at least three thousand years. 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 Thus, the yurt was described in the first historical document in the world.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 Italian merchant Marco Polo was the first 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.
“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.
…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.”
…”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 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.”
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.