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Mongolia Nomadic Life

Spectacular photographs shed light on the ancient nomadic lifestyle of Mongolia‏


Amid the stark beauty of Mongolia’s varied landscapes lives one of the world's last surviving nomadic cultures, whose customs pre-date the age of Genghis Khan, founder of the Mongol Empire (1162 – 1227 AD).  For more than 3,000 years, a huge percentage of the population has roamed the harsh infertile steppes of Mongolia in search of the best pastures and campsites. 

The Mongol tribes emerged from an area which had been inhabited by humans as far back as the 850,000 years ago.  In the 3rd century BC, nomadic culture began to emerge, comprising Turkic peoples in tribes which battled with each other and neighbouring cultures. They were subdued temporarily by the growing strength of the Chinese Tang Dynasty in the 7th century AD. Over the next few hundred years, the Chinese subtly encouraged warfare among the Mongol tribes, as a way of keeping them distracted from invading China. In the 12th century, the Mongol Genghis Khan was able to conquer and unite the warring tribes into a fighting force which formed the largest land empire in world history.

The nomadic way of life is a dying tradition in the world. Many governments dislike nomads because it is difficult to control their movement and to obtain taxes from them. Other countries have converted pastures into cropland and forced nomadic peoples into permanent settlements. Nevertheless, the nomads of Mongolia have carried forth an ancient lifestyle and do not intend on abandoning it any time soon.

Unlike hunting and gathering nomads, pastoral nomads follow a seasonal routine, moving the herds to new grazing land based on the time of year.  It is a lifestyle adapted to infertile regions such as steppe or tundra, where mobility is the most efficient strategy for exploiting scarce resources. Today, approximately half of Mongolia’s population is still roaming the vast plains living in temporary housing, known as the ger, and moving several times a year to better grounds.

The Mongolian nomads live by and for their livestock, which includes horses, cattle (cows or yaks), sheep, goats, and camels. But it is the horses that are their pride and joy.  Outside the capital, the horse is still the main mode of transportation and children begin riding as soon as they can sit up. Nomads are extremely proud of their riding skills and horse racing is a favourite pastime. Believing the race to be a test of the animal's and not the rider's ability, young children are often the jockeys. The most prestigious tests of these superb animals are the horse races at the Naadam Festival, Mongolia's national games, which takes place each July.

Nomads of Mongolia

Horses are greatly cherished by the nomads of Mongolia. Photo credit: Andrew Newey

Apart from being used for riding and inheritance, the horse gives the nomads their preferred drink - airag, which is fermented and slightly alcoholised mare’s milk.  Mongolians of any ages drink litres of airag in summer praising its virtues for health and the digestive tract.

Mongolian girl

A young Mongolian girl drinking airag. Photo credit: Andrew Newey

Yaks and cows bring meat, leather and milk, which is used for making a variety of dairy products such as yoghurt, cheese and aaruul (or dried cheese) that constitute the main diet of nomads during the summer months. The sheep provides the basic food of nomadic lifestyle, as well as skin and wool, which is used to make clothing and felt for the ger covering.  Two-humped Bactrian camels are used for meat, milk, wool as well as for riding and as a carrier for long distance movements.  The goats are raised for their meat and especially cashmere, goat’s down, one of the highly valued natural fibres. Mongolia is one of the largest producers and exporters of the finest quality cashmere in the world.

Young Mongolian Herder

A young herder carries baby goats to a small, heated ger during a snowstorm to keep them warm and healthy. Photo credit: Taylor Weidman

The Mongolian Ger

With a history of over a thousand years, the ger is a portable dwelling made of latticed wood that is lashed together with leather strips and covered with felt. Easy to erect and dismantle, the ger, its furnishings, and the stove inside can be carried by just three camels, or wagons pulled by yaks. The ger is the truly universal traditional dwelling that has been adapted over the centuries to the realities of nomadic life in harsh steppes. It is incredibly warm in winter and cool in summer and is resistible to powerful winds without being fixed in the ground.  Is is easily dismountable and transportable that is so important for nomads during their regular migrations.

The interior organisation of the ger is identical everywhere: the door faces the south, the men’s place is in the west part, the north side is the place for honoured guests or old people as well as the place for the family altar, the east side is the women’s territory. The stove occupies the centre of the ger.

Mongolian Ger

A ger in the parched Gobi landscape. Photo credit:  Taylor Weidman

Daily responsibilities are divided evenly among family members and no one person's work is considered more important than another's. Traditionally, men take care of the horses, and make saddles, harnesses, and weapons. In addition, they hunt to supplement the traditional diet of dairy products. Women also milk cows, goats and mares, in addition to cooking, taking care of the children and making clothing. Children are also put to work by looking after the animals. Despite their enterprise, however, Mongolians are not self-sufficient. Since ancient times, they have traded with surrounding civilizations far grain, rice, tea, silk, cotton and etc.

Mongolian boy

A Mongolian boy resting on his goats after doing hard work. Photo credit: Andrew Newey

In modern day Mongolia, there is no tribal leader among Mongolian nomads since there are no tribes and the people make decisions among their family members, although they consult with the elders on usual matters. The geographical closeness of families is usually for mutual support.

Mongolian nomadic family

Nomadic family groups demonstrate close bonds. Photo credit: Andrew Newey

Mongolian Religion

Since ancient times, Tengrism, which is characterised by features of shamanism, totemism, and ancestor worship, was the dominant belief system of the Mongols and still retains significant importance in their mythology. As a civilisation totally dependent on the forces of nature, the Mongolians worshipped the various elements of nature, praying to their ancestors who are believed to have transformed into mythical spiritual animals to provide them with good weather, health and success. Though oppressed during communist time, Shamanism is still widely practiced in Mongolia, though Buddhism has been the dominant religion since the 16 th century, when the Mongolian king, Altan Khan, was converted by Tibetan lamas.  Traditionally, monasteries were centres both of learning and of power. It's estimated Mongolia had 100,000 monks, or lamas, in 1921 – one third of the male population. In the 1930s, this power became the focus of a ruthless series of purges that reached a climax in 1937. Most of the country's monasteries were destroyed, and as many as 17,000 monks were killed.  Today, Mongolia is once again embracing its Buddhist heritage. Monasteries are being restored, and are once again crowded with worshippers. The Dalai Lama is an enormously popular figure and has visited the country several times. For many Mongolians, the practice of Buddhism is flavoured with traces of Shamanism.

Mongolian Shamans

Mongolian shamans. Photo source.

Customs and Superstitions

Mongolians traditionally believe in a variety of good and bad omens. Misfortune might be attracted by talking about negative things, or by persons that are often talked about. They might also be sent by some malicious shaman enraged by breaking some taboo, like stepping on a yurt's threshold. The most endangered family members were believed to be children, and for this reason, they were often given 'non-names' like Nergui (“without name”) or Enebish (“not this one”), or boys would be dressed up as girls, out of fear that their identity could render them vulnerable to curses. Before going out at night, young children's foreheads are sometimes painted with charcoal or soot in order to deceive evil spirits that this is not a child but a rabbit with black hair on the forehead.

Despite external forces pushing Mongolia’s nomads closer to urban life, a large percentage of the population still maintains an ancient lifestyle and customs which have been passed down from generation to generation over three millennia.

Featured image: Nomads of Mongolia. Photo credit: Andrew Newey

By April Holloway


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Andrew Newey Photography

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April Holloway is a Co-Owner, Editor and Writer of Ancient Origins. For privacy reasons, she has previously written on Ancient Origins under the pen name April Holloway, but is now choosing to use her real name, Joanna Gillan.

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