The Kazakh Yurt-Symbolism and history

The Kazakh Yurt – Symbolism and history.

yurtaKazakhs’ primary modes of subsistence, nomadic and semi-nomadic pastoralism, predetermined the type of dwelling they used – namely, the Kazakh yurt. The origins and history of the yurt’s structural development are to this day subject of lively debate in the academic literature. According to Sev’yan Vainshtein, the prototype of the contemporary Kazakh yurt is a yurt of the ancient Turkic type, invented in the middle of 1000 B.C.E. and which itself owes its structural features to the semi-spherical Hun hut, an even earlier type of portable housing. It is in any case clear that the yurt is a product of a long historical development and gradual perfection of more primitive types of dwelling. The yurt’s unique architecture and complex semantics reflect the level of cultural development and ideological sophistication of Turkic peoples.

The yurt was the center of a Kazakh’s life. “Shanyrak,” the structural element of the yurt’s top, was considered a family relic and passed from generation to generation. Kara-shanyrak of the father’s yurt was subject of his sons’ religious reverie. In exceptional cases, a Kazakh would swear by his shanyrak by looking at it. A lot of attention, too, was paid to the wedding yurt (“ak otau”) on whose quality and decoration depended the future happiness of the newlyweds. This is perhaps why, as Alkei Margulan puts it, “even Kazakhs with an average income spared neither means nor supplies for the otau’s artistic treatment; everyone sought to make the wedding yurt prettier and more elegant. They would often spend all their means on the wedding.”

But the Kazakh yurt is not just an element of a peoples’ material culture. It is also full of symbolism that contains a variety of clues about their religious and mythological worldview. Kazakhs’ and their ancestors’ worldview was based on two elements: the outward manifestations of the nature accessible to an everyday consciousness and the human society.

The structure. Or how to build a Kazakh yurt.

The structure of the yurt reveals its strong connection to the figurative and conceptual world model of the Kazakh people. It consists of a wooden frame and a felt cover. The wooden frame, in turn, is made of several lattice sections, a crown, roof poles that connect the two, and a door frame. The most lavish Kazakh yurts were made of ten sections and were called the khan yurt because only the richest people could afford it. The most common number of sections was six. These lattice sections or “kerege” is what defines the size of a yurt as well as the number of bent roof poles (“uuks”) needed to make the yurt’s dome.

Each lattice section was made of 20 crisscrossed planks (“saganaks”) bound together with rawhide belts of camel leather. The result is a very flexible wall section that could be easily expanded or contracted. These were never standardized, but one expanded section would normally be up to 2m in height and 1.2-1.5m in width.

The size of the Kazakh yurt, then, depends on the size of diamond-shaped holes making up a kerege (one lattice section of the wall). Hole size of a fist was called “tor koz kerege,” and one that could fit two fists “zhel koz kerege.” The former were made of bigger planks, which made diamond-shaped holes smaller. Such kerege were a better fit for larger yurts. The latter, conversely, were made of thinner and lighter planks, creating larger holes. Because zhel koz kerege were less durable, they were normally used by Kazakhs with average incomes.

yurta_3The crown of the yurt, called “shanyrak,” was made of birch or black willow (salix nigra). In the middle of shanyrak were installed 5-6 convex planks, “kuldireush,” supporting the felt cover. The elements connecting kerege and shanyrak form the dome-like roof of the Kazakh yurt and are called “uuks.” Roof poles were inserted into the through-holes made in the circle of the yurt’s crown. The poles were up to 2.5m long and their upper tips ended in a four-sided bevel.

Craftsmen who made the yurts manufactured uuks out of the branches of willow growing along the river banks. Weeping, blue, black or light willows could be used depending on the region of Kazakhstan. In accordance with the centuries-old tradition, willow was considered the best material for the yurt’s frame. Uuks and keregs made of the branches of dessicated willow are both light and durable. Dried and stripped of the bark, willow was steamed in smoldering sheep manure. This allowed, with the aid of a simple device, to give timber a slightly curved shape. The planks prepared in such a way, were further given a bevel on one side and cross-sected on the other. The surface of the planks was further cut through with longitudinal grooves to give them elasticity and resilience. Well-off individuals, however, used to make the whole of their yurt’s frame out of birch wood, which made the whole structure even sturdier.

The yurt’s dome had the shape of a low hemisphere; its crown was large in diameter; and its curved roof poles bent more significantly at the bottom.

Some parts of the yurt’s wooden frame were so durable that they could withstand the weight of a felt cover, direct wind, snow, as well as the additional weight of an insulating winter cover. The frame was fastened so firmly and securely, that a fully set up Kazakh yurt could be lifted and moved in its fully assembled state. The weight of a yurt made of eight lattice sections is approximately 150-200kg.

The door of the yurt is called “sykirlauik,” which means “creaky.” Its elements were held together without any use of nails. The door was painted different colors, encrusted with bones, and its upper plat bands and jambs were decorated with various carvings.

The felt cover of the Kazakh yurt consisted of four main parts, each corresponding to the four parts of the wooden frame. The latticed cylindrical wall was covered with four square pieces of felt, which also covered the bottom third of the dome. Two trapezoidal felt pieces covered the entire dome, leaving only the crown open. On top, the three corners of the cover were tied together. The fourth corner was left loose: with the aid of a sewn on long rope and a forked pole it could be pulled off, opening the yurt’s top. Such an arrangement provided direct access to sunlight as well as an outlet for the smoke; and it could be closed when it was cold or rainy. The last part of the cover is the door: a rectangular double layered felt cloth sewn onto a mat woven from grass. The upper part of the felt door was tied to the yurt’s rim while the bottom part touched the ground.

At times, in place of separate felt mats for the dome and the walls, several long pieces were used to cover the wooden frame from the rim to the very bottom. Such covers were noted by Sergei Rudenko in the Western Kazakhstan, as well as in Semipalatinsk and Karaganda regions. These felt covers were further reinforced with horsehair laces and fastened to the yurt’s frame by woven strips or laces sewn to the covers’ edges.

Kazakh women were responsible for the assembly and disassembly of yurts. Normally, a Kazakh yurt could be installed within an hour by two or three women. The first stage of the assembly consisted of placing kerege circularly and tying them together with woven laces; a door frame was installed between two of them as well. Next, with a special forked pole, a man would lift the rim, which was first secured in place with 3-4 roof poles and then the rest of them followed. The upper part of the lattice wall was bound by a woven strip, “baskur,” of 30-35cm and up to 45cm in width. The strip would usually bear an ornament as it was one of the indispensable elements of the yurt’s interior decorum. More opulent yurts were bound by two or even three such baskurs. Lattice walls were then encircled with ornamented needlegrass mats and then the yurt’s frame was finally covered with felt. Outside, around the mid-height of a kereg, the cover was bound by a horsehair lariat or a woven strip. If a yurt was being covered with long felt mats instead of separate pieces, they were fastened with laces in two places. The felt roof flap was attached last.

Variously sized and ornamented laces were woven from wool yarn usually derived from camels. These were used for interior decoration. Woven or knitted narrow laces were tied to the yurt’s rim and also, if the winds were strong, to a wooden stake in the middle of the yurt. When a yurt had to be moved, laces were used for holding together its roof poles. These laces often had variously colored fringes. In the event of a strong wind, additional propping poles were installed inside the yurt and a noose was thrown on around its dome. In the course of centuries of nomadic life, Kazakhs developed a strict and rational system for allocating their rather limited living space and storing all their household necessities.

Partitioning of the Kazakh yurt

yurta_2The Kazakh yurt was always set up in an open and sunny place. This was due to the fact that all of the nomads’ economic and household activities were in accord with the solar cycle. The yurt’s door faced strictly south. Observing the angle of sun rays trapped through the yurt’s upper opening and the slow movement of shadows from one part of the yurt to the other, nomads determined their daily routines. This is why the arrangement of the furniture and the functional partitioning of the Kazakh yurt were strictly ordered.

The center of the yurt was allotted to a fireplace. This created the optimal air draft for the fire and allowed uniform heat distribution. At the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th centuries, fire was made right on the ground in a small pit. A metal tripod for pots and kettles was installed on top. The bare soil in the yurt was covered with felt mats and other homemade textiles. Directly opposite the entrance and behind the fireplace was the best spot in the yurt. It was designated for the “heap,” that is, the household’s most valued possessions. Usually, a special wooden stand was placed at the bottom, on top of which were heaped various chests and coffers, felt bags containing spare clothes and other wares, topped by folded blankets, pillows and so forth. Occasionally this heap was also covered with an ornamented felt carpet or an embroidered cloth.

The place in front of the pile was called “tor,” the most honored spot in the yurt usually occupied by the patriarch of the family and guests of honor. Over the regular felt this place was covered with special sitting cushions of quilted wool and fur (“korpe” or “bostek”).

The space near the entrance was designated for household activities. Women’s section was to the right from the entrance, holding various food supplies, tableware, and a leather bottle for koumiss; cured meats were hung on the wall; a small cupboard for the most valuable foodstuffs such as tea, sugar and candy was also there. This section was often separated by a screen from the rest of the living space. The space on the left from the entrance was allotted to men’s wares such as saddles, harnesses, and weapons, among others. During harsh winters it would also accommodate a sick or prematurely born lamb, or another weak animal.

Along both sides of the door frame beds were placed: on the right for the eldest in the family and on the left for the young. Beds were spread for the night and folded and placed by the wall during the day. Beds made by Kazakh craftsmen have become rather widespread elements of a yurt’s paraphernalia as well. Beds were curtained off with a red canopy. Behind was hung a wall carpet of ornamented felt or felt-based embroidered cloth.

Since ornamented wool laces were used as structural elements in the Kazakh yurt, it would look very smart even from outside. Kerege were covered with patterned mats, the latter being also elements of the felt door.

When migrating, the yurt was disassembled into its component parts and transported in bundles.

The Kazakh yurt is easy to assemble and disassemble. It retains heat well and protects from the wind, as well as from the excessive heat in the summer. The yurt’s bladegrass lining will repel moisture when felt covers are soaked from the rain. When it’s hot, felt flooring is removed to make the inside cooler and the bladegrass lining protects against dust and litter. For the winter, the yurts were insulated with double covers, surrounded with snow, hedged with sheaves of reeds, and dug round with soil. Villages, or “auls,” were placed in the areas naturally sheltered from storms and heavy winds. During the cold days the yurt was constantly heated with fire, but its dwellers would not take off their clothes nevertheless. And when it was really cold they would even put on their fur coats.

Original article is here