The yurt is not just a portable dwelling used by many nomadic peoples, but a pinnacle of nomadic creativity and a symbol of the national identity of the Kyrgyz people. Yurts have a plain construction, can be quickly assembled and dismantled by a few people, protect from the cold or from the heat of sun, and most importantly are entirely made of natural materials. This makes the yurt one of the best options for the promotion of eco-tourism and centuries-old traditions and crafts. No big life event in Kyrgyzstan goes without installing a yurt. Births, weddings, and funeral rituals are traditionally held in yurts. They are an integral part of all festivities, ceremonies, and important events from the local to national and international levels.
Kyzyl-Tuu village is located on the south shore of the Issyk-Kul Lake in Issyk-Kul Province, Kyrgyzstan. The village is well known for its main craft product—a traditional Kyrgyz yurt called boz ui—and was recognized by the World Crafts Council as a “World Craft City” for the yurt in 2021. Communities producing yurts live in all regions of Kyrgyzstan. However, a distinctive feature of this particular village is that more than 90 percent of the villagers are involved in the process of yurt-making.
Tyunduk(the roof of the yurt) after coloring and assembling © Kamila Kenzhetaeva
Bearers of traditional knowledge and yurt-making skills are craftspeople, both women and men. Making a yurt is a collective effort and involves the joint work of several craftspeople. Sometimes the whole family is engaged. Traditionally, knowledge and skills are transmitted orally and through hands-on practice from generation to generation. From early childhood, young members of the community help old masters and learn about the peculiarities of crafting through instructions and practice. There is a Kyrgyz saying, “Making a yurt requires seventy different skills,” which proves that diverse skills and knowledge are needed to make one yurt; these include woodworking, weaving, felting, and embroidering. Thus, the yurt reflects all types of applied and decorative arts of Kyrgyz people and unites craftspeople and their families.
Each yurt has a circular shape; wooden frames called kerege form the walls; long, curved poles, known as uuk form the yurt’s dome; and tyunduk is the top of the yurt’s roof that holds the dome together. It takes between one and three months for a craftsperson to make the high-quality wooden parts of the yurt. On top of that, years are required to grow the willow trees used to make them. Woodworking is a comprehensive process and requires special knowledge and skills ranging from the selection of the wood to drying, bending, and coloring. The people of Kyzyl-Tuu Village prefer natural dyes such as red clay rather than harmful chemicals to color the wood. The natural dyes are non-toxic, biodegradable, and help to sustain the wooden elements for a longer period. The community of craftspeople believe that the materials used should not harm either people working with the wood or staying in the yurt, or the trees themselves.
The wooden frame is covered firstly with needle grass mats and then with felt carpets. These traditional carpets consist of three layers and are made using a special technique, which makes them long-lasting. There are various types of felt carpets in the yurt, which are used to cover the wooden frame, dome, floor, and door. These coverings and interior decorations are made by craftswomen and attract special attention. They differ in patterns and color, reflecting the sense of aesthetic perception and showcasing crafting skills. It should be emphasized that, traditionally, nails or metal wires are not used in the construction process.
Craftswomen use different handicraft techniques such as threading, embroidering, felting, and weaving; storytelling or singing during the workflow is also an integral part of the process. Young girls from Kyzyl-Tuu Village learn these techniques from an early age simply by observing their mother’s work, helping them, and playing or visiting local workshops. Interactive learning is one of the strengths in attracting young people and bringing them to local workshops, thus fostering the transmission of the ICH in the community. As one of the craftswomen notes, “Making embroidery is like poetry—it requires inspiration. Everyone can be taught how to sew through hands-on training, whereas to learn embroidery one needs to have a creative spirit and talent.”
It’s easy to dismantle a yurt. However, installing one requires following some special rules. The yurt’s geometry is solid and craftspeople are well aware of the dimensions needed for each detail to make the structure stable against even the strongest winds. The interior setting of a yurt has designated areas: the left part belongs to men and the right for women, thus ensuring balance. The male part of the yurt traditionally has clothing, hunting tools, or crafts hanging on the wall, while the right side has women’s clothing and a kitchen. The center of the yurt is allocated for the fireplace, kolomto, which has a sacral meaning for Kyrgyz people. According to beliefs, fire purifies and keeps evil spirits away.
The element is of great value to the community. The Kyzyl-Tuu community managed to safeguard the traditional knowledge and skills required for making every detail of the yurt, and are proud of their heritage. Traditionally, the knowledge and skills have been passed down from mother to daughter, from father to son, or from master to apprentice over many generations. From time to time, the villagers organize community meetings and discuss the issues of maintaining the quality of craft products, the use of natural materials, and safety rules. The craftspeople of Kyzyl-Tuu are highly demanding in terms of the quality of yurt-making, including the interior decoration. They say, that a yurt’s wooden construction details must serve at least thirty years, while the felt crafts such as shyrdak (felt carpet) have an average lifespan of about one hundred years.
Nowadays, the community is proud of the younger generation who are engaged in yurt-making. Both older and younger craftspeople make new yurts and restore old ones for use in exhibitions, eco-tourism, or for sale. It should be noted that despite yurt-making being the main source of income for the craftspeople, the element is not at risk of over-commercialization. The community of craftspeople continue to use traditional knowledge and skills that reflect their identity and strengthen their sense of belonging. Moreover, the craft contributes to the sustainable development of the community.
Recognizing the importance of the element, in 2012, communities and other stakeholders of Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan united in a workgroup to elaborate a nomination file. The communities of craftspeople were the main driving force in this process, having actually initiated it. After several years of joint work, the nomination “Traditional knowledge and skills in making Kyrgyz and Kazakh yurts (Turkic nomadic dwellings)” was inscribed on the UNESCO Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2014. Different types of activities such as fairs, meetings, exhibitions, and contests are organized regularly by the two countries to promote the element. Communities constantly arrange events on a local level and take part in international exhibitions such as EXPO to raise awareness among international communities. The yurt still has a major role in the lives of the Kyrgyz and Kazakh people. Moreover, it is a symbol of national identity, family, hospitality, and testimony of rich ancestral knowledge in harmonic coexistence with nature.
Craftswomen during the work process under the leadership of an elder master © National Commission of the Kyrgyz Republic for UNESCO