Cultural Selection: Traditional Knowledge and Skills in Yurt Making and Decorative Textiles
The culture and trade wares of nomadic people served as important intermediaries between the diverse cultures and people of the Silk Roads. Thanks to exchanges occurring across Central Asia in what is today Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Mongolia, nomads became important actors of interactions and mutual influences along the Silk Roads and left a remarkable legacy.
One example of this visible shared heritage are yurts, nomadic dwellings which can be easily assembled, moved and reassembled, and which have been used along the steppes of Central Asia for thousands of years and continue to be used today. These dwellings, typically made of a lattice of wooden frames and covered with felt, usually made from wool, facilitate the movement of nomadic people from the lowlands in winter to the higher mountain pastures in the summer months.
In terms of structure and design, yurts consist of a wooden circular frame covered with felt and braided together with ropes. They have an opening at the top with a chimney to allow smoke out but which can be closed over to provide additional warmth. Yurt-making is an important craft skill which uses renewable raw materials. The techniques are passed down by men to their apprentices, who make the wooden frames by hand using wood, leather, bone and metals for detailing. Women too undertake a vital role in the protection and transmission of traditional knowledge associated with yurts, as they make the interior decorations and exterior coverings, which can be decorated further with traditional animal, floral or geometric patterns. This work is typically supervised by experienced women artisans, and employs techniques of weaving, spinning, braiding, felting, embroidering, sewing and other traditional handicraft techniques.
Furthermore, with their close association with decorative textiles, yurts are closely linked to the wider network of exchange occurring along the Silk Roads as different artistic styles and motifs were shared across Central Asia and exported into China and beyond. Rugs and carpets, important textiles frequently traded along the Silk Roads, were sometimes made in yurts and could always be found adorning their walls. Other textiles produced in yurts might include clothing, saddle bags and other tent trappings and decorations such as felted carpets. Popular motifs on these textiles included various flora and a ram’s horn pattern which is very common and dates back to at least 500 BCE. In addition to wool these items would be made with silk and cotton obtained via trade.
Additionally, people looking to construct yurts in the high steppes beyond the tree line, particularly in Mongolia, often had to trade with Silk Roads merchants and skilled woodworkers who would sell or trade yurt construction materials in a number of forms including willow or birch logs, or, for a higher price, pre-cut poles for constructing the frame.
Today, yurt creation involves the whole community of craftspeople, and fosters common human values, constructive cooperation and creative imagination. Traditionally, knowledge and skills are transmitted within families or from teachers to apprentices. Many festivities, ceremonies, births, weddings and funeral rituals are held in yurts and often the construction and decoration process is accompanied by the singing of folk songs, the telling of jokes and proverbs, and the sharing of traditional meals. As such, it remains a vital element of the common cultural heritage of the expansive regions encompassed by the Silk Roads.
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