The yurt in history
Ulaantaij - Bringing Mongolia to the World
The Yurt. Famed home of the nomadic peoples of the endless grasslands of inner and central Asia.
examples of it’s true historical status.
This design had the same advantage in an emergency as a felt door flap: it could be closed in a split
second. As an enlarged view shows, the door would have been propped open by a tall pole with a
lion- or wolf-headed finial — a distinction reserved for those of high status.
Another hint that nomadic peoples used yurt like structures in the course of their migrations across
the endless grasslands of Asia comes from a no longer extant wall painting found in a Sarmatian
tomb of the first century AD. The tomb came to light in the city of Panticapaeum (in the vicinity of
modern Kerch, in the Crimea) you can see it’s unusual, square-shouldered appearance and
prominent ventilation hole, the felt-covered structure in Figure 3 is, in all probability, the second
earliest known depiction of a yurt. Indeed the prominent “shoulders” that appear in the painting might
represent an attempt to suggest the presence of an inward-leaning trellis wall. This structure appears
to represent a dwelling of some quality a similar, more or less square design which was used in
Inner Mongolia to celebrate “the Sacrifice of Chinggis Khan at Ejen Horo”
In the illustration the yurt is reduced to little more than a frame for the two principals; nonetheless the
near-vertical sides of the tent strongly suggest that it could have benefited from the presence of a
trellis wall. Beyond this, the elite rank of the yurt is indicated by the fact that it had a covering of tiger
skins. In addition, the inner side of the open doorway had a curtain of fine quality (perhaps silk) and
the floor of the yurt appears to have been at least partly covered by a long fringed circular carpet.
The Chinese taste for the exotic reached unprecedented heights during the days of the Tang dynasty
(c. 618 - 917 AD), members of the highest ranks of Chinese society found pleasure in exploring,
especially in the winter but in certain cases even in the summer as well the attractions of an urban,
tented existence. In the capital, Luoyang, where the leading literati of the 9th century frequently
occupied grand villas with extensive grounds, the celebrated poet, Bai Juyi (772-846), not only set up
a yurt in the front courtyard of his Luoyang villa, but he wrote a poem, in 833, in praise of the virtues of
his tented abode. Through Bai Juyi’s l vision, we learn of the advantages of a yurt:
Softness and warmth envelop the felt hangings and rugs; the tinkling of jade enfolds the sounds of
pipes and strings.
It is most convenient after the earth has been covered with frost, and it is the best match when snow
fills the sky.
Positioned at an angle is the low chair for singing, evenly disposed are the small mats for dancing.
When I have leisure time I lift open the curtain and enter the yurt, and when I am drunk I wrap myself
up in a cover and sleep there.
Behind me an iron lamp-stand that bears a candle; a silver incense censer that flames is suspended
from the ceiling.
Kept deep within is the flame that lasts till dawn; stored inside is the fragrant smoke that lasts till
When the animal-shaped charcoal is close by, fox furs can be cast aside.
When the ink-stone is warm it melts the frozen ink and when the pitcher is heated it becomes a
stream in springtime.
An orchid canopy will barely attract a hermit and a thatched hut is inferior for meditating.
(But invited to my yurt) an impoverished monk responds with praise, and a threadbare scholar stays
in place, unwilling to leave.
Guests are greeted with it, descendants will hand it down to posterity.
The Wang family boasts of their antiques, but they have nothing to equal this Sky-Blue Yurt.
Bai Juyi’s testimony is important. It proves, in many ways, that the more significant yurts of the second
half of the first millennium AD were of considerable size and that such ‘satisfying, logically designed”
structures were luxurious and far more impervious to the bitter winters than a Chinese mansion.
bronze bowl of circa. 600 BC
In 1982 the discovery of the “Arjan tomb,” a
rich burial deep in the Zagros mountains of
southern Iran. Brought to light a number of
precious and non-precious metal objects.
When the first detailed description of the
tomb and its contents appeared in English
in 1985 the bronze bowl (Fig. 1) was merely
described as a “large shallow bowl.
Figure 1. The "Arjan Bowl"
Arjan bowl includes a representation of the
basic wooden elements of a circular,
domed “ribbed tent”. The tent is shown
without its felt covering in an illustration
structure’s characteristic, long curved
struts and the all important roof wheel.
This last item is deliberately shown in an
unreal, upright position, in order to stress
its vital role. The doorway is also of special
interest; for, while modern yurts are often
equipped with double wooden doors that
are side-hinged, the Arjan tent appears to
show a single, broad wooden door that
A detail of the
yurt or “ribbed
tent” in the
of the Arjan
lower parts of
a number of
in order to
give a clear
view of the
used yurt like structures in the
course of their migrations across
the endless grasslands of Asia
comes from a no longer extant wall
painting found in a Sarmatian tomb
of the first century AD. The tomb
came to light in the city of
Panticapaeum (in the vicinity of
modern Kerch, in the Crimea) you
can see it’s unusual, square-
shouldered appearance and
prominent ventilation hole, the felt-
covered structure in Figure 3 is, in
all probability, the second earliest
known depiction of a yurt. Indeed the
prominent “shoulders” that appear
in the painting might represent an
attempt to suggest the presence of
an inward-leaning trellis wall. This
structure appears to represent a
dwelling of some quality.
Figure 3 A wall painting found in a tomb of the 1st century
BC at Panticapaeum, near Kerch.
Yurts in Sogdian funerary reliefs of the 6th
Recent archaeological discoveries from
north China, most of which have only begun
to be described in print within the past ten
years, have shown that the period of the fifth
and sixth centuries marked a peak in
Sogdian emigration to China. By the second
half of the 6th century numbers of Sogdian
officials of a high status appear to have been
in a position to order Chinese-style stone
funerary beds for their tombs. The carved
and painted panels were an integral part of
such beds. This provided space for the
owner to record his Sogdian way of life
(Fig. 4). In the illustration the yurt is reduced
to little more than a frame for the two
principals; nonetheless the near-vertical
sides of the tent strongly suggest that it
could have benefited from the presence of a
Figure 4. Drawing of an elite yurt depicted in a
funerary relief from the tomb of the Sogdian
Sabao, An Jia circa. 579 AD
by: Bai Juyi
The finest felt from a flock of a thousand
sheep, stretched over a frame shaped like
the extended bows of a hundred soldiers.
Ribs of the healthiest willow, its colour
dyed to saturation with the freshest indigo.
Made in the north according to a Rong
invention, it moved south following the
migration of slaves.
When the typhoon blows it does not shake,
when a storm pours it gets even stronger.
With a roof that is highest at the centre, it is
a four-sided circle without corners.
With its side door open wide, the air inside
Though it comes from far beyond the
passes, now it rests securely in the front
Though it casts a lonely shadow during
nights brilliantly illuminated by the moon,
its value doubles in years when the winter
is bitterly cold.
Little remains to show the life of the working man.
One exception is known. The wooden frame of a yurt
from the grave of a commoner who was buried in the
Khentei Mountains of Mongolia in the time of Chinggis
Khan. This grave provides the first incontrovertible
evidence for the existence of the trellised yurt.
The yurt in history
A yurt circa 1900's. Note the felt
covering over the door.
Father and son transporting their
yurt on horseback.
Kazakh yurts being investigated
by a foreign hunting party, circa
1900's. Note the intricate pattern
of ropes used to hold the covers
A detail of the yurt or “ribbed tent” in the outer
boarder of the Arjan bowl. The lower parts of a
number of struts have been deleted in order to give
a clear view of the internal details.