What is yurt? A snow-white dome on a green foothill meadow, a fairy-tale pattern on carpets and tekemet, an ideal collapsible structure of a nomad’s home – a legend or reality? Perhaps all this and many more wonders and mysteries are contained in this unique phenomenon polished by centuries – the mobile home of a Kazakh. A house loaded on a camel accompanied your ancestor or a contemporary herdsman from a winter station to a spring pasture, obediently followed you, your family and herds from a summer jailyau to an autumn kuzdeu. For all of us the uniqueness of this dwelling made of felt and supple willow-tree twigs has become a symbol of Motherland and the nation’s ancient culture.
What we know today about the Kazakh yurt makes one realize with astonishment how accurately all the day-to-day needs of a nomad, as well as his worldview are coded in the secrets of the yurt’s well-considered structure and ornamental elegance and in the very principle of living in a yurt. A yurt embodies a thoughtful principle, adapted to its own nature, of communicating with the smoothness of steppe, heights of mountain peaks, tenderness of alpine meadows and even the infinite blue of the sky. Stay in a yurt for a couple of hours for a cup of hot fragrant tea, spend a night there to feel the light of distant stars streaming through the open shanrak, touching your face, and you will surely be filled with a peculiar sensation of living a life in it.
You will understand how the yurt, perfectly adapted to specific landscape and human life, is strongly connected to the Universe, the Cosmos, through all its emotional and sensitive experiences. You will have a strange, incomprehensible sensation of comfort and security of home and, at the same time, of the infinite openness into the Universe and an exciting sensation of connection with the infinity of space. This unusual way of life led by our ancestors was probably not only necessitated by the specificity of their nomadic economy, but also arose from the peculiarities of national consciousness. A need to feel oneself part of the whole and live in harmony with the rhythm of the universe – a need that was reflected in the yurt-home concept – was also cardinal in the traditional consciousness of Kazakhs.
Kazakh yurt, kiiz uy, is a product of traditional culture guided by environmental balance – the culture that in its development aspires not to subject or change nature, but to learn its laws and follow them in every moment of life. Perceiving nature as home, a nomad created his own home as an organism that was a copy and an extension of nature and Cosmos. Being on the “first name basis” with nature, he was on the “first name basis” with his own home too. He made it easy to assemble and dismantle, and its entire structure and interior fittings could be easily transported by a camel and two horses. The optimal convenience of its structure perfectly reflected the dynamism of nomadic life. It kept the air cool in the hot summer days, protected from chilling winds, and did not soak under the jets of heavy autumn rains.
Being part of the nature’s mind, man created his yurt-home of the nature’s flesh and in the likeness of the universe. Built entirely from natural materials, a Kazakh yurt became a kind of continuation and development of the nature’s possibilities to protect a human life and make it comfortable. All natural properties get a fresh sound and purpose in it: flexibility of willow-tree branches – an indispensable material for wooden kerege frame, or the density of a tight felt impervious to rain jets and burning steppes sun, which is made specially for yurt covers using only the wool shorn in autumn from a special breed of sheep.
The principle of constructing and arranging a living place to live in the likeness of the universe is the basic principle behind the traditional Kazakh yurt. Not a temple, just an ordinary dwelling of a Kazakh gave its owner the full sense of home by way of its polysemantic symbolism that likened it to the universe.
The merger with nature, and through it – with Cosmos, originating at the level of the material and structure of yurt, is continued and intensified in its interior. Virtually all kinds of the Kazakh traditional crafts that emerged from time immemorial and evolved together with the nation through history are used in the fitting and decoration of the yurt interior. Here one can find colourful ornamentation, rich wood-carving textures, embroidery, felt rugs, chiy mats, leather and metal – all creating a unique polyphony of colours and shapes. All together, these items delight one’s eyes and prompt an inquisitive mind to figure out the meaning of symbolic ornamental characters.
Floral patterns of tekemet (felt floor mats), abstract, cosmogonic ornaments of baskur (woven patterned ribbons) put around the inner perimeter of a yurt, and intricately carved and inlaid furniture reflect the views of a Kazakh nomad upon the order and the beauty of the world in which he lives. One can hear the echo of pagan cults of the sun, the sky and the luminaries, and the notion of a cyclical change of seasons; steppe vegetation and fauna are recognizable in generalized ornamental symbols.
Circle is one of the principal symbols of a yurt in terms of its philosophical and constructive significance. The diverse range of its uses in a yurt starts with yurt’s exterior dome-like shape. Then the countless circles of the structure, accentuated by the baskur circle, multiply in syrmak and tekemet rosettes, in golden spirals of embroidered rugs, and in the patterns of pottery, bedding, cabinets and chests. And finally reaching the main circle of the yurt – the shanrak opening in the dome – they soar to the blue sky, Tengri, the chief deity of the Kazakhs.
Shanrak is the circular crown of the yurt’s dome, which has always been a capacious symbol encompassing the notions of human life and universe, the continuity of generations, the unity of time and harmony of life. Passed from generation to generation, shanrak personified procreation, the protection of ancestors, and the benevolence of stars.
What is it in the end, the Kazakh yurt, testate wisdom of the generations of ancestors?
Once it was recognized by explorers as “the most perfect type of portable dwellings” (1, p. 29) and impressed travellers and merchants, foreign ambassadors and medieval historians. Many of them, including V. Rubruk, M. Protector, A. Vamberi and N. Bichurin, left behind curious descriptions of felt-covered wagons and felt tents, amazing in their comfort and decorative splendour.
Today we can say that this phenomenon represented both the nomad’s philosophy and his lifestyle. Yurt can also be understood as a constant reminder of the greatness and infinity of the universe and a call to understand and humble oneself before the mysteries of nature. It can be perceived as a secure home filled with fabulously colourful comfort. One can regard it as an unbelievably clever collapsible structure, obeying to the will of its master, and rising in no time on any terrain, be it a valley or a mountain, green hills or the infinite expanse of steppe.
In any of its shapes and varieties, be it an ak uy, “the white hall”, or otau uy, a small yurt of newly-weds, or a travel yurt, zhol uy, or an ordinary herdsman’s yurt made grey by rains, yurt will always be dear to us. It will remain the manifestation of unique wisdom of our ancestors who created the phenomenon of yurt – home and Cosmos.
1. Руденко О. Очерк быта казахов бассейна рек Уила и Сагыза. Л., 1927.