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Mongolian Architecture & Art | Traditional Houses & Buildings in Mongolia

Instructor: Sasha Blakeley

Sasha Blakeley has a Bachelor's in English Literature from McGill University and a TEFL certification. She has been teaching English in Canada and Taiwan for seven years.

Study traditional Mongolian architecture. Learn about yurts, the dwelling of Mongolian nomads, and how Buddhist temples reference the shape of these yurts. Updated: 09/14/2022

What is Mongolian Architecture?

Mongolia is an Asian country located south of Russia and north of China. Much of Mongolia's population has traditionally been nomadic, moving from place to place along with herds of livestock. Many people in Mongolia continue to practice a nomadic lifestyle today. Mongolian architecture reflects this history of nomadism as well as other aspects of Mongolian culture and history. Mongolia was once the heart of a massive and militaristically powerful empire. Some elements of Mongolian architecture date back to the Mongol Empire and other historical periods, while other elements are more recent.

Mongolian Yurts

Mongolian traditional houses are called yurts. A yurt is a structure designed to be put up and taken down again with relative ease because yurts are primarily used by nomadic families. Yurts are circular dwellings that consist of a collapsible wooden frame that is then covered with heavily insulated fabric, tarpaulin, and other materials to keep it weatherproof. There is typically a chimney in the center of the yurt, under which is placed a fire or stove. The interior of a yurt is a single large room that is used for sleeping, eating, socializing, and storage. The word ''yurt'' is actually Russian; in Mongolian, the structure is called a ''ger.'' However, ''yurt'' is more commonly used in English.

Yurts are still a common form of residential building in Mongolia today

A photograph of two Mongolian yurts, traditional circular dwellings

Yurts have been part of Mongolian culture since approximately 600 BCE according to historical and archaeological records. They are so ubiquitous that even Genghis Khan, the famous leader of the Mongols, commanded his army from inside a yurt. Many other kinds of architecture in Mongolia reference the structure of yurts, even when they are not movable structures.

Art and Architecture of the Mongolian Empire

The Mongol Empire existed in the 13th and 14th centuries CE. The Empire was expansionist, at one time spanning all the way from the Persian Gulf to the Pacific Ocean. As a result, all of the cultures in that area were for a time subsumed under Mongol rule, providing artistic and architectural influence. There is a rich history of Mongol Empire art and architecture, some of which survives today. There are actually ruins in Mongolia dating back to the 6th century CE. Genghis Khan and other Mongol leaders were heavily invested in the arts, bringing artists from all around the world to study and perform at Karakorum, the historical capital of the empire. Those artists brought their native cultures with them, creating a melting pot in the heart of Mongolia. There are ruins of Karakorum and some of the buildings from the era have been excavated and rebuilt. At its height, Karakorum had cultural influences from all over the world. Its architecture reflects Chinese, European, and Persian influences along with Mongolian culture.

One of the most important buildings found at the site is known as the Great Hall of Karakorum. It is thought to have originally been a large Buddhist temple and contemporary researchers have done their best to reconstruct what it may have looked like. The structure has clear Chinese influences and would have been spectacular when it was first built, some time between the 12th and 14th centuries. It was also influenced by Tibetan architectural styles, according to historians.

Buddhist Temples

Buddhism has been part of Mongolian history for almost as long as the religion has existed. There is evidence that some Mongolians converted to Buddhism as early as the 3rd century BCE. However, the religion did not take hold across the country until later. It was certainly present at the height of Karakorum, as evidenced by the Great Hall and some members of Genghis Khan's family were Buddhist. It was not until the 16th century, however, that Buddhism really rose in popularity. Tibetan Buddhism became more common and several sprawling Buddhist temple complexes were built as a result. These temples had Chinese, Tibetan, and Indian design influences, as Buddhism was already more popular in all of those places.

Some buildings in the Erdene Zuu Monastery echo Tibetan and Chinese architectural styles

A photograph of Erdene Zuu Monastery showing buildings with Tibetan and Chinese influence

Some Mongolian Buddhist temples had pyramidal roofs that echoed the shapes of yurts. Others featured influences from foreign cultures. Erdene Zuu Monastery, located two kilometers from the heart of Karakorum, was first built in 1586. It is still standing today and is a popular tourist destination for those visiting Mongolia. The structure is elaborate, featuring an entire complex of buildings. Some of those buildings look very much like Tibetan and Chinese temples, while others are more distinctly Mongolian.

Some parts of Erdene Zuu are designed to echo the shape of a yurt, making them more traditionally Mongolian

A photograph of a more Mongolian-inspired part of the Erdene Zuu Monastery, with yurt-shaped buildings

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Frequently Asked Questions

What kind of structures did traditional Mongols live in?

The traditional house of Mongolia is a yurt, a collapsible circular building typically used by nomadic families. Yurts are still widely used today and their shape is sometimes echoed in other Mongolian architecture.

How did the Mongols support the arts?

Genghis Khan and other Mongol leaders would hire artists from all around the world to come to Karakorum. These artists were paid to perform, study, and make art, thereby enriching Mongolian culture.

What was the art of the Mongol Empire?

Mongolian artwork and architecture took many forms. It was largely inspired by Mongolian history and by contact with China, Tibet, India, Persia, and Europe.

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