The History of Yurts in Mongolia

Posted by Julian Wymanton on Thursday, November 16, 2023

The yurt, also known as a ger, is a portable, round tent covered with skins or felt that has been part of nomadic life in Mongolia for thousands of years. Tracing back to at least the 13th century during the time of Genghis Khan and the Mongol Empire, the design of the traditional yurt has changed little over the centuries. This circular dwelling allowed nomadic pastoralists to have a home that could be quickly dismantled, transported, and rebuilt as they moved to new pastures for their livestock. The yurt remains an important part of Mongolian culture and heritage.

Origins of the Yurt

The earliest origins of the yurt are unclear, but it seems to have developed from smaller circular tents used by Central Asian nomads dating back to the Bronze Age. These early proto-yurts were supported by lattice walls made of wicker or wooden poles covered with felt or animal skins. The roof was domed to shed rain and snow. This basic design allowed for portability and insulation in the harsh steppe environment of the Asian grasslands.

The Orkhon Valley civilizations of the Göktürks and Uyghurs in what is now Mongolia used more developed circular tent-like dwellings around the 8th century CE. The medieval Uyghur people are credited with innovations like using lattice walls and a conical roof to create a stronger, more durable yurt.[1] The Mongol Empire later adapted and perfected the yurt design for military campaigns and nomadic pastoralism starting in the 13th century CE.

Ancient Yurt

Ancient Yurt Replica

The Mongol Empire was established by Genghis Khan in 1206 CE. From their origins as nomadic tribespeople from the Central Asian steppes, the Mongols rapidly expanded their territories across Asia and Europe under Genghis Khan and his descendants. This was facilitated by their masterful cavalry and adaptable lifestyle, including the use of mobile yurt dwellings. The Mongol armies traveled with assemblages of yurts that could be quickly set up and taken down. Each warrior typically had 3-4 horses and 2-3 gers so they had shelter for themselves, their families, and their supplies.[2] The yurt was perfectly designed for transport on the Mongols’ sturdy horses and wagons. The armies could carry their dwellings as they rapidly advanced their empire across continents.

For the ordinary Mongol nomads not part of the armies, the yurt also provided an ideal shelter. As herders moving seasonally in search of fresh pastureland, they needed a home that was lightweight and portable. The collapsible yurt with flexible joints could be easily assembled, disassembled, and carted from place to place by wagon or Animal pulled sleds. Whether part of military campaigns or following the grass for livestock, the yurt allowed the Mongols to have a solid dwelling anywhere their travels took them across the harsh landscape. It remains well-suited to the cold winters and hot summers of the arid, windswept Mongolian steppes.

Yurt Design and Construction

The ingenious design of the traditional Mongol yurt allows it to be portable but also weatherproof and insulating. To make each component lightweight but sturdy, the Mongolian nomads use a latticework frame of thin, flexible wooden poles, known as uni. These poles interlock together in an expanding circular pattern from the roof down to the walls and the trellis foundation. The wooden frame is held together with strips of rawhide or rope.[3]

The exterior of the yurt is covered with felt coverings, known as khana. The thick, water-repellent wool felt is draped over the latticework frame in pieces and stitched together. The khana shrinks when wet and expands when dry, tightening to make the yurt more waterproof. A decorative strip borders the lower edge of the roof. The door frame also has ornate carved poles at the top and sides. Inside, colorful woven bands adorn the support columns. With its plain exterior and bright, patterned interior decor, the yurt is functional on the outside but cheerful within.[4]

At the peak of the conical roof is an open smoke hole called a toono, which can be adjusted to let in light and ventilation. The roof poles converge at one or more ringed openings at the top called a khoimor. This is supported by the bagana, the wheel-like crown that diffuses the weight of the roof. Strong ropes called uht hold the roof poles together and Support collapsible corner walls called khana. The interior roof ring has hooks for hanging cooking pots, lamps, or drying meat. At night, the smoke hole can be covered.

Yurts traditionally have a portable stove in the center for heating and cooking, with a stack of dirt or stones around it for insulation and benches covered with felt blankets lining the circumference.[5] The yurt entrance is covered by a felt curtain or wooden door, always facing south towards the rising sun to maximize warmth and light. Traditionally, several yurts are built together in an encampment with the doors aligned in a row.

Yurts in Mongolian Culture

Beyond just providing shelter, the yurt holds an important place in Mongolian identity and tradition. First, it is well-suited to the cold climate and pastoral nomadic lifestyle that has dominated the Mongolian steppes for centuries. The yurt allows herders to bring their dwellings with them as they follow Their animals to new grazing areas or move to seasonal camps. When they relocate, the portable yurt can be efficiently disassembled and transported in just a few hours.

Secondly, yurts have ritual significance in Mongolian culture. In traditional yurt encampments, family members have designated locations and responsibilities based on the layout of the yurt. Customs govern certain spaces like the altar and stove. Objects like the horse harness have spiritual meaning and are hung in ritual arrangements. Elders have traditional rules about caring for the hearth and entering or exiting the yurt that children must follow.[6] Even the direction a yurt faces carries meaning.

Thirdly, yurts represent community in Mongolian nomadic life. Extended families often live together in connected yurts called ails. Yurts belonging to a single herder are centered around a ceremonial yurt used for hospitality. When moving to new pastures collectively, families reconnect the group of yurts in the same layout. Mongolians still rely on this portable, communal housing when herding.

Finally, yurts symbolize Mongolia’s deep history. They represent continuation of the ancient nomadic lifestyle that has defined the region for thousands of years. Much about erecting, caring for, and living in yurts is built on unchanging tradition. At the same time, Mongolians take pride in the engineering innovations of their ancestors who created the versatile yurt. Their national identity is intertwined with this unique shelter and way of life.

Modern Yurt Camp

Modern Yurt Camp in Mongolia

The Yurt Today

While some traditions fade, the practicality and cultural significance of the yurt means it is still an important part of Mongolian life. Over half of the population today follows a nomadic or semi-nomadic herding lifestyle. Of Mongolia’s population of 3 million, about 1.5 million live in gers.[7] Seasonally following livestock on grazing rotations remains a way of life. Transporting wool felt yurts by truck or cart allows herders to maintain their mobile existence.

In rural areas, herders live in their gers year-round, moving them shorter distances between seasonal sites. Several times a year, they may still undertake longer migrations of 50-100 miles between winter and summer pastures. Urban Mongolians often maintain a ger in the countryside for vacations and herding. About 40% of the capital Ulaanbaatar’s residents live in a mix of apartments and ger districts, migrating seasonally between urban and rural homes.[8] So the portable yurt remains a fact of life for much of the population.

At the same time, modernity is impacting yurts on several fronts. First, manufactured materials like canvas, plastic, and metal are replacing wool felt and lattice-wood for some gers. Secondly, motorized transport means migration distances have expanded from about 10 miles on oxcart to over 100 miles by truck. Thirdly, family sizes are decreasing, so the average ger household has shrunk from 5 people to 2-4 today. Finally, social services are reducing incentives for pastoralism, though herding lifestyle remain entwined with Mongolian identity.[9]

Instead of disappearing, yurts are gaining popularity worldwide for camping, ecotourism, and events. Their stunning visual aesthetic and efficient functionality make them appealing for glamorous occasions like music festivals, yoga retreats, and weddings across North America, Europe, and Australia. Companies offer modern yurts with contemporary amenities for glamping holidays. However, few outside Mongolia still rely on yurts for long-term housing as intended. Within Mongolia, the ger remains a routine fact of everyday life.

Continuity of Tradition and Innovation

While adapted for modern times, the Mongolian yurt retains its essence. It is still the same engineering marvel allowing a cold weather nomadic herding lifestyle on the steppes. Lattice walls, felt coverings, and steam bent roof poles endure as proven technologies. With disassembly and transport by motor vehicle instead of horses, yurts remain quick to erect at any new site. Traditional customs associated with yurts anchor Mongolians in ritual and community. This continuity of knowledge preserves their shared identity.

At the same time, Mongolians selectively adopt aspects of globalized modern life. Some update their yurts with manufactured materials and home appliances while maintaining the overall structure. Others use small gers just for the short growing season and live in cabins for harsher months. Portable solar panels or wind turbines now power traditional gers off grid. Motorcycles are as common as horses for herders. Such innovations allow herding families to sustain their self-sufficient lifestyle on the land rather than migrating to the city. The balance of tradition and adaptation keeps yurts relevant in Mongolia today.



As a portable dwelling suited to nomadic pastoralism on the Central Asian steppe, the Mongolian yurt has been passed down from ancient tribes and empires. Its effective design changed little since the era of Genghis Khan. Yurts continue to provide shelter as well as cultural identity to many modern Mongolians following ancestral herding traditions. At the same time, yurts have crossed over to become trendy icons of sustainable living globally. Both meanings spring from the ingenuity of unknown craftsmen centuries ago who engineered the versatile, enduring yurt. This combination of ancient wisdom and ongoing innovation has kept yurts relevant on the Mongolian landscape and beyond. The iconic yurt remains a meaningful symbol of Mongolian cultural heritage.


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