Camp Site, Washpond Lane, Swanage, Dorset, UK BH19 3DJ
The Yurt. Famed home of the nomadic peoples of the endless grasslands of inner and central Asia.
How far back into time does this adaptable and timeless design reach. Below we outline real life
examples of it’s true historical status.
This design had the same advantage in an emergency as a felt door flap: it could be closed in a split
second. As an enlarged view shows, the door would have been propped open by a tall pole with a
lion- or wolf-headed finial — a distinction reserved for those of high status.
Another hint that nomadic peoples used yurt like structures in the course of their migrations across
the endless grasslands of Asia comes from a no longer extant wall painting found in a Sarmatian
tomb of the first century AD. The tomb came to light in the city of Panticapaeum (in the vicinity of
modern Kerch, in the Crimea) you can see it’s unusual, square-shouldered appearance and
prominent ventilation hole, the felt-covered structure in Figure 3 is, in all probability, the second
earliest known depiction of a yurt. Indeed the prominent “shoulders” that appear in the painting might
represent an attempt to suggest the presence of an inward-leaning trellis wall. This structure appears
to represent a dwelling of some quality a similar, more or less square design which was used in
Inner Mongolia to celebrate “the Sacrifice of Chinggis Khan at Ejen Horo”
In the illustration the yurt is reduced to little more than a frame for the two principals; nonetheless the
near-vertical sides of the tent strongly suggest that it could have benefited from the presence of a
trellis wall. Beyond this, the elite rank of the yurt is indicated by the fact that it had a covering of tiger
skins. In addition, the inner side of the open doorway had a curtain of fine quality (perhaps silk) and
the floor of the yurt appears to have been at least partly covered by a long fringed circular carpet.
The Chinese taste for the exotic reached unprecedented heights during the days of the Tang dynasty
(c. 618 - 917 AD), members of the highest ranks of Chinese society found pleasure in exploring,
especially in the winter but in certain cases even in the summer as well the attractions of an urban,
tented existence. In the capital, Luoyang, where the leading literati of the 9th century frequently
occupied grand villas with extensive grounds, the celebrated poet, Bai Juyi (772-846), not only set up
a yurt in the front courtyard of his Luoyang villa, but he wrote a poem, in 833, in praise of the virtues of
his tented abode. Through Bai Juyi’s l vision, we learn of the advantages of a yurt:
Softness and warmth envelop the felt hangings and rugs; the tinkling of jade enfolds the sounds of
pipes and strings.
It is most convenient after the earth has been covered with frost, and it is the best match when snow
fills the sky.
Positioned at an angle is the low chair for singing, evenly disposed are the small mats for dancing.
When I have leisure time I lift open the curtain and enter the yurt, and when I am drunk I wrap myself
up in a cover and sleep there.
Behind me an iron lamp-stand that bears a candle; a silver incense censer that flames is suspended
from the ceiling.
Kept deep within is the flame that lasts till dawn; stored inside is the fragrant smoke that lasts till
When the animal-shaped charcoal is close by, fox furs can be cast aside.
When the ink-stone is warm it melts the frozen ink and when the pitcher is heated it becomes a
stream in springtime.
An orchid canopy will barely attract a hermit and a thatched hut is inferior for meditating.
(But invited to my yurt) an impoverished monk responds with praise, and a threadbare scholar stays
in place, unwilling to leave.
Guests are greeted with it, descendants will hand it down to posterity.
The Wang family boasts of their antiques, but they have nothing to equal this Sky-Blue Yurt.
Bai Juyi’s testimony is important. It proves, in many ways, that the more significant yurts of the second
half of the first millennium AD were of considerable size and that such ‘satisfying, logically designed”
structures were luxurious and far more impervious to the bitter winters than a Chinese mansion.