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2021  N1-2(190-191)
HISTORY
THE MOST PROVEN DWELLING
There is one common element in the cultural heritage of the peoples with nomadic roots, whose ancestors lived in the vast expanses from the banks of the Danube to the borders of China, which makes their way of life and spiritual world closely related. This is about the most popular dwelling in the recent past – a portable lattice yurt. Nobody knows for sure where and when it appeared first. Archeology cannot answer this question, because the yurt consists only of thin wood and felt, leaving no traces on the ground. In addition, frequent migrations prevented the formation of a cultural layer. It would be dispersed by winds or covered with sand as soon as a nomad left the habitable place. However, unlike the stationary buildings of the sedentary population of the old oases, the yurt has survived to this day almost unchanged, and it can be seen today not only in museums but also in life.
The design of the Turkmen yurt differs little from the tents of other Asian peoples. Its wooden part consisted of four to eight lattice panels (ganat) joined together to form a cylindrical frame (tearim) up to five meters in diameter. A dome made of sixty to one hundred and twenty thin curved poles (ug) crowned with a massive hoop (tuinuk) was fastened on the wooden skeleton of the yurt. The upper part of the finished structure was covered with felt, while the floor was sheathed with a reed mat. In bad weather, rain or snow or just to keep warm, a smoke hole in the center of the dome of the yurt could be closed with special ropes attached to a felt cover (serpic) at the top.
The doorway was not large, normally one and a half meter high. So, adults entering the yurt had to tilt their heads as if greeting the dwelling. Such low doors were made in order to keep the dwelling warm. And in good weather or in summer heat, the tearim could be slightly opened from below in order to ensure through ventilation. The wooden door was always double-leaf on the coak. Yet, doors appeared as an attribute of the yurt relatively recently, in the late 19th – early 20th centuries. Before that, and even later among the poor, the doorway was closed with carpet or felt curtains, and in summer with reed curtains. If the door leaves were not simple but paneled and decorated with carvings, then they were called “bagdat gapy” (Baghdad door). It took a master and his assistants at least a month of continuous work to make only one yurt. And naturally it was expensive, but it served for a long time, often more than one generation.
The fact that modern yurts accurately reproduce the old canon is evidenced by numerous descriptions in the notes of European travelers of the Middle Ages and Modern Times.
In addition, since the beginning of the photographic era in the second half of the 19th century, the yurt has been captured on photographs with all truthfulness of its general appearance and details. All this explains why the yurt has become an object of study not by archeology but ethnography.
On the other hand, the yurt is a visual example of application of the principles of bionics. This is a mobile collapsible frame dwelling, round in plan, extremely rational and stable, whose structure is borrowed from wildlife itself. It is clear that such human invention is the crown of a very long evolution. For millennia, people built domed huts from bent, reed-covered poles. The invention of felt was an important discovery of antiquity. At some stage, the huts became two-part. The combination of the lower cylindrical part with the upper vaulted one made it possible not only to expand the internal space but also make the structure even more stable. Engineers know that the streamlined circular shape is highly wind resistant, which is essential in open plains and desert environments.
Finally, the yurt is an example of a real ecological dwelling. All of it, including all things inside it, is made exclusively from natural materials. The yurt is assembled and fastened without a single nail. It will not sink to one side in a powerful hurricane. When a fire is burning in the hearth, there is no pungent, corrosive smoke in the room, because a hole in the dome functions as an excellent exhaust. In winter, the yurt is well-insulated from inside, preventing the penetration of cold, and, on the contrary, in the summer heat, a barely perceptible cool draft floats along the floor.
Outstanding Russian orientalists Yelena Kuzmina and Vladimir Livshits, who studied the origin of the yurt, came to the conclusion that the Scythian tent is the closest to the yurt design. They believed it to be the yurt prototype. In the VIII–IV centuries BC, the Scythians had a huge influence on the ethnogenesis and culture of different peoples of Eastern Europe and Central Asia. The design of the Scythian tent was improved in the southern Russian steppes beginning from the Eneolithic era and in the early Iron Age, along with the Scythian triad – weapons, horse equipment and a zoomorphic style in art – and probably reached Central Asia, where it was adopted by local Turkic-speaking tribes. Yet, science does not yet know when and who invented the folding lattices that led to creation of a new type of dwelling – the yurt.
In the distant past, the Turkmen society was conventionally divided into two categories – farmers (chomur) and pastoralists (charva). The settlements of the latter were seasonal in nature due to the annual cycle of their relocation to summer-autumn, winter and spring pastures. Places of the nomads’ camps were respectively called “yaylag”, “gishlag” and “yazlag”. Several related groups gathered at summer camps, forming a large “oba”, that is, a village or, as they often say in Russian, “aul”. Although the Turkmens do not have such a word, other peoples of Central Asia and the Caucasus have it. There is also no such word as “yurt” in the Turkmen language. Such dwellings are normally called “gara-oy” – literally “black house”. No negative meaning was put into the adjective “black”. It is only due to the dark color of felt that covers the yurt. This color was determined by the fact that the bulk of sheep herds were black and gray-haired. And, of course, dust, rain, snow and, most importantly, smoke from the hearth inside the yurt turned the surface of any color into dark over time. There were also “ak-oy” (white yurts), which were set up for newlyweds, important guests or the tribal elite. Over time, they also turned into “gara-oy”.
As opposed to the Russian word “kibitka” that originates from the Arabic “kubbat” (vault, dome) through its borrowing in the Turkic vocabulary in the form of “kibitz”, the “yurt” has a purely Turkic origin from the broader concept of “yurt” – country, land, homeland, dwelling, house, hearth. The Turkmens also used the word “yurt” to describe a place, usually a flat area where they set up the kibitka.
It is important to emphasize here that the nomadic way of life did not mean an expansion into foreign lands at all. All migrations took place within their territory, and, moreover, returning to their former place, each family would again erect their yurts in the same place where it stood before. This place was called “yurt yeri” and none of the strangers had the right to occupy it. It is no coincidence that the youngest son in every large family was considered “yurt oglu” or “yurt eyesi” – the heir or owner of the place where the hearth is located. This place was considered sacred, and many signs and superstitions were associated with it. So, if family members often got sick and died, then the yurt was moved to the side or completely away from the old site. The expression “yurdun yitsin!” (let your yurt get lost!) was considered a strong insult. It was the duty of the youngest son to keep the yurt of his father and ancestors by his father’s side.
The number of yurts in the Turkmen village ranged from twenty to two hundred. They were placed in one line, in several rows or in a circle. Each yurt belonged to one family. When there were many of them, they were located in several rows at a short distance from each other, forming something like temporary streets. As a rule, the foreman of the nomadic group put his yurt in the middle, while his sons, brothers and other close relatives by seniority put their yurts on the left and right of this yurt. This was done in order to make it more convenient to help each other if need be. Two camels were required to transport one yurt, and it would be assembled, as a rule, by several women in about an hour. Disassembly went even faster. Men helped to lift and remove only the most difficult part – tuinuk.
Such centuries-old construction technology allows us to call the yurt an accomplished work of design, not to mention the extreme rationality and reliability of the structure itself. There is nothing superfluous in it, and its aesthetics are inseparable from the constructive essence of the object. On the one hand, such familiar concepts as typification, unification and standardization are applicable to the yurt. On the other hand, in contrast to the cold indifference of apartments in serial industrial buildings, one can say that a yurt is a place where the soul lives.
Everything in the yurt is warmed by human hands. Popular beliefs and omens are associated literally with every detail, by no means nameless, of the yurt, including the number of poles, orientation of the entrance, jambs, doorway or lintel, hearth, division of the inner space into male and female parts. Finally, even the assembly or relocation of the yurt had to be done on the right day. It must certainly be “sekhetli gun” – a successful, happy day that was associated with certain days of the week.
Women were naturally the hostesses of the yurt. Their duties were not limited only to the assembly and disassembly of the yurt. They made with their hands felt coverings of the dome and bedding mats for the floor (keche), mats and magnificent carpets and wall carpets for daily use and yurt interior decoration that became the most significant contribution of Turkmens to the world artistic culture.
The outside decoration of the yurt featured a patterned ribbon “ak yup” that encircled the tearim at about one meter from the ground. It decorated the yurt and made it more stable. Particular attention was paid to the design of the entrance. Before the appearance of wooden doors, it was curtained with a special felt with a specific pattern, as well as a lint-free double-sided carpet (kilim) or a real carpet (ensi) that carried ritual and protective meaning. Triangular amulets (doga) were often hung over the entrance for the same protective purpose. Sometimes a horseshoe was nailed to the doorway for good luck. The doorway, as a border marking the beginning of another territory, was especially revered. It was impermissible to step or sit on it or hit it with a stick.
The walls and ceiling of the yurt were decorated with woven patterned ribbons that were used primarily for fastening the lattice panels and upper curved poles. A hearth was placed in the central part of the yurt under the domed smoke hole between the entrance and the place of honor, but closer to the door. Its firebox almost always faced the entrance, that is, as a rule, to the south. Unlike the rest of the floor, which was first covered with reed mats and then with thick patterned felts, rugs or carpets, the area between the hearth and the entrance was not covered with anything. It was the place where people entering the yurt would take off and leave their shoes.
Closer to the entrance, there stood large kitchen utensils on the floor in the female part of the yurt, such as dishes for water, cast iron and copper pots and jugs, a tripod (tagan), a container for storing sour milk and so on. Nearby lay sacks called “chuval” with valuable clothes: dressing gowns and shoes, the bride’s dowry. If there was nothing to put in the chuval, it was filled with what was necessary to create the impression that there were many things in the house. The number of bags depended on the owner’s wealth. A wealthy one had up to six of them. Sometimes a wooden chest was placed next to the chuval. The most valuable things were kept in it, like silver and gilded jewelry, some family heirlooms, money. Folded blankets and pillows were put on the chuval. A cradle for newborns was also placed in the female part of the yurt.
Woven sacks with grain (argysh chuval) stood in one row in the male part of the yurt. There were also household items: saddles, horse harness, blankets and other equipment, as well as leather bags for water, a hand mill, a mortar and personal belongings of men. Their robes and fur coats were hung on the yurt bars.
They kept casual clothes and underwear in large chuvals hanging on the wall. Woven patterned chuvals replaced furniture and served as decoration for the yurt, making it comfortable. The decorative function was also played by carpet bags (torba) with fringes and tassels for every little thing, which were hung on the lattice above the chuval. In addition to these sacks, carpet saddle bags (khorzhun) also added beauty to the dwelling. They were kept in the male part of the yurt. And, finally, a purely aesthetic role was assigned to the U-shaped narrow carpet product called “gapylyk”, which usually came with tassels. It was hung above the entrance to the yurt from the inside.
Not so long ago, the yurt was almost the prevailing type of dwelling in Turkmenistan. There are still people who were born in a yurt, like countless generations of their ancestors. They now live in multi-storey buildings covered with marble. The world around has changed beyond recognition, but yurts are not forgotten and there are still craftsmen who make them using traditional technology from the same materials, because there is a demand for their craft, although not the same as in the past.
This demand is ensured not only by the interests of the tourism business that offers exotic things for foreign visitors and not only by purely everyday needs of those who live in villages, especially if they are located far in the desert, but also by the desire of people to preserve their national memory and ethnic identity.

Ruslan MURADOV


©Turkmenistan Analytic magazine, 2005