Decorative arts and crafts of Kazakhs – Kazakh Yurt

Decorative arts and crafts of Kazakhs – Kazakh Yurt


Kazakh Yurt Narrator: Aboriginal housing of Kazakh nomadic herdsmen, the “kis-kuy” yurt, is one of the most striking types of the Turkic yurt. Ever since the Bronze age, the main occupation of the inhabitants of the Kazakh steppes was herding, which eventually became nomadic. Nomadic lifestyle, motivated by the need to move after the herds of domestic animals, was the only mode of survival in the steppes of Kazakhstan. This is precisely why the dwelling of nomads had to be mobile. And if the Middle Eastern desert and semi-desert nomads could do with light tents and marquees, Eurasian nomadic herdsmen needed warmer homes with rigid frames. In the Middle Ages the expanses of Kazakh steppes were traversed by huge non-collapsible yurts that were installed on platforms and pulled by dozens of draft animals. But dwellings on carts were neither sole nor primary type of nomadic housing. Although convenient on the plains, they were not suitable for mountainous rugged terrains, necessitating a kind of dwelling that could be disassembled and transported by pack animals. This type of housing is the oldest in the world. Nomadic pastoralists of the Eurasian steppes had to improve it by changing the frame and replacing hides with specially tailored felt covers. Gradually, other types of mobile housing were replaced by the yurt, which had become the predominant kind of nomadic dwelling. Upon the arrival to the new place for the village, a herd of sheep was first released to roam the territory. Together with fresh grass, sheep would eat scorpions and venomous spiders and snakes left the territory. In short, they conducted sanitization of the territory. Yurts were installed with the characteristics of the terrain, dominant winds, and the availability of fresh water in mind. The order of assembly as well as the roles of family members were set and illuminated by the age old tradition. The door frame was installed first, together with its adjacent kerege—collapsible wall frames. The invention of this collapsible and modular wall frame was a key moment in the development of nomadic dwelling. This structural solution should be considered a milestone in the process of the classical yurt’s creation. Individual wall frames that comprise kerege are called “kanat.” The size of the yurt depended on the amount of “kanats”. Kerege of wealthy Kazakhs consisted of over eight kanats. But large yurts were distinguished not only by the number of vertical frames. Having to support heavier loads than smaller yurts, the large ones were made of more massive planks with a finer mesh to support all this weight. Smaller cells of a kerege mesh are called “tor kus.” Larger cells formed by thinner planks, in turn, are called “zhel kus.” Kerege’s links are attached to the door frame and to one another with a thin woven or braided strip – “tan gysh.” Thanks to this revolutionary change, the dwelling’s useful area has much increased and the length of its wooden components decreased, making the whole construction significantly lighter. Most importantly, a space harmonious with the specific human lifestyle had emerged. To the rigid frame one could attach simple structures resembling entrance vestibules. One could also remove a wall frame and attach one yurt to the other, forming a multi-chamber construction. Manufacturing of the yurt’s wooden frame was a rather complex process comprising of a series of steps. Its manufacturing has long become a craft practiced by specialized craftsmen. In the Kazakh tradition yurt craftsmen were called “uy-shi.” And the process of the frame construction was commonly referred to as “yu-basu.” The main consideration in the manufacturing of a yurt was the availability of raw materials, chiefly of willow that was turned into numerous kerege planks and uiks. This is why the boost in yurt production was particularly palpable in the areas of Kazakhstan where willow (talnik) was in abundance. Crafting of a yurt required one to remain in one place for long periods of time. This is why the main works in yurt manufacturing were carried in kystao, the winter aul, where uy-shi had his own workshop. There has emerged throughout the centuries a specific technique for preparation of raw materials. Experienced craftsmen prepared planks and poles half or even a full year in advance. Preparation of willow wood began in the early spring. Every element of the yurt was crafted manually with the help of special devices. Even the strips used for fastening kerege sections were made of rawhide. The most labor intensive process was the manufacturing of kerege with its numerous planks. Each latticed frame consisted of 20 planks, “saganak,” of 210 to 260 cm in length and of 16 planks of gradually diminishing size. For lager yurts the frames were made of thicker planks and with a finer mesh. The planks themselves were slightly bent: outward at the bottom and inward at the top. This helped to distribute the heavy load of the dome and to fasten the dome’s poles to the upper forks of “kerege bas” planks. At the planks’ intersections they were drilled and fastened together with rawhide belts. This made the construction foldable. Special molds, “yrkghak,” were used to ensure that each kerege plank had correct length and was properly bent. The next important step in the yurt’s assembly is the installation of the dome, “shanyrak,” which forms a circular rim and bent crisscrossed slats kuldreush. It is no accident that the saying “hoist the shanyrak” is synonymous with installing the whole house in general. This procedure was initiated by men. Standing at the center of the yurt’s circle, they lifted the wooden rim with a forked stick “bakan” in the cross section of shanyrak. The shanyrak of a 6-kanat yurt was approximately 140 cm in diameter and consisted of two 10 cm thick circular rods made of birch and fastened together. Straight 20 cm thick and 3,5 to 6 m long birch trunks were used for manufacturing the rim. Workpieces were polished, straightened, and then bent. The next stage was drilling as many holes in the rim as there were uiks. The holes were first marked with a drill and then widened with a chisel. Tetrahedral bevels were then made. A special incandescent tool was used to burn identical joints in the planks that would match the tip of the uiks. On the inner side of the rim were made holes for the “kuldreush” planks. There are two types of kuldreush: shabapty-kuldreush in which the planks crisscross one another along the diameter; and the less widespread tabakty-kuldreush in which the radial planks meet at the central element with a recess for the “abakan” pole. One kuldreush design feature is the presence of special cross bars with holes in them, kartasha or bakalak, through which bundles of planks were passed. They gave the necessary rigidity and strength to the structure. Shanyrak was a family relic and the symbol of procreation. Father’s house, as well as the home economy, were designated by the term “kara-shanyrak.” After the father’s death the Shanyrak was passed to the youngest son and was honored as the father’s house by every family member independently of their age relative to the heir’s. The domed structure of the yurt is hinged and involves spacers, which means that under a heavy snow load the uiks’ compressive force exerted on the shanyrak can reach 2 tons. This is why, unlike the rest of the elements of the frame, shanyrak was not made of willow but of birch – the hardest and most durable wood one could find in the steppes. The number of cupola rakes, uik, and their size depended on the size of the yurt. The bigger the yurt the more uiks one would need and the longer and thicker will they be. In a 6-kanat yurt the length of uiks is around 2,5 meters. On their bottom thicker end they are gradually bent at a 45 degree angle and they have a flat bevel with grooves on the inner side. Uiks’ 4-sided upper ends are inserted into the sockets of the “shanrak: rim on top of the yurt. Uik’s shape was fairly simple but highly effective.
Along the contour of the sample of a bent pole three high stakes were driven (two on the outside along the edge and one inside the curve) and several prepared uiks were then placed in between. Already shaped uiks were then hewn and pared. In general, uiks’ manufacturing process was similar to the one for manufacturing kerege. Staining, bending, shaping of uik-talpy and drilling were similarly used for both. Kazakh uy-shi distinguished between four parts of an uik: lakan (palm) – the bottom thicker part tied to kerege; iin or ara – the place where it bends; kare (forearm) – part from the bend to the top; and kalam – the upper end. Alakan was flattened from the inner side and longitudinal groves were made. Staining of workpieces with smoke, their straightening and bending, standardizing, finalization, drilling. A whole number of devices was used for these purposes. First and foremost, the device for plank steaming comprising of three elements – mor, obyn and kos. Mor is a furnace with a high chimney into which planks were inserted vertically. Obyn is a long trench oven with three or four crossbeams are laid across and on top of which several planks were placed lengthwise. The simplest and the most widespread way of softening workpieces, however, was by means of a koze. Uiks and kerege were painted with red ocher. Yellow pigment of the root tumar-bayao was used as well. Ceremonial yurts for rich clients were decorated with silver and ivory plates. After fastening all of the uiks, the yurt’s frame was bound with a wide and durable woven and patterned ribbon baskur. This ensured durability and stability of the whole wooden frame. Assembly procedures that followed involved covering of the yurt and others had decorative character. The bottom part was first surrounded with felt mats (shimshi) and then, depending on the size of the yurt, was wrapped in three to four trapezoidal felt covers toy-urlyk that were fastened to the frame in an overlapping manner. The domelike part of the yurt was covered with several pieces of sown together felt– uizik. The assembly of the yurt culminated in covering the shanyrak with the outer layer tundyk. Various woven fabric belts play an important role in both outer and inner decoration of the yurt. The door, also called sakarlauk, consisted of two side posts bosagha, an upper plank mangaysha and a threshold tabaldyryk. The door was made movable with hinges and joints which did not require any use of nails. The newlyweds’ yurt’s threshold was traditionally coated in sheep fat to ensure the household’s prosperity. It was common to enter the yurt one by one, stepping over the threshold right leg first. It was forbidden to open and close the door with one’s foot. The size of the door frame depended on the size of the yurt and the height of unfolded kerege sections. The yurt does not have any windows (or eyes) – this is why the steppes had to be listened to. Having heard a horseman somewhere far away the owners knew that a guest is about to arrive. If the horseman stopped too close to the yurt’s threshold the owners knew that the guest either wanted to offend them or he brought some bad news. Imagery and symbolism of the yurt as the center of life, ordered and inherited from the ancestors, were shaped by generations of steppe nomads from a number of expressive yet easily recognizable by their users elements. Such detail, for example, as an outwardly rolled felt door symbolized someone’s death. The yurt owes its expressive power to the very specific yet fairly simple interior partitioning rules. The hearth was placed at the center. Opposite the entrance and behind the hearth was tor, the yurt’s honourable place. The left half of the yurt as seen from the tor was allotted to women and the right one to men. The hearth, oshark, was central not only spatially but also organizationally. It was related to some of the most important elements of Kazakh life. The hearth was the place for cooking, gathering of the family, and eating. It is also where the family received their guests, decided on important issues, brought up and taught their young. To the left, closer to the entrance, was the area designated to food and dishes. The right side, also by the entrance, was allotted for a harness and a saddle. During the cold season hunters also placed there a stand tokhere with their falcon or a golden eagle seated on top. Weak or sickly animals were also placed there in the winter. Tor was the most honorable and sacred place in every yurt. It was demarcated by piles of chests and other vessels for familial wares as well as by various bedding pieces. From the nomad’s point of view, the yurt is the perfect dwelling whose shape and structure

2 thoughts on “Decorative arts and crafts of Kazakhs – Kazakh Yurt

  1. Already thanked on the yurtforum, but thanks again for posting this 🙂
    I'm glad to see some of the traditional ways are identical to what I came up with when building mine. 
    Been living in my selfmade yurt for couple months already and except of the extreme summer heat, it's great.

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