From Nomads to Glampers: The History of the Yurt
The yurt is an early form of tent that has been in use in parts of Asia for over a millennium. Today, they are primarily associated with nomadic Mongol herders and hunters, but their use dates back to before written records began. These ancient tents, made famous by historic figures such as Genghis Khan, are still in everyday use on the Asian steppe. Interestingly, they have also seen a modern revival in the West over the last sixty years, first with the rise of hippie living in the 60s and 70s, and recently with the latest fad, glamping. What is it about the humble yurt that so fascinates so many people to this day?
Where Does the Yurt Get its Name?
Tracing the origin of the word yurt can be difficult, seeing as the tent’s use predates written records. In the West, we call them yurts, a term derived from the Russian word, yurta. That term comes from the word jurt in Turkic, a family of 35 languages spoken by the Turkic peoples of Eurasia. Jurt means ‘people’ or ‘territory of people’. In Mongolian, the yurt is called a ger, which means home.
Yurt Design and Materials
The design and construction of the yurt went unchanged for centuries. Since before the Mongol Empire (126-1368 AD), the yurt’s skin has traditionally been made from layers of felt. This felt was made from sheep’s wool that had been beaten and crushed so that microscopic barbs in the wool fibers interlocked, forming a solid cloth.
That was necessary because the type of sheep the Mongols traditionally herded did not produce wool that could be woven. They used this same wool felt for clothing and blankets. The felt used on yurts was waterproofed by being dipped in sheep’s milk and/or fat. This also made the felt a better insulator, ensuring the yurts stayed warm on cold nights. Today, more modern yurts often use alternative materials.
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A traditional, felt covered Kazakh yurt (Lilly15 / CC BY SA 3.0 )
The construction of yurts has always been largely the same. The felt, or modern substitute, is stretched over a wooden lattice framework, which is topped by a wooden ring. The center of the rooftop is left open to allow light into the yurt and let the smoke from the yurt’s hearth escape. Since most Mongols burnt dried dung bricks on the hearth, one can see why they wanted an open roof.
The internal latticework of a yurt is elegant in its simplicity (Alexandr Frolov / CC BY SA 4.0 )
Fancier yurts often had outer walls decorated with embroidered geometric shapes or depictions of local plants and animals. The nomads often placed cheese on the yurt’s flat top so that it could be cured and preserved by the wind and sun.
The yurts’ door usually faced south, and both the door and frame were usually made of wood with a wooden base. The overall size of the yurt varied, but it is believed that the yurts used in the medieval period were probably much larger than the yurts used today. Back then, multiple families might live in one yurt, whereas today, yurts are usually inhabited by only one family at a time.
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A yurt was frequently occupied by multiple families in the past, while now they’re typically used by a single family. This photo from 1911-1914 shows Inside of a Kazakh yurt with Kazakh family, with a woman in traditional bridal garb on the right ( Public Domain )
Different Types of Yurt Camps
A practiced family can put up a yurt in about an hour, and take a yurt down in about the same amount of time. They can then easily pack the yurt onto a horse, camel, or cart and set off with little fuss.
With practice, a family could pack or unpack their yurt home in about an hour. This Kazakh man is assembling a ger for guests while his child plays inside. (NuclearApples / CC BY SA 4.0 )
This was great, but by the medieval age, the Mongols had come up with an even more convenient form of the yurt, the khibitkha. A khibitkha, or ger tergen , was a type of yurt that was permanently mounted on a cart. The purpose-built, extra-wide carts were pulled by either a single team or several teams of oxen depending on their size. One European chronicler, William of Rubruck, visited the nomads during the 13th century, and noted that some of these carts had axles as large as a ship’s mast and required as many as 22 large oxen to move them.
It was also recorded that these wagoned yurts were sometimes used for things other than housing. Shiremun, the grandson of Ogedei Khan , was known to have used wagoned yurts to sneak his troops to a meeting of Mongol tribal chiefs during a conflict that had arisen following the death of a khan.
These khibitikha weren’t for everyone. They cost a fortune to produce, and as such, only elites like clan leaders and tribal chiefs had access to them. Normal people made do with the humble yurt. Senior tribe families who couldn’t afford a khibitikha, but wished to have their seniority known, often had several yurts. They would use these to house different sections of their families, such as a yurt for the older children, a yurt for the bodyguards, and a yurt for the servants.
A khibitkha was basically a yurt on wheels, which allowed for easier portability and larger sizes (A. Omer Karamollaoglu / CC BY 2.0 )
These groups of yurts made camps called ordu. The positioning of the yurts within imperial and larger camps was important. The senior wife always had the tent nearest to the west and the junior wife had the yurt to the east. The yurts housing the various concubines, children, and servants were somewhere in-between.
The common nomad took a different, more practical approach to making camp. They would make a perimeter circle of yurts, and within this perimeter were placed the vehicles and livestock, keeping them safe and protected. These camps were known as gure’en, but were relatively uncommon. Nomads preferred to live in small groups, not wanting to overburden the pasture in any given area through overpopulation. As such, gure’en were usually only used by senior chieftains for larger gatherings like seasonal and tribal meetings.
At camps where the khan was present, they used arrangements opposite to the gure’en. At these camps, the wagons and vehicles were used to create an outer perimeter with the yurts within. At the center of these camps was the yurt of the tribe’s chief. The visiting khan usually moved from yurt to yurt during his stay, depending on which wife or concubine he fancied spending the night with.
Yurt camps were set up in various ways, based on need and who was traveling in them. This 1913 photo shows a collections of yurts. ( Public Domain )
The Evolution of Yurts
Traditionally, family life revolved around the yurt. The Mongols had a tradition that the family's youngest son inherited his father’s yurt and all of his personal possessions. While the yurt had always been a valuable commodity, over time it began to transform into a status symbol as well.
By the time the Mongol Empire had come into existence, many yurts had become things of beauty. They were typically white on the outside, having been coated in a mixture of chalk, clay, or powdered bone. The sides were often luxuriously decorated with gold trim, jewels, pearls, and fine carpeting .
Yurt decoration became a way to express status during the Mongol Empire ( Frank Wagner / Adobe Stock)
The epitome of these high-class yurts was that of the mid-13th century Mongol governor at Samarkjand, Mas’ud Beg. His yurt was woven entirely from silk and gold. Around the same time, the governor of Khorasan had his tent held together with over 1,000 solid gold nails.
As yurts increasingly became status symbols for the rich and powerful, their usage changed. Genghis Khan , who founded the Mongol Empire, loved yurts. From day one of his reign, he refused to live in a palace, preferring the simplicity of life in a yurt.
His successors were the opposite. As the Mongol Empire grew, its leaders chose to begin living in permanent structures, building lavish palaces. These later khans still used yurts, but more for recreational purposes. For example, Kublai Khan , who ruled from 1260 to 1294 AD, was famous for his extravagant palace at his capital of Xanadu. He kept several yurts at his hunting park and had one in the garden of his palace in which he sometimes slept.
Yurts tied the Mongols to their ancestors, and many still preferred to live in them. Archaeological evidence suggests that after Mongols conquered a city, they would set up yurts within the city walls rather than move into the actual buildings. They also continued to use yurts for feasts, formal audiences and guest houses.
The yurt was a part of the Mongol identity and proved to be difficult to completely abandon, even after more modern and spacious alternatives became available. This remains true to this day. Nomadic tribes in places such as the Gobi Desert area still use the yurt, although today it is commonly tricked out with more modern additions, like aluminum chimneys, solar panels, and satellite TV.
Living the nomad life in a yurt doesn’t require forgoing modern conveniences ( Jef Milano / Adobe Stock)
Yurts in the West
In recent years, the yurt has moved west and has become popular for recreational use. This has largely been attributed to William Coperthwaite, who became a yurt aficionado after reading a 1962 National Geographic article that featured yurts. The article was about Supreme Court Justice William Douglas and how he had traveled to Mongolia and stayed in a traditional yurt.
Inspired by the article, Coperthwaite adopted an off-grid lifestyle where he lived in yurts he made himself. He built his yurts through hand-made construction methods and tools. His yurts were built with locally milled wool that formed the sides of his yurts.
Over the year, Coperthwaite kept tweaking his yurt designs. His passion attracted followers and a community soon formed around his yurts. This community became known as the Yurt Foundation , a nonprofit organization that promotes research and education surrounding yurt life.
Members of the Yurt Foundation have spent much time and effort modernizing the yurt. Chuck Cox, a student of Coperthwaite, was one of the first to try and improve upon Coperthwaite’s designs. He designed a canvas-covered version of the yurt that used tensioned-steel aircraft cables to form the yurt’s shape and appearance. He dubbed this the “portable yurt,” and its plans included a plexiglass skylight rather than the traditional central hole.
This version of the yurt proved to be incredibly popular during the 60s and 70s. Even today, modern companies which produce recreational yurts today still use the basic plans of the “portable yurt”.
This design was then improved upon by Kirk Bachman. Bachman was a nature guide who lived in the Idaho backcountry in a yurt. He had modified his yurt to make it more resistant to snow and extreme weather. His employer was so impressed with his living situation that he asked Backman to build more yurts, inspiring a backcountry yurt movement. Bachman went on to start his own yurt manufacturing company.
Bill Coperthwaite and others created variations on the yurt design. This multi-story yurt was built using only hand tools. (Dale Calder / CC BY NC SA 2.0 )
The Rise of Glamping
The yurt’s popularity peaked in the West in the 60s and 70s hippie era. The yurt represented leaving the stresses of modern living behind and becoming one with nature. It was a symbol of freedom. As the hippie scene began to die down, so did the yurt’s revival.
That was, until recently. In recent years ‘glamping,’ a portmanteau of the words glamorous and camping, has swept through the luxury resorts and vacation worlds. As it turns out, yurts and glamping are a match made in heaven.
Glamping is for those who wish to be at one with nature, but don’t want to give up modern comforts and conveniences. Modern glamping yurts are usually equipped with luxurious bedding, seating, and other amenities more commonly found in an upscale hotel room.
Glamping takes camping to the luxury level, but you can still connect with nature staying in a yurt. ( HighwayStartz / Adobe Stock)
The popularity of the yurt today is not surprising. In a world where we have become increasingly disconnected from nature and our ancestors, people are more desperate than ever for a link to something more primordial.
For the modern glamper, the yurt offers just that - all the comfort and convenience of a hotel room or mobile home while also being connected and surrounded by nature. For modern Mongolians, the yurt offers something different, a direct link to the past. The humble yurt may have evolved over the years, but its basics have stayed largely unchanged.
Top Image: Mongolian yurts in the summer meadows in Nalati, Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, China. Source: 孝通 葛 / Adobe Stock
By Robbie Mitchell
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Lane, G. 2009. Daily Life in the Mongol Empire . Hackett Publishing Company, Inc.