Inner space and symbolism of the Kazakh yurt

6 kanat, (wall) yurt

6 kanat, (wall) yurt

In the process of adaptation in the ecosystem and creation of economic and cultural products, nomads have created the masterpiece of global civilization – the yurt. In a way, the Kazakh yurt is the quintessence of centuries-old Kazakh culture. The whole life of Kazakhs was connected to that yurt; therefore it had a special place in their every-day life. The yurt symbolized cosmos and the unity of the universe, settled territories.

Nomads didn’t detach themselves from nature and the world surrounding them. Nomad’s life can be compared with migratory birds. That’s why Kazakhs consider wide geese and swans as their remote ancestors. Many Turkic nations have tales about humans evolved from swans. In the Autumn, birds fly South, and nomads are following them. The greatest bespangled path Milky Way Kazakhs call “Құс жолы”, which means “Birds road”.

Starting from the XVIII century, the yurt draws attention of ethnographers, geographers, and travelers. Shoqan Walikhanov pointed out once that in the ХІІ-ХІІІ centuries the names of the nations Алтын орда (Golden Horde), Ақ орда (White Horde), Көк орда (Blue Horde) were related to the yurt.

Boris Alekseevich Kuftin, a Soviet archeologist and ethnographer, wrote that the yurt is “… the highest level that portable dwelling achieved in its development. The yurt can be easily assembled and disassembled. It preserves heat, protects from the wind and from the heat during the summer. Achnatherum lining saves from the damp if covering felt gets wet from the rain. During the summer, Kazakhs took up lower felts in order to get some fresh air. Meanwhile, Achnatherum lining protects from the dust. In the summer, yurt’s coverage doesn’t leak heat in the summer, severe frost – in the winter, water – during the rain.”

Shanyrak of the Yurt

Shanyrak of the Yurt

Shanyrak (yurt’s apex) was a family relic. It was passed from generation to generation and symbolized the power and the patronage of the spirits of the ancestors. The word shanyrak corresponds to the idea of home, family. There are customs regarding the yurt. People say “шаңырақ көтерді” to newlyweds, which means “they have built a new family”, and wish them “шаңырақтарын биік болсын” – their shanyrak to be high.

According to the scientist N. Alimbay, the meaning of the word shanyrak semantically relates to the highest god of ancient Turks, Tengri, whose cosmic incarnation is the large and endless sky.

The space of the yurt is highly segmented. Yurt’s architectonics forms a horizontal three-level structure of the universe (so called upper, middle and lower world). Its top is a celestial crown, edges of the circle symbolize the horizon.

The yurt is nomad’s home, his micro world, his permanent companion in his unstable life. It accompanies souls even in the afterlife.

Big yurt

Big yurt

Yurts are located depending on the social status, genealogical closer to “қара шаңырақ.” On the right side of the master of the house (“үлкен  үй”, “шаңырақ”) that Turks associate with South, yurts of other family members were located. When made their final choice on the place of settlement, “үлкен үй” (literally “big house”) first was set up. Often it was called “кара шанырак” (literally “black hoop”). Some researchers associated it with firmament.

“Үлкен үй” (“a guardian”) or “қара шанырақ” symbolized the power and the prosperity of the family. Therefore, “үлкен үй” oriented to the East was supported by all family members. Turks associated East with the cult of the Sun as the main heavenly body. Sunrise symbolized renovation of the world and revival of the whole creation in harmonically settled space.

Depending on their function and decoration, Kazakh yurts were classified as dark, gray and white ones and had 3, 4, 5, 6 to 24 sections (“қанат”). The big yurt (horde) consisted of 30 sections. Yurts were classified as a guest one (“қонақ үй”), newlyweds one (“отау”), yurts for khans, beys, and sultans (Horde). During the big celebration, special yurts were set up for preparing food and storing products (“ас үй”). Nomads also used yurts made from dark felt; they called them “қараша үй” (“black house”). In order to make it more convenient, Kazakhs were able to extend, diminish, and even unite yurts together to make two-three “room” yurts. Yurt’s size and decoration depended on the property status of its owners. Rich inhabitants of steppe regions had bigger yurts covered with white felt. They were called “ақ үй” (“white house”).


Starting from the 90th of the XX century, after Kazakhstan became an independent state, an opportunity arose to turn to the origins of the national culture again and to preserve the yurt as a national symbol of Kazakh life.

In the Eastern-Kazakhstan Regional Architecture and Ethnographic Museum Reserve there are few types of Kazakh yurts presented. A middle size six-rope yurt (“алты канатты киіз уй”) can be found in the building of the Museum Reserve at M. Gorky street 59, as well as in the open air exposition in the ethno park Zastar.


A big yurt (Horde) is set up at the main square of the Left-bank ethnographic complex. The construction is made from metal; the diameter of the base is 16 meters; total height is 6.5 meters. The outer cover is made from white waterproof fabric with distinctive decoration. The lower edge of the crown (“дөдеге”) is decorated by embroidered golden ornament of zoomorphistic type. Seminars, festivals, and traveling exhibitions are also held in that yurt, which traditionally was designed to hold official receptions, press conferences, meetings of the city’s guests of honor.

Shanyrak unites not only a family but the whole nation. That’s why an image of Shanyrak in the National Emblem of the Republic represents an image of mutual home, the mutual homeland for all people living in Kazakhstan.

Pieces of yurt construction

While creating the yurt a man became similar not only to “big home” (macro cosmos) but also to those of his own kind. In that regard, there are many terms from the sphere of the organization of the body that are used to describe parts of the yurt. Four main components of yurt’s carcass include “керегенің басы” (literally “head of кереге”); “керегенің көзі” (“eyes of кереге”); “керегенің қулагы” (“ears and legs of кереге”); “уықкөз” (“eyes for уык”); “балашык” (“a child” – the shortest bars of the grid; “мандайша” (“forehead” – the highest part of the door jamb); “үйдін сүйегі” (“a bone” – the base of the yurt); кіндік (“umbilical cord” – the center of the yurt), etc.

The main carcass of the yurt consists of “кереге” – a latticed expanding base, “уык” – crown’s poles, “шанырак” – a circle at the top of the crown, “eciк” – a wooden door with door wings.

The Kazakh yurt gains a lot of attention from the visitors of the Museum Reserve. Unique play of colors and ornament, interior design in yurt’s decoration make it a good example of arts and crafts piece. The typical order of the traditional object arrangement (along the walls, on the floor, at the latticed expanding base and crown’s poles) define the uniqueness, comfort and coziness of that portable home.


The yurt is made in a traditional way by the foremen from Almaty region and is based on the example of the constructions made by the national foremen from different kinds of wood (willow, birch). Yurt’s carcase (“үйдін сүйегі”) is made from steppe willow (purple willow) to be light and solid. A crown (“шанырак”) is made from birch. Felt cover is made from the high-quality sheep wool of autumn shearing (“кузем жун”) that is easy to work with. Canvas made from that wool is quite thick.

At the crucial moment of setting up the yurt, men were taking part in the process and were lifting up a hoop (“шанырак”) – yurt’s top. They used a special forked pole (“бақан”) attached to crown’s poles of the yurt, which was also used as a rack (“адалбақан”). For a Kazakh man, that pole represented power and strength and was associated with the idea of fertility, reproduction, and growth. “Бакан” was used in many spheres. In the wedding or birth rites, it was used to mark the place of delivery and as the supporting construction for the woman in childbirth; it was also used to block bride’s way to the yurt. “Бакан” appears in many wedding ransoms of Kazakhs. It symbolizes pay for the crime, the process of stepping over something. At the same time, definite sacralization can be noticed in the actions associated with “бакан”.

Shanyrak Installation

Shanyrak of a six-section yurt has 135-140 cm in diameter. The size of crown’s poles (“уык”) depends on the size of the yurt. The more “кереге” sections a yurt has (“қанат”) the longer and bigger the poles are. Therefore, the number of crown’s poles (“уык”) and the size of shanyrak depend on the area of the house. The size of the yurt (“қанат”, which means a wing) was calculated depending on the number of latticed walls “кереге”.

It was a female job to set up or pull down a yurt. Usually, 2-3 women were setting up a yurt and could be done with that job in one hour.Yurt decoration
All parts of carcase are joined together with ropes, woven belts (“танғыш”) and are girded by wide woven stripes (“керегебас”, “басқур”, “уық бау“) with many rows of knots and tassels made from multicolor woolen filaments. Fixed at the crown’s poles and dangled from them, patterned ribbons with tassels (“ша-шак“) bring additional colorfulness to the yurt’s interior. Different woven belts dangle from the crown. In the case of strong wind, wattled and woven laces were tied to the pegs that were driven into the ground to strengthen the yurt. Decorative ribbons (“ақ басқур” – pile ones, with a color pattern at the smooth white background and “баскур” – non-pile ones) were weaved in a special way for decorating dress yurts. Baskur (“керегебас”) is a wide woven stripe with a pattern that pull together the lattice with fastening and poles from the outside; it’s a strategically important element in the yurt’s construction.


Visitor’s attention is immediately attracted to these decorative ribbons and wide woven stripes that form a frieze around the perimeter of poles. Looking like strips of carpets at the felt background, they bring the special coloring to the yurt’s interior with the diversity of ornaments and the richness of colors.

In the names of patterned ribbons (“баскур”, “аякбау”, “уыкбау”, “белдеу”) words for “a head”, “a leg”, “a trunk” and “shoulders” are combined with the word “бау”, which means a patterned ribbon. It supports a law of the universe in terms of space when the common consciousness of a man assimilates a human body, house and a model of the universe.

Felt cover of the Kazakh’s yurt consists of three parts – three kinds of linen that differ in their size and form: “туырлық” – cover of the base, “үзік” – cover of the crown, “түндік” – cover of shanyrak.


There is the type of yurt’s cover called “көтерме туырлықты” that joins “туырлық” (cover of the base) and үзік (cover of the crown) together forming a whole linen.

All of them were made from the pure wool; edges of the linen were trimmed with a wattled lace (“жиек”). “Түырлық” (right-angled pieces of felt) covers кереге and the lower part of the crown. Two pieces of felt in a shape of the trapezium (“үзік”) cover the crown. Large square felt mat (“тундик”) is thrown upon the apex window of the yurt. The yurt is belted with a lasso (“белдеу”) and a narrow wattled strip (“белдеу бау”), to which robs of the cover felt of the crown are attached.

Felt cover was decorated by a patterned applique work that brought the special elegance to the yurt. The linen (“туырлық”) was embroidered along the base and the side frames;  “үзік” – only along the base, sometimes in a shape of the crown pattern in the crown part; “түндік” – along the whole square.

“Шымши” is a patterned mat made from Achnatherum (a type of a steppe reed) that was placed between the latticed wall and the cover. It protected nomads from cold winter winds. This type of traditional Kazakh braiding (“ши орау”) requires much technique, taste, and painstaking labor. It is widely used in private life. A mat “ақ ши” is used for drying products of cottage cheese and cheese (“құрт”, “ірімшік”), for preparing felt and the base of the large felt mat. In order to make them, Achnatherum was put together with every thin reed wrapped in wool. Then they were decorated with color pattern and tightened together. Such mat is called “шым ши”. Meanwhile, a mat without wool is called “ақ ши”.


“Шым ши” adds special elegance to the yurt. In times of heat, nomads take away the felt from the sides of the yurt and leave just “шым ши” (mats from Achnatherum) which leaks fresh air. The mat decorates a felt door from the inside as well. In clear days, nomads roll up the door and fix it at the top of the doorway. The process of making mats from Achnatherum is like an astonishing fairytale. There is one mat from Achnatherum called “the bird” in the exposition that is made by an Ust-Kamenogorsk craftsman K. Akasheva. Arrow-like reeds of Achnatherum (a steppe reed) are wrapped in colored woolen threads that from a circle in a shape of a bird with puffy plumage. Shiny metal balls are beaded on the mat creating an intricate composition.

One of the features of yurt’s interior is that all the things are placed in sight. Apart from their utilitarian function, every one of them is an object of the home décor. The goods are decorated with the national patterns, the origins of which, according to the archeological surveys, go deep in the antiquity. There are three main types of the Kazakh ornamentation – zoomorphic (animalistic), natural, and geometrical ones. Also, there are stylish images of everyday objects, astral signs of heavenly bodies and natural phenomenon.

Yurt interior

The Kazakh ornamentation was developed in the conditions of nomad stock farm. The latter provided nomads with food and clothes. The increase in the number of a herd served as a proof of prosperity. Therefore, it was pictured with such love in the different everyday objects as a stylish image of zoomorphic motive. The first place as the most widespread pattern belongs to the image of ram’s horns (“қошқар мүйіз”). Everyday objects that were associated with a portable home were made in accordance with the conditions of frequent roams. Therefore, many objects were made from felt or felt cases. Storages for tableware, bed-clothes, felt suitcases and cases for trunks were used to protect belongings during the transportation. All these things (“керме”, “түс қап”, “аяқ қап”, “қоржын”) together with weathercocks and containers were hooked on the loops to the lattice of yurt’s base in a way they didn’t take much space; so they created a colorful effect.

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