Mongolian Box

Yurts in the Pre-Mongol Tribes.

The Turks not only introduced the trellis-walled yurt into the former world of Iranian Central Asia, they also introduced it to some of the Mongol tribes in the east. One group were the Khitan or Khitay, Mongolian speaking pastoral nomads who lived in Manchuria to the east of the Turks. They were briefly subjugated by the Turks in the second half of the 6th century but also formed alliances with China. After the collapse of the Eastern Turkic Qaganate and the domination of the Mongolian steppes by the Uyghur Empire from 743 to 840, the Khitan accepted the Uyghur as overlords. Following the overthrow of the Uyghur by the Kyrgyz, the Khitan grew in strength, finally conquering northern China in 916 and ruling over it as the Liao dynasty until 1125. After their conquest by the Jurchens, some Khitan tribes migrated westwards to the region of the Volga and Ural rivers, where they joined the Qipchaq union.The so-called Wen-chi scrolls have been known for some time and illustrate scenes of Khitan everyday life. Recent work has uncovered the fact that four of these scrolls are copies of much earlier paintings, executed at some time between 1127 and 1161.

Three of the paintings show that the Khitan were using two types of trellis-walled yurts at this time: A small and simple, low-status yurt with a slightly curved conical roof and a rounded top, and a larger, high-status blue-coloured yurt with arched roof struts and a pronounced dome-shaped roof-wheel, with a diameter about half that of the yurt itself.They suggest that such yurts were a well-established part of Khitan life. We can only assume that they had been adopted from the neighbouring Uyghur some centuries earlier, particularly since the Uyghur had a tradition of using blue felt yurts during the 8th and 9th century. It is most likely that this tradition was continued by the Qara Khitay, who briefly terrorized Khorezm and Transoxiana during the 12th century.Although there is no similar concrete proof, it is also likely that the trellis-walled yurt was adopted by the Tibeto-Burman Tangut and the Mongolian Kereyit tribes as well, since both are described in the Secret History of the Mongols as having tents described as ger, meaning "an assembled dwelling", in other words made from

separate parts. There is also a quotation from a Tangut general referring to his camp with trellis tents The Khan of the Kereyit had an altan or golden trellis-walled tent. Both tribes lived close to the Turkic Uyghurs and Qangli-Qipchaq and both lived in mountainous regions where cart-borne dwellings would have been impractical. 

Mongolian Box

being similar to a sieve, had a top similar to the framework of an umbrella, a top opening, and a covering of felt.The suspicion is that these trellis-walled yurts were of Khitan origin. Although the Khitan Empire broke up in 1125 many of its tribesmen joined the Jurchen under the succeeding Chin dynasty. When the Mongols invaded northern China in 1212 they encountered Khitan units within the Jurchen, who allied themselves with the Mongols. Since Yen-ching was the southern capital of the Khitan it is possible yurt manufacture was maintained in local workshops over this period. The first specific reference to the Mongol use of a trellis-walled tent is provided by Juvaini in relation to Ogedey Khan (1229-41) at Qaraqorum. The Khan would often go into the mountains in the summer; where there would be erected for him a Khitayan pavilion, whose walls were made of latticed wood, while its ceiling was of gold

The Mongol Yurt

Chinggis Khan's invasion of Khorezm in 1221 brought the Mongols fully into the world of Turkic Central Asia. However there is no evidence to suggest that they came with their own Mongol version of a trellis-walled yurt. The Secret Histories of the Mongols refers to three basic types of tent: ger, tents, ger tergen, tent-carts, and the term ger mentioned above the latter only ever used for the Tangut and the Kereyit. The analysis of the Secret Histories by Andrews suggests the Mongolian ger was very yurt-like, save for one vital difference, it had wattled walls of woven or plaited willow, not collapsible trellis walls. Otherwise it had a roof covered with felt and had a separate felt covering around the base, a door flap, a smoke hole, and a smoke cover. It also had a door frame, which was probably fixed with a built-in threshold, or bosoqa. The ger was not collapsible and had to be transported on a cart, hence the ger tergen. The Mongols also used covered carts, which were an essential element of the mobile military camp. Referred to as tergen or qara'utai tergen, they were driven by the women and transported the household goods. They had two wheels, two shafts, and were pulled by oxen. When a Mongol army struck camp, the tergen were either aligned in rows or used to create a defensive circle. One complicating factor arises from a report from two Chinese ambassadors, P'eng Ta-ya and Hsu T'ing, who traversed the Mongol steppes in 1236 and observed non-collapsible dwellings on carts. However in Yen-ching (Beijing) they also saw dwellings whose framework could be rolled up and unrolled, which were made from willow twigs 

Mongolian Box

-embroidered cloth, and it was covered all over with white felt: it is called Sira Ordo. This was not a yurt but a royal pavilion, capable of holding a thousand people.The Italian Franciscan Giovanni del Pian di Carpini, the ambassador of Pope Innocent IV, visited Batu's encampment on the Volga in 1246 before being sent on to Qaraqorum. He noted that the Mongols used two types of portable dwellings. Their dwelling-places are round like tents and are made of twigs and slender sticks. At the top in the middle there is a round opening which lets in the light, and is also to enable the smoke to escape, for they always make the fire in the middle. Both the sides and the roof are covered with felt, and the doors are also made of felt. Some of these dwellings are large, others small, according to the importance or significance of the people; some can be speedily taken down and put up again and are carried on baggage animals; others cannot be taken down but are moved on carts. To carry them on a cart, for the smaller ones one ox is sufficient, for the larger ones three, four or even more according to the size. Wherever they go, be it to war on anywhere else, they always take their dwellings with them. This suggests the use of both collapsible Turkic yurts and non-collapsible Mongol ger and ger tergen. Friar William of Rubruck departed from France to traverse the Mongol Empire, spending almost six weeks with Batu on the Volga in 1253 and five months with Mongke in and around Qaraqorum in 1254. He left us an excellent description of the Mongol yurt: The dwelling in which they sleep is based on a hoop of interlaced branches, and its supports are made of branches, converging at the top around a small hoop, from which projects a neck like a chimney. They cover it with white felt: quite often they also smear the felt with chalk or white clay and ground bones to make it gleam whiter, or sometimes they blacken it. And they decorate the felt around the neck at the top with various fine designs. Similarly they hang up in front of the entrance felt patchwork in various patterns: they sew onto one piece others of different colours to make vines, trees, birds and animals. These dwellings are constructed of such a size as to be on occasions thirty feet (9 metres) across: I myself once measured a breadth of twenty feet (6 metres) between the wheel tracks of a wagon, and when the dwelling was on the wagon it protruded beyond the wheels by at least five feet on either side. I have counted twenty-two oxen to one wagon, hauling along a dwelling, eleven in a row, corresponding to the width of the wagon, and another eleven in front of them. The wagon's axle was as large as a ship's mast, and one man stood at the entrance to the dwelling on top of the wagon, driving the oxen.Observers have recorded that the tent frames were made from willow. We also have the description of Mongol Tartar; gers and ger tergen penned by Marco Polo, who arrived at the court of Qublai Khan near Beijing with his father and uncle in 1275 and spent 17 years in the Khan's service:Their huts or tents are formed of rods covered with felt, and being exactly round, and nicely put together, they can gather them into one bundle, and make them up as packages, which they carry along with them on their migrations, upon a sort of cart with four wheels. When they have occassion to set them up again, they always make the entrance front to the south. Besides these cars they have a superior kind of vehicle upon two wheels, covered likewise with black felt, and so effectually to protect those within it from wet, during a whole day of rain. These are drawn by oxen.


Yurts within the Golden Horde

The newly created Mongol Empire was divided into seperate ulus in 1223. Western Khorezm was included within the ulus of Jochi, while eastern Khorezm fell into the ulus of Chaghatay. Ogedey took western Mongolia, and Toluy took Mongolia proper. In 1236 Batu set off on another great campaign to expand his territories into the Qipchaq and Bulghar territories to the west. After Jochi's death the following year, Batu inherited his ulus, dividing it into two parts. The eastern part he gave to his eldest brother, Orda. Subsequently known as the White Horde, it encompassed the lower Syr Darya and the steppes north of the Aral Sea. Batu ruled the Qipchaq Horde (termed the Golden Horde by the Russians) establishing his winter quarters at Saray. Chinggis died soon after in 1227 and his chosen successor was Ogedey, who ruled as Great Khan from 1229-41. Thereafter the three western Hordes became increasingly divorced from the Great Khan in the east. The Mongols had devastated the towns along the lower Syr Darya and across Khorezm. Western Khorezm was soon rebuilt and developed into a major commercial centre along the revitalized Silk Route, while eastern Khorezm fell into complete decline. Western merchants and envoys began travelling to Central Asia and beyond to the Mongol capital at Qaraqorum. Even Italian merchant colonies were established within Khorezm. As we have already seen, a few of these travellers recorded their observations and noted that in general the Mongols used both collapsible and non-collapsible yurts.

However the most common forms of portable dwelling within the Golden Horde were most probably the cart tent and the bowtopped covered cart. Ibn Battuta travelled from the Crimean coast to the Golden Horde capital of Saray in about 1331 and left us a detailed record of his experience: The place where we landed was in the wilderness known as Dasht-i-Qifjaq. There is no means of travelling in this desert except in wagons, and it extends for six months journey, three of them in the territories of the Sultan Muhammad Uzbak, One of the merchants in our company went to some of the tribesmen known as Qifjaq ... and hired from them a wagon drawn by horses. Some days later, ibn Battuta purchased his own cart, eating, sleeping, and writing as he travelled: They are wagons with four large wheels, some of them are drawn by two horses, and some drawn by more than two, and they are drawn also by oxen and camels, according to the weight or lightness of the wagon. There is placed upon the wagon a kind of cupola made of wooden laths tied together with thin strips of hide; this is light to carry, and covered with felt or blanket cloth, and in it there are grilled windows.On reaching Bish Dagh, ibn Battuta set his camp on a low hill just in time to witness the arrival of Zbeg Khan's ordu. We saw a vast city on the move with its inhabitants, with mosques and bazaars in it, the smoke of the kitchens rising in the air (for they cook while on the march), and horse drawn wagons transporting the people. On reaching the camping place they took down the tents from the wagons and set them on the ground, for they are light to carry, and so likewise they did with the mosque and shops. When Timur's army attacked Toktamish and his White Horde near Samara between the Volga and the Ural rivers in 1391, Sharaf al-Din Ali Yazdi reported: the dwelling of the plainsmen in that endless desert is the portable tent (khargah-i kutarma), which is built in such a way that it cannot be taken apart; and they construct it as though it were pitched, and lift it up, and when they move or migrate they place it upon a cart and go on their way. Toktamish used his army's carts, probably high two-wheeled carts, as defensive shields. Timur's conquest of the Golden Horde led to a period of tribal instability across the Dasht-i Qipchaq. But as power fragmented between the Shaybanid Horde, the Noghay Horde, and the remnant Great Horde so did the legacy of the covered cart and the trellis-walled yurt. The Italian Iosaphat Barbaro witnessed large numbers of cart tents in use