Nomadic peoples leave few written or archaeological records of their passing. So early evidence of the history of the yurt is hard to find. Bronze age rock etchings from Siberia appear to show yurts in use. Descriptions from ancient travellers and some frozen remains offer hints, but no absolute proof of yurt use. Herodotus (c480-c425 BC) described ger-carts and felt tents being used by the Scythian people. A cart found in a 2500 year old Pazaryck grave in Southern Siberia demonstrate all of the technologies needed to build a yurt were available at that time. But firm evidence from before the time of Ghengis Khan is hard to find.
The evolution of the modern ger almost certainly began in prehistoric times with the urts or buheg; a tipi like structure, still used by the reindeer breeders of Northern Mongolia and Siberia . The addition of a simple wall of crossed poles was the next step. This design was further refined with the addition of collapsible khana and bent-wood poles.
Evolution of the ger © Paul King 2001
- Simple walls
- Tall yurt
- Low yurt with raised tono
- Modern ger
The early Mongolian ger had a curved, bottle shaped profile, and was often permanently mounted on a cart, pulled by oxen. Ger carts or Gerlugs were in common use during the reign of Genghis Khan (1162-1227 AD). The entire Mongol Empire was administered from a large ger-cart. Modern collapsible gers were also in common use at this time.
In 1245-1247 Pope Innocent IV sent Friar Giovanni DiPlano Carpini, on a mission to offer Christianity to the Mongols whilst also finding out as much as possible about their origins and habits. At this time all of Europe was in fear of another Mongol invasion. Carpini travelled for two and a half years, reaching, though not actually visiting the ancient Mongol capital of Kharakorum, and being present at the enthronement of Guyuk Khan, he described the Mongol dwellings thus:
Tartar homes are round and prepared like tents made cleverly of laths and sticks. In the middle of the roof there is a round window through which light comes in and smoke can leave, because they always have a fire in the centre. The walls and the roof are covered by felt and even the doors are made of felt. Some huts are large and some are small, depending upon the wealth or poverty of the owners. Some are taken apart quickly and put back together again and carried everywhere; some cannot be taken apart and are moved on carts. The smallest are put a cart drawn by one ox, the larger by two or three or more depending upon how large it is and how many are needed to move it. Whenever they travel, whether to war or other places, they always take their homes with them.
The earliest complete yurt yet discovered was found in a 12 th century grave in the Khentai Mountains of Northern Mongolia . This yurt was almost identical to gers used in the area today. Genghis Khan’s armies were housed in collapsible yurts very similar to the modern ger, while the Khan himself lived and held court in one of many gers permanently mounted on carts pulled by oxen. These wheeled gers or gerlugs were typically 30 feet (9m) in diameter and pulled by 22 bulls. The shape of these gerlugs was rounded in profile with a raised top.
The major change in ger design in the eight centuries since the time of Genghis khan is the shape of the tono, which is lower, giving a smoother roof profile.
Genghis Khan's ger cart pulled by oxen (13 th century)
Mongolia is the great stronghold of the yurt, where the ger is still home to three-quarters of the population. To the south, the Inner Mongolia region of China is populated by ger-dwellers. To the north, the people of Tuva and the Buryat region of Siberia live in gers. In Eastern Siberia , the reindeer herding Koryak people live in yurt-like yarangas.
The southernmost range of the bentwood yurt, where it is still in common use by nomadic peoples, covers Iran , Iraq , Northern Afghanistan and Pakistan . To the west of Mongolia , in Kazakstan , Kyrgyzstan , Uzbekistan , Tajikistan and North-Eastern China, a region as a whole formerly known as Turkestan , the yurt is the traditional and still popular nomadic dwelling. The national flag of the newly independent Kyrgyzstan depicts a red yurt-crown at its centre.
During the middle-ages the Magyars of Hungary dwelt in yurts, where they are still in occasional use today. Bentwood yurts were used in Central and Eastern Turkey until the 1960s.
Yurt Distribution © Paul King 2001