Living in the Round

A sacred history of yurts.

Mongolia with its ancient grasslands at the top of the world is a land of bitter extremes, wind-swept steppes bounded by jagged peaks and long cold winters that melt into short green grassy summers. This is the home of the yurt. 

Yurts were historically a portable circular dwelling made of a lattice of flexible wood and covered in felt. With no natural windbreaks on the dry, flat grassland, the yurts round shape was perfectly suited to resist winds from any direction whilst the flexible design allowed for the extreme changes in temperature. 

Mongolian herders would layer sheep’s wool, sprinkle it with water and work it into mats, often dragging it behind a galloping horse to compress the wool fibres to a tough, sturdy felt. With trees so scarce, they had to trade with river valley residents for their wood, creating roof struts from saplings that were slipped into a central wooden ring, then tied to the top of circular lattice walls and covered with the felted mats. The roof and crown are still the most complex part of the structure, with a pattern of wood, reeds or fabric that can be handed down for generations. This has become the unifying symbol of the “the Stans”: Afghanistan, Pakistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan; with the crown featured on the flag of Kyrgyzstan and coat of arms of Kazakhstan.

The yurt, or ger, originated in the steppes of Central Asia at least three thousand years ago. The word yurt comes from a Turkic word referring to the imprint in the grass left behind by the structure. The Buryat Mongolian community of Siberia claim their land as the birthplace of the ger, and the earliest known depiction of the structure comes from a bronze bowl unearthed in the Zagros Mountains of Iran. 

Genghis Khan famously commanded his entire empire from a large ger. That empire stretched throughout all of Central Asia, from the Korean Peninsula in the east; through China, Tibet, and Iran in the southwest; and through Georgia and Russia in the north. According to legend, Genghis Khan’s ger was 9 meters (30 feet) in diameter and never entirely dismantled – instead pulled on a huge, wheeled cart by 22 oxen. 

As the Mongol Empire expanded into Eastern Europe they brought yurt culture with them. Yurts remained common in Turkey until the 1960s and 1970s and are still found in rural areas of Hungary. Today, more than half of Mongolians live in gers, including about 61% in the capital of Ulaanbaatar and 90% of the rural population.

Whilst these are now permanent homes, Central Asian nomads historically moved several times a year. Not only did gers make moving easy by being so fast to set up they were also very light. Large family gers could be entirely dismantled in an hour and hauled on two or three pack animals.

But yurts are not just practical homes, they are inextricably linked to the nomadic way of life. An eternal circle that represents their connection to nature and the spiritual. “For Mongolians a ger is more than just a traveling shelter it is their centering point in a moving universe.” Becky Kemery, author of ‘Yurts, Living in the Round’. “The internal floor plan 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. Opposite the door is the sacred space to the North. Yin and yang, ancient symbols for feminine and masculine and the balance of life, hold space to the east and west.” 

The western half of the ger is the male area where their possessions (riding tack, hunting gear, and whiskey) are hung and where they usually sit. Women’s tools, such as pots, pans, looms and felting equipment, are stored on the east side of the ger, where women, children and female guests sit. 

Anthropologist, Candace Rose Rardon, points out that Mongolians have all sorts of rituals, taboos and beliefs that govern life in a ger. “Instead of knocking, you should call out “Nokhoi khor,” which translates as “hold the dog,” and bow your head before entering – even if no one’s home. You should walk around the ger clockwise, from left to right, following the path of the sun. You shouldn’t lean against the walls or support poles, as these are symbols of stability, and if you stay the night, you should sleep with your feet pointing towards the door.”

To understand this you need to understand ancient Shamanist tradition, “it is the ger that holds the balance and flow of yin and yang, and of worlds above and below. All of this is centred around the sacred fire, entryway to the sacred world below and provider of warmth and light and the smoke that rises to the world above. In this way the ger expresses the balance of all things in one circle.”

For practicality, comfort, and portability the yurt allowed traditional nomadic people to live in the time-honoured way, moving every few months together with their herds. Yet for these tribes the need to keep a balance between the world of people and nature, the world above and below imbued a sense of sacredness in everything. Their homes express the balance of all things in the one, the circle.

mongolian yurt