"Altogether the yurt as I met with it in Central Asia has left upon my mind a very pleasing impression. Cool in summer and genially warm in winter, what a blessing is its shelter when the wild hurricane rages in all directions around the boundless steppes! A stranger is often fearful lest the dread elements should rend it into a thousand pieces so frail an abode, but the Turkoman has no such apprehension. He attaches the cords fast and sleeps sweetly, for the howling of the storm sounds in his ear like the song that lulls the infant in its cradle."

Arminius Vambery 'Travels in Central Asia' 1864

An illustration from 'Travels in Central Asia

For the nomadic Turkomans, Kirghis, Kazakhs and Karakalpaks, the yurt has always played a crucial role as a movable dwelling place. Known as 'kora ui' (black home) or 'okh ui' (white home), depending on the colour of the outside felt, the simple frame of interlacing wooden sticks and coverings of thick felt were effective in keeping out the worst of the elements, whether in the windswept steppe, the lofty Pamirs or the middle of the desert.

Yurt interior decoration

A Yurt in Moynak, KarakalpakstanDespite their portable nature, the yurts were far from austere. Their interiors provided opportunities for lavish decorating with felt mats and woven storage bags tied to the walls. The women would take pride in embroidering elaborate designs on borders for the walls and tasselled strips hanging from the roof, one for each member of the family. In addition the Turkoman yurt would always boast a selection of exquisite deep red floor carpets.
The yurts were the hub of family life and relected the clearly defined gender roles of traditional Central Asian society. The women lived in the right side of the yurt where all the food and kitchen utensils were stored. The left side was reserved for the men and their belongings, such as musical instruments and gear for the horses. Guests were warmly received and given the honoured place opposite the yurt door. Families were always ready to welcome travellers and give them food and shelter, never knowing when they might be in need of such treatment themselves. Gustav Krist, an Austrian secretly exploring the newly Sovietised Central Asia, was fortunate enough to enjoy Kirghis hospitality whilst traveling in the Pamir mountains:

'At my request a separate yurt was set up for me, which I intended to make as cozy and comfortable as circumstances would permit. The Kirghis made merry over me when I tried to help the women to erect the felt tents. Mahmoud Sharaieff, my friend the aqsaqal (white beard) disapprovingly explained to me that setting up the yurts was womanÕs work and unbecoming for a man.

...The yurt is unquestionably one of the greatest inventions Asia has brought forth. Its circular structure and domelike roof combine the maximum of comfort with extraordinary stability.... The skeleton of the yurt consists of strong wooden poles from five eighths to an inch thick, which are lashed together with thin thongs....

Jefferson, the British cyclist, receiving Kirghis hospitality on his way to Khiva across the Kyzlkum desertThe floor of the yurt is spread with thin felt in summer. In winter, however, they first lay a thick layer of felt on the bare ground, over this a layer of dried grass or dung three inches deep, with another layer of felt rugs on top. Even when the temperature is at its lowest this padded floor prevents any feeling of chill..... The Kirghiz maintain that neither the giant spider nor the scorpion will venture to set foot on felt.'

Gustav Krist 'Journey through a Forbidden Land ' 1933

Ella Maillart, a French journalist and traveller, also experienced yurt-style hospitality in Karakalpakstan.

"A camel stands motionless near a yurt, where to my great pleasure I am invited in to drink tea.
The samovar sparkles in the sun, and the woman wears silver rings on her thumb and first finger, between which she holds her bowl.
Her robes are dazzling white, and a yellow silk kerchief covers her white hair. Her full, perfect features make her seem to me like some incomparable greengage.
The skull cap worn by her son is sewn with gold thread and adorned with bells and a tuft of feathers. Fearful, he refuses to let himself be photographed, and his bearded father has to hold him down forcibly. At the back of the yurt glitters three coffers strengthened with plates of brass. The yurt is a rich one, lined with embroidered koshmous (silver)."

Ella Maillart 'Turkestan Solo' 1933

Families and passing travellers were not the only ones believed to live in the yurt however, since the spirits of the family's ancestors were thought to live in the opening at the top. Every week a large chunk of bread was deep-fried in oil so that the smoke would rise up and somehow feed the spirits living in the hole.
Other yurt traditions include everyone facing the same direction when sleeping. Yurt inhabitants were careful to ensure that their heads pointed southernward so that their faces would be looking towards Mecca. They were also conscientious about making sure that two craftsmen would fashion a new yurt rather than one which would be deemed unlucky.

Although the population of Khiva have always lived in houses, they have also learned some of the benefits of yurts beyond their use as nomadic homes. In winter a yurt could be kept warm with far less fuel than houses which were often bitterly cold in winter, lacking glass until the arrival of the German Mennonite community. Yurts could also be kept cool in summer by lifting up the lower felt section of the wall to allow breezes to pass through, as well as providing additional space for growing families.

Consequently, yurts would often be seen nestling amongst a cluster of houses and even the khan would enjoy the warmth of his royal yurt whilst holding court.The khan also ensured that impressive podiums were available in his palace on which visiting Turkoman dignitaries could place their own yurt. Yurts were also crucial to the khan's army who would stay in them during battles against the Bukharans or Turkomans.
Today there are still a few yurts dotted around Khiva but they are more common in neighbouring Turkmenistan and Karakalpakstan. The most impressive example of a fully decorated yurt can be seen in the Ethnography Museum in Nukus.

Tour Links:
'The Khan's Court' (Kunya Ark) 'Yurt Restaurant and B&B'
'Ishrat Hauli' and 'Auz Hauli' (Tosh Hauli Palace) 'The Summer Palace Hotel'
Guidebook Links:
'The Marauding Turkomans' 'Antique Carpets'

Aywans | Madrassahs | Mausoleums
Mosques and Minaretes | Yurts | Tiles