15 February 2021
Historically, the word “yurt” didn’t refer to a dwelling, as is commonly thought now.Instead, it meant something like “camp site,” or more broadly, “community,” “people,” “existence.” To refer to an actual home, there was a separate word, kı³z úı in Kazakh or boz uy in Kyrgyz. The word’s usage to mean “a nomad’s dwelling” became widespread much later thanks to European travelers visiting Central Asia. But the semantics of these words are so subtly and symbolically intertwined, and the fact that they have merged into one meaning reflects the freedom-loving philosophy of nomadic civilizations. Our home is wherever our people are - and that is what defines our existence.
As part of a joint project of the European Union and UNESCO on the Silk Road, UNESCO is highlighting traditional crafts of Central Asia, here profiling the founder and director of a cultural center, or “ethnic village,” Zhyldyz Asanakunova from Kyrgyzstan.
Zhyldyz was born in 1971 in the village of Kayyrma-Aryk, in Kyrgyzstan’s Ak-Suu county. She graduated high school and then majored in graphic arts at Kasym Tynystanov University in the city of Karakol. When she was a university student, she married her classmate, and they now have two sons, a daughter and three grandchildren. They all live together on the southern shore of Lake Issyk-Kul, where in 2014 they founded a cultural center, or “ethnic village” called Almaluu.
Zhyldyz Asanakunova: “My grandfather was a shepherd. As a child, I spent my summer breaks with him at his jailoo (a nomadic encampment in a mountain pasture). I still dream about how I used to look out at the starry night sky through the tunduk (shańyraq in Kazakh; a hatch in the roof of a yurt). When I got married, I started doing handicrafts - making traditional items that nomads used to use in their everyday lives. My mother-in-law taught me a lot - she’s a true craftswoman. We earned money by renting rooms out to tourists. Tourists often asked us to put a yurt up in the yard for them, and many chose to spend their vacation in this ancient nomadic dwelling. So that’s how we came up with the idea to buy land closer to the lake and set up an “ethnic village” right on the shore.
In 2014, we bought a plot of land. At that time there wasn’t any water or electricity. For two years we lived like real nomads. But we weren’t discouraged by hard times - the opposite, actually, as my relatives and friends really supported me. The thought that we’re reviving our people’s history, reviving our traditions and the way of life of our ancestors helped us to grow and do our job better and better. Now the cultural center has all the amenities you’d need and everything you’d want for a stay that’s interesting and unforgettable.
Since ancient times, the whole family would take part in making the yurt. Men and young adults would make the wooden frame from wild willow trees. The bark was peeled off and then the poles were dried and bent. To bend them, the unprocessed poles were inserted between beams driven into the ground in a certain arrangement.
Today, this method is almost never used, but the modern tools aren’t that different from the ones used in the past - a notched log is used as a kind of vise, with sticks that help manually bend the wood.
The shape and height of the yurt’s dome depends on the degree to which the rafters are curved. This is really important depending on the region. In the mountains, where there’s a lot of snow, yurts are made to be taller, with steeper roofs, so that the snow doesn’t collect on top. On the steppe, you need protection from heavy winds, so the dome of the yurt is squatter. When the rafters are ready, they’re painted red, like in the old days. They say that in ancient times they would use animal blood, but now we just use ordinary paint.
While the men work on the frame, the women work on the material for the protective outer layer - felt. This dense and durable material keeps the yurt warm in the winter and cool in the summer. It’s been proven that a well-made felt canvas will not leak, even if it rains for three days in a row! In ancient times, girls also were involved with the home’s interior decoration - they made tekemet (ornamental carpets), sewed blankets and much more.
One surprising fact is that putting up a yurt was traditionally considered the women’s job. Experienced nomads could do it in an hour. Men only joined in when the heavy tunduk at the top had to be lifted up and put in place.
Zhyldyz Asanakunova: “For me personally, making a yurt is much more than carpentry or sewing skills. Firstly, it’s a kind of millenium-old philosophy, preserved and passed down to us by our ancestors. Secondly, it’s a really valuable time that the whole family spends together, talking and thinking about how to make things even better this time. It really brings families closer together and makes them stronger. Yes, it’s really hard physical labor, but along with the blisters you get incredible satisfaction. And when you see the results of your work, you immediately forget about all the hard parts. When that happens, it’s so nice to realize that you are a part of a grand value system as big as the nation, and you feel a oneness with your family and with all the people of Kyrgyzstan.
But that's not all. When tourists come and you tell them about how your ancestors lived, show them ancient nomadic traditions and customs, and witness their sincere delight and interest in our culture, then you understand that you’re doing the right thing and your work is worth something. Our visitors are mostly from Europe. Yurts are booked in advance, sometimes even a year in advance. Some tourists are into feng shui, and they come to feel what it’s like to live without corners. But lots of people are interested not just in yurts, but also in our culture, our food, Kyrgyz clothing, folk music, traditional dance and oral poetry. It’s hard to describe how amazing it is to see how people with a totally different worldview are so inspired by our nomadic lifestyle. Some people say that yurts help them deal with the endless stress of living in big cities. I absolutely agree. Imagine lying on a patchwork quilt (toshok), sewn by hand, and you feel the warmth of the earth that it’s absorbed throughout the day, and above you, through the tunduk, you can see the dark sky full of stars. It really has the power to heal."
Today, yurts are practically never used as somebody’s permanent home. It’s only used as a temporary home for shepherds who’re grazing their livestock far from town. Yurts are also placed in city squares for national holidays. Plus, the way they’re made now is far from the traditional way. The frame is made of metal, the wall coverings are made from unnatural materials with a lot of synthetic threads. The good thing is that traditional yurts have become widespread in tourism. Ecotourism is becoming more popular, and nomadic homes are a perfect fit for the concept. It’s in this way that an age-old tradition continues to live on.
Zhyldyz Asanakunova: “Over the years I’ve been working at my cultural center, I’ve gained a lot of experience and I really want to share this with the younger generation. I’m passionate about our craft, and I want to help it grow. I’d be happy to conduct seminars and training courses and teach everyone what I know. There are a lot of people around me who are interested in learning our craft and keeping it alive, but we need to go even further and think beyond our borders. My biggest dream is to start exporting Kyrgyz yurts abroad. That would create jobs here and help a lot of people in the world who need a roof over their heads. I have a lot of ideas, and I have a ready-made business project, but I don’t have any investors. I hope that the government will provide support for artisans. They should allocate grants, tax breaks and land for the development of traditional crafts.
In the meantime, we will try to grow and use our craft to tell the whole world about our great and fathomless nomadic civilization.”
- Kazakh and Kyrgyz yurts are very similar. They both belong to the Turkic type, as compared to the Mongolian type.
- It’s forbidden to step on the threshold of the yurt, and you can only enter with your right foot.
- Historically, the hearth of the yurt was shaped like a triangle, symbolizing the three generations who gather around the same fire.
The traditional knowledge and craft of making Kyrgyz and Kazakh yurts was included on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2014.
This material was prepared within the framework of the project "Silk Road Heritage Corridors in Afghanistan, Central Asia and Iran - International Dimension of the European Year of Cultural Heritage", implemented by UNESCO with financial support from the European Union
Permanent link: http://en.unesco.kz/a-yurt-is-more-than-just-a-home