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Art Through Time: A Global View

Domestic Life Art: Kirghiz Yurt

» Kirghiz maker(s)

Kirghiz Yurt

Kirghiz Yurt
Artist / Origin: Kirghiz maker(s)
Region: Russia, Central and North Asia
Date: 20th century
Period: 1900 CE – 2010 CE
Material: Felted-wool with appliqué, animal hair, wooden reed supports
Medium: Textiles and Fiber Arts
Location: The Pamirs, Sinkiang Uighur Autonomous Region (Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region), Northwest China
Credit: © Galen Rowell/CORBIS.

The Kirghiz are a Turkic group who live as pastoral nomads in a small region of the Pamirs, a mountain range separating Tajikistan and China.

Like other Turkic nomads, they live in portable dwellings called yurts (aq oey to the Kirghiz). Light and collapsible, the Turkic yurt is a round tent made of bentwood roof struts and a latticework wall that are covered in thick felt and held in place with straps, or tent bands. The yurt frame includes a door opening, allowing access in and out of the space, as well as a circular chimney hole in the roof, which keeps the interior lit and ventilated and allows smoke from cooking to escape. Both openings are covered with textiles when not in use.

Slight variations in yurt style set apart Turkic groups. These differences are the result of a variety of factors ranging from economics (some materials are cheaper than others) and meteorological conditions (some shapes are better for certain weather) to aesthetics. Kirghiz yurts, for instance, are known for being highly decorative. The Kirghiz frequently paint the frames of their yurts in red or brown. Inside, they place woven mats between the frame and the exterior felt and cover the floor and bedding with colorful textiles. Often, bright tassels hang down from the chimney frame. In addition to this artistic attention inside the yurt, the Kirghiz are one of the few groups to adorn the yurt exterior as well. In this photograph, decorative appliqué work has been applied around the lower edge of the white roof. The Kirghiz sometimes decorate the yurt’s walls and door flaps as well.

Expert Perspective:
Jeff Spurr, Islamic and Middle East Specialist, Harvard University Fine Arts Library

“Nomadic peoples have to be able to carry the complete cultural repertoire with them. So everything that they use has to be able to be put largely on camel back, if not horseback, and therefore there are limits to the kinds of objects that they will be interested in owning. And the heaviest things they are libel to take with them are the felt covers for the yurts, and the poles that hold the whole structure up, and this elaborate lattice screen that typically goes around the interior of the yurt, decorated or not.

The portable house—the yurt—would, for any given tribal group, have a form characteristic of it and distinct from other groups and, much like everything else in the culture, would therefore be a point of recognition for other people who might encounter this group. And so it would be one of the repertoire of signs of the identity of a particular people.”

Additional Resources

Antipina, Claudia, Temirbek Musakeev, and Rolando Paiva. Kyrgyzstan. Milan: Skira, 2007.

Ching, Francis D. A Visual Dictionary of Architecture. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley, 1996.

Glassie, Henry. Vernacular Architecture (Material Culture). Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2000.

“Kyrgyzstan.” In Country Studies. Federal Research Division. Library of Congress Web site. http://memory.loc.gov/frd/cs/kgtoc.html.

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Art Through Time: A Global View

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Produced by THIRTEEN in association with WNET.ORG. 2009.
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  • ISBN: 1-57680-888-2