The principal dwelling of the nomadic Kazakhs, the circular, felt-covered yurt is a potent image of Kazakh culture. Few Kazakhs now live in yurts, although they are still used by some pastoralists who move their herds into summer mountain pastures. If you see a yurt in a Kazakh town, or along a roadside, chances are that you have found a cafe. But the imagery of the yurt remains central to Kazakh ethnic identity, and provides national cultural symbolism deployed by the authorities of independent Kazakhstan.
The yurt in Kazakh is called the kiyiz uy, or felt house. The yurt's invention was fundamental to the Turkic nations' mobility and consequently their expansion into Eastern and Central Europe. Without yurts, there might have been no "exodus of nations" under Attila or Mongol world conquest under Genghis Khan.
Today, for Kazakhs, Mongols and Kyrgyz the yurt is once again more than just a symbol. For decades the Communist state had inflicted a regime of forced collectivisation and brutal measures aimed at imposing a sedentary life on livestock breeders; as a result, in Kazakhstan the yurt fell towards oblivion, considered a remnant of a backward past, to be seen in museums at best. Thankfully it is that cruel regime that has faded, and the yurt is regaining its reputation as an extremely practical dwelling: warm in winter, cool in summer, variable in size and furnishing. It is the ideal shelter for semi-nomads who in early summer move with their herds into the steppe or into the green mountain valleys. It allows people to move to their next location with minimal trouble when the grass is finished or the pastures are dried up.
The shanyrak is the round frame incorporating a wooden lattice found at the top of the yurt: the structure through which the smoke of the central fire is dispersed. Although putting up the yurt is the women's job, the raising of the shangyrak is a privilege reserved for the head of the family. The shangyrak is more than just an outlet for smoke—for Kazakhs, it is a symbol of home and family and represents an opening up to the world. Anyone who has spent the night in a yurt and peered through the shangyrak to watch the starlit sky before drifting off to sleep, will understand this meaning. All other components of a yurt can be replaced, but the shangyrak stays, and is passed down from father to youngest son. The most resistant wood is used for its construction and treated with special care. A solid ring, with holes drilled for the roof bars, is held together by several transverse bars. These bars are in turn attached with lasts, the latter often decorated with carvings or metal ornaments.
Unlike neighbouring Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan did not go so far as to place an image of the shanyrak on its national flag, but it is on the State Emblem. The image of a broken shanyrak is often used by artists to depict tragedy; for example, in paintings and sculptures commemorating the victims of Stalinist repression or the famine of the early 1930s.
The shanyrak, which has to withstand considerable pressures, is made of durable birch wood, while the rest of the wooden frame is made of willow. This consists of dome poles (uyk), and a trellis structure which makes up the walls. The latter is divided up into a series of sections, known as kanat. The more kanat used, the bigger the yurt. Most yurts are between six and eight kanat, though much larger ceremonial yurts are possible. Some khans' yurts have been known to use up to 30 kanat. Leather strips are pulled through holes drilled in the bars where they cross each other, and allow the structure to be folded up. An opening is kept free for the entrance.
After the frame has been raised, the edge structure of the shangyrak is lifted on a fork-shaped tool (bakan) and attached to the upper crossings of the kerege with roof bars. After the frame has been raised, the edge structure of the shangyrak is lifted on a fork-shaped tool (bakan) and attached to the upper crossings of the kerege with roof bars.
The curved roof bars are pulled down from the shangyrak and attached to the forked upper edge of the kerege, held in place by thick strips of wool. Then the doorframe and the wooden door are put in place in the door opening. Traditionally, the door is supposed to creak in order to indicate people entering—hence its nickname sykyrlauyk — "creaking". In poorer yurts, the entrance is simply covered with a thick felt. A series of ropes and ribbons hold everything together, and the yurt is then covered with felt. Ornamented reed mats (shym shi) encircle the frame.
A circular mat, made of reed stems or thin willow twigs, often painted or covered with coloured needlework, surrounds the kerege, and this mat is then covered with felt. A long piece of felt encloses the entire frame and the lower part of the roof structure, to which it is attached with canvas. After that, pieces of felt are pushed up to cover the roof, thrust over the roof structure and also attached. The shangyrak is covered with a special piece of felt, with a rope attached to it that allows it to be opened and closed. A piece of felt, rolled up above the door opening, can also be let down in bad weather or at night.
The yurt must now be stabilised: multicoloured strips attach the shangyrak to the frame, while pieces of strong canvas connect the yurt to pegs driven into the earth. In this way, a nomad's dwelling can resist even violent storms. The entire process of erecting a medium-size yurt takes no more than 45 minutes.
The yurt's interior is split in two — the right half for the women and the left for the men, with hunting equipment and saddles close to the door. Household equipment is stored on the right side, with tools for hunting and livestock maintenance on the left. The space opposite the entrance, known as the tor, was an honoured area allotted to guests. The belongings of the family, in decorated chests, and piles of bedding, would also characteristically be placed here. The family would generally sit around the fireplace in the centre of the room: the fire was considered to be the protector of the yurt.
The interior is furbished with multicoloured strips of cloth, tassels and carpets — the finest rug is always attached to the canvas behind the wooden bed (in poorer yurts, the nomads sleep on mats). During the day, everything is placed in boxes and closets, or hung on the wooden bars of the frame. The space inside the yurt is then used to prepare and consume meals — eating on seats or benches around a tablecloth — and to work.
Six to 10 people live in a standard-sized yurt (with a diameter of four metres). During cold nights young calves and lambs often also find shelter within the warmth of the dwelling. Wealthy families possess more than one yurt, divided according to function: a yurt to cook in, one to dine in, another to sleep in, and a yurt for guests.
The Central State Museum in Almaty, the Presidential Cultural Centre in Astana and the Abai Museum in Semey each display a number of exceptionally fine yurts. In Tausamaly (Kamenka), a suburb of Almaty, an enterprise manufactures quality yurts; it can be contacted through the museum shop at the National Museum.