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What is a Yurt? - Definition & History

Instructor: Lorrine Garrison-Boyd
This lesson will define a yurt, explain its purposes and structure, as well as discuss how the yurt functioned throughout history. This lesson will also explore modern day uses of this unique structure.

Definition of A Yurt

You probably haven't come across the word 'yurt' too often and only have a vague idea of what it is. Is it some type of teepee? A tent? The name gives few clues. Usually we think of a home as basically rectangular, but did you know some habitats, although portable and unusually shaped, still do the job of keeping the occupants comfortable and safe? Let's look at some facts that will help you better answer the question: what is a yurt?

A yurt is a round, dome-shaped shelter made of wood and animal skins or felt, built on a frame that can be folded away and then reassembled. In modern day terms, a yurt is simply a circular tent that can be easily constructed as an expansive, inexpensive structure. Currently, yurts are sturdy as well as comfortable, and recognized as an appealing, adequate dwelling space to meet a variety of housing needs.

Origins and History of the Yurt

Turkish yurt

Yurts were originally used by nomads living in Siberia, Mongolia, and Turkey. These early habitats have symbolized life in Central Asia for approximately 3000 years. Descriptions of yurts appear in the earliest written accounts of world history by Greek historian Herodotus. During the Bronze Age in Siberia, yurts were depicted in rock etchings.

Genghis Khan made similar observations when describing the Year of the Tiger (1206). In his descriptions he referred to his people as dwellers of felt-walled tents. Records indicate Khan actually resided in a yurt himself, occupying one as his palace, from where he supervised his empire and maintained military supervision.

In the 14th century, Marco Polo noted his observation of yurts while visiting Mongolia. He described the dwellings as circular houses made of wood and covered with felt. Polo also noted that whenever the structure was reassembled, the door of the yurt faced the south.

The Architectural Uniqueness of a Yurt

Yurts were built to be used in Central Asian steppes. A steppe is a flat, dry grassland, where trees are scarce. The circular shape of the yurt resists heavy winds created by these more barren landscapes.

Nomads (or wanderers) used these shelters as movable homes when pursuing herds of sheep, yaks, and other animals. The structures were collapsible due to the use of willow or other bendable saplings and were often transported on wagons. The covering of the yurts were created with wool felt, and as many as eight coverings could be used to protect the occupants from the cold harsh climate during long winters. In the summer fewer coverings were used.

Yurt interior design

The flexible interior of a yurt is durable due to a lattice design. Each wooden section or, 'kahana', consists of criss-crossed poles connected with leather ties. The roof of the yurt is the central part of the structure and is called a crown. The opening of the crown allows air to circulate and serves the same purpose as that of a chimney. It's constructed to last for generations.

Historically, women maintained the upkeep of the yurt and created the process for utilizing the wool felt. Women also wove wall hangings, the coverings for the floor, and the ropes that were used to hold everything in place. This activity was usually a community effort similar to what we know today as a quilting bee.

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