The origins of yurts
History of the yurt: Many, many years ago, centuries ago, in fact, there lived a people of oak skins and almond eyes, herders on horseback and camels who followed sheep and goats and made their way through ancient grasslands from the top of the world. His country was a country of bitter extremes, windblown steppes bounded by jagged peaks, long winters cold beyond imagination melting into short, grassy green summers as herds multiplied and there was plenty of milk and meat. Long before the time of Christ, before Buddha and Mohammed, these tribes believed in the sacredness of all things and in the need to maintain a balance-equilibrium between the world of people and the world of nature, and with worlds above and below. Everything they did reflected that belief. Trees were scarce, so herders took out their animals to create shelter. They layered sheep's wool, sprinkled it with water, and worked it into felt rugs. Roof struts made from seedbeds were cast into a central ring of wood, then tied to the top of the circular lattice walls and covered with felt mats. The shepherds tied the felt to the ceiling and walls with ropes and belts made from animal hair. In winter additional rugs were added for warmth; in summer fewer layers were used. Sections could be raised or even removed completely in hot weather to allow airflow through the shelter.
The original word for "nomad" came from a word for felt, making nomads "heard people." These felt people called their circular lattice-walled shelters "house," ger (rhymes with "air") or oops (oo-ee), which today help us define what a yurt is. It was a refuge that allowed them to live sustainably in the harshest climates, to move with their herds, to live in tribal communities and to raise their families century after century in a simple but comfortable way and in balance with the world around them. Mongolian and Turkish Designs We don't know exactly where the yurt originated from. The Buriated Mongols of Siberia claim their land as the cradle of the Mongol tribes and also of the Ger. Where it began, the use of gero spread with the conquests and rule of Genghis Khan in the 13th and 14th centuries. Turkish nomads in western Mongolia call their yurts eu, oy, or uy (meaning "dwelling" or "house"). These nomads include numerous tribes that inhabit the steppe lands from Iran to the west, both as far east as western Mongolia and as far south as Afghanistan. The most common factors are language (everyone speaks dialects that are Turkish derivatives) and religion (most are Muslim). There are several differences between the Mongolian and Turkish versions of the yurt. The Mongolian roof poles are straight, where the Turkic poles are bent so that they serve as both the top of the wall and the roof. The Mongolian pitch, or center ring of the roof, requires a craftsman with woodworking tools and tools to produce it. It is so heavy that the Mongolian gers often use supports for the tone, called bagana. The Turkish roof ring is lighter and easier to manufacture than the Mongolian version and does not require supports. Mongolian doors, considered a status symbol, are simple heavy wooden doors. If a Turkish yurt has doors, they are two pieces and open inwards. However, many turquoise yurts use felt flaps or colored rugs to cover the door. These felt doors are usually quite pretty, with sewn or applied patterns.
Otra variación común en algunas zonas de Asia central occidental es el uso de una pared de caña en lugar de (o además) de fieltro. Los días calurosos de verano se pueden levantar los fieltros y la pared del carrizo permite el flujo de aire mientras se mantienen los animales fuera. Las yurtas kirguisas, en particular, utilizan muchos motivos de color y de diseño tanto en trabajos de fieltro como de caña. Tanto en las tribus mongolas como en las turcas, son las mujeres las responsables de la mayor parte de la creación y el mantenimiento del refugio (esto es habitual en las culturas nómadas de todo el mundo). Las mujeres se encargan del proceso de fieltro, generalmente un evento comunitario, y de pegar el fieltro cuando se agota. Tienen las alfombras que se convierten en revestimientos de suelos y tapices, y los cinturones que dan la vuelta a la yurta, manteniendo la pared de celos unida y los revestimientos en su sitio.
La circularidad de la yurta es perfecta para usos nómadas. El círculo engloba el mayor espacio posible internamente por la cantidad de materiales utilizados. Al mismo tiempo, la forma circular deja la menor cantidad de superficie exterior expuesta a los elementos (haciendo así más eficiente el calor) dejando menos superficies expuestas al viento, que se mueve muy naturalmente a su alrededor ya que no hay esquinas.
Another common variation in some areas of western central Asia is the use of a reed wall instead of (or in addition to) felt. On hot summer days the felts can be raised and the reed wall allows airflow while keeping animals out. Kyrgyz yurts, in particular, use many color and design motifs in both felt and reed work. In both the Mongolian and Turkish tribes, it is the women who are responsible for most of the creation and maintenance of the shelter (this is common in nomadic cultures around the world). The women are in charge of the felting process, usually a community event, and gluing the felt together when it runs out. They have the rugs that become floor coverings and rugs, and the belts that go around the yurt, holding the lattice wall together and the wainscoting in place. The circularity of the yurt is perfect for nomadic uses. The circle encompasses the largest possible space internally due to the amount of materials used. At the same time, the circular shape leaves the least amount of outer surface exposed to the elements (thereby making heat more efficient) leaving less surface exposed to the wind, which moves very naturally around you as there are no corners.
Inside the Ger: the sacred circle
For the Mongolians, the gero is more than their traveling haven on the Asian steppes; it is your central point in a universe in motion. The internal plant of the ger is based on the four directions, much like the Native American medicine wheel or the Navajo hogan. The door always opens to the south. In front of the door, the sacred space is located in the north. If the family is Buddhist, this is where the altar is located. It is also the site of the seat of honor for the guests.
The yin and yang, ancient symbols of the feminine and masculine and of the balance of life, maintain the space in the east and in the west. The western half of the gero is the male domain and the eastern half is the female domain. The men's possessions (riding spot, hunting apparatus, and whiskey) are hung on sections of the western wall. Men and guest men usually sit on that side. Women's tools such as pots, pans, and felting looms and equipment are stored on the east side of the ger, where women, children, and guests usually sit. Proceed around the gero in a clockwise or "solar" direction.
In the ancient shamanistic tradition, it is the ger who maintains the balance and flow of yin and yang, and the worlds above and below. All this is centered around the sacred fire, entrance to the sacred world below and provider of heat and light and the smoke that rises to the world above. In this way, the gero expresses the balance of all things in one, the circle.
The yurt moves west
When North Americans use the term yurt, they are referring not to the gero of Central Asia, but to a version made from modern materials, including steel aircraft cables and architectural fabrics. Behind the development of this new form of coat lies a history of visionary designers and a movement committed to the principles of simplicity and sustainability.
In the early 1960s, a man named Bill Coperthwaite taught at a Quaker school in New Hampshire while pursuing a continuing exploration of indigenous crafts and culture. His math students had completed the required curriculum and were exploring the math of roof design.
When Bill saw a 1962 National Geographic article by Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas about his trip to Mongolia, he was inspired to write a new chapter in yurt history. Here in the Mongolian ger was an indigenous design that could be adapted with the possibility of creating more livable and accessible shelters. Bill's math class built a yurt roof, but the design was already changing. Instead of straight roof struts, the roof they built had a lattice truss and no center compression ring.
From New Hampshire Bill moved to Grass Valley, California. Here he built, with students, the first yurt complete with lattice walls, a lattice roof structure, and fabric siding.
Realizing that yurts were a great teaching and community-building tool, Bill began building cone-walled wooden yurts with groups of students. In 1968, as part of his doctoral program at Harvard, he worked with a group of students from the Study Travel School to build a campus in New Hampshire made up of cone-walled yurts. This led to ongoing projects with schools and communities and Bill's designs continued to evolve.
In 1972, Bill established the Yurt Foundation to continue his vision of studying indigenous cultures and applying their technologies to modern culture to design a simpler, more harmonious and sustainable way of life.
The Canvas yurt
Chuck Cox, one of Bill's students, built a cloth-covered version of the yurt as a student project at Cornell University. One of the changes from the Mongolian ger was a steel aircraft cable that sat on top of the lattice wall and functioned as the guy band. The ceiling joists were notched and sat on the cable, rather than directly attached to the lattice wall. Chuck and his wife Laurel produced a set of portable yurt plans that became the foundation of modern canvas yurt design in North America.
In 1978, another student, Kirk Bachman, built a cloth yurt using Coxes's plans as a project at Idaho State University. When Kirk graduated and became a country guide in the mountains of central Idaho, he lived in his yurt. His employer asked him to build a few yurts as experimental ski mountaineering cabins, and a national phenomenon was born. Today yurts serve uses from coast to coast, servicing cabin-to-cabin Nordic skiers and summer hikers.
Another group doing yuras in the northwestern US was a group of hippie tree planters called Hoedades, who in the 1970s lived in the woods and replanted the forests of Oregon. Hoedad mathematician Charlie Crawford decided that the yurt would be a perfect refuge. Using the Coxes' plans and later printing his own, Charlie produced numerous canvas yurts for the Hoedads under the name Cascade Shelter.
Picking up where Crawford left off, former Hoedad Alan Bair and his friends started at Centering Shelterworks in Cottage Grove, Oregon, introducing innovations like NASA-developed insulation and architectural fabrics. While continuing to refine yurt design with his company, now called Pacific Yurts, Alan marketed woven yurts locally and nationally. It was Alan who worked with the Oregon Parks Department to develop the use of yurts on campsites, now a national phenomenon.
Fabric yurts work especially well for modern nomads and people in transition. Typical of nomadic shelters, they use minimal materials and are light on the ground, combining environmental sustainability with a high degree of comfort. The construction of the wooden deck requires carpentry and one or two weeks to complete, but the preparation of the yurt needs less than one or two days for an 8 meter yurt.
The yurt is a gift
There is something about the shape of the circle itself that provides us with a "view of the wholeness, unity, and divine order of the universe," says mathematician philosopher Michael Schneider. "The circle is a reflection of profound perfection, unity, excellence in design, wholeness, and the divine nature of the world and our own." (A Beginner's Guide to Building the Universe, Schneider, p. 4) The very shape of the circle seems to connect us on a primordial cellular level with the oneness of all things, with our interconnectedness with each other and our connection with the whole.
The yurt is a gift, an ancient nomadic shelter recently made available to modern culture. Versatile, beautiful, and spiritual, both vintage and contemporary versions offer an option for an affordable, accessible, and down-to-earth haven. By its very existence, the yurt calls for life with simplicity, in community and in harmony with the planet.
Whichever form of shelter is finally chosen, it is good to learn from this ancient nomadic way, from the people of the yurt and from the circle itself, as it speaks of the unity and interconnectedness of all things.