Mongol Tents – Part 1, The Khitans

I want to know how close modern gers — both the factory-made ones and the still hand-built ones — differ from the ones made and used in the Mongol Empire period.  I’m collecting period depictions of “Mongol” tents here, both of gers and of other tents.  Eventually I want to also collect here period descriptions from written sources.

12thC Khitan gers in 18 Songs of a Nomad Flute

Some of the clearest period depictions are from the 12th century handscroll illustrating 18 Songs of a Nomad Flute.  Although the events described in the poems took place in the 2nd century CE, and the songs themselves were composed in the 8thC, the illustrations were commissioned by the Southern Song emperor Gaozong in the 12th C, with the nomads depicted as Khitans.

High-res illustrations from the handscroll are available online at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which also offers the book as a free download. Note that this version is a 15th C reproduction.  Fragments of the 12th C original are held at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and appear to be substantially similar.

The Khitans, later the Liao and then the Qara-Khitai, were among the many and varied ethnic polities absorbed or conquered into the Mongol Empire.  Are these good references for Empire period Mongol gers?  Not precisely.  Like clothing styles, the various individual ethnic groups each had (and have) their own particular styles of construction and decoration.  These are temporally and culturally much closer to what the Mongols would have been using in period than modern Mongolian gers.  On the other hand, David and Sue Richardson, over at cite period sources describing several different styles of yurt construction, including “Khitayan” ones, as well as ones that apparently did not use trellis walls and were not collapsible at all, being taken on and off of carts in one piece.

The Chieftain’s gers, with canopies

Here are two illustrations of the chieftain’s ger from 18 Songs, a blue one with a separate center-poled canopy acting as a porch off the front, and a red one with a similar, two-poled canopy:

image of ger with porch canopy from !8 Songs of a Nomad FLute

Fig. 1 Khitan ger with porch

Red-roofed Khitan ger wiith brown canopy

Fig. 2 Red roofed chieftain’s ger with canopy

The Met’s edition of 18 Songs describes the encampment walls as “screens of felt mounted on canes” and notes the “yurt is floored with matting and a pile rug.”  (It also notes that while the chieftain “wears the informal garb of a Chinese ruler” – the fashion for Liao rulers, according to the History of Liao – the lady “is dressed like a Khitan princess”.)


The gold — possibly gilt? — finials on the poles of the brown canopy are little dragon heads. Cute!  The straight line of the ridge between them suggests a solid ridge beam.  You can just make out the pegged out guy ropes for the slender corner poles.  If the screens are made out of cane, maybe those corner poles are cane as well.

With regard to the “dagging” at the edge of the canopy, I wonder if those are looped tabs of felt, with rope running through from corner to corner?  See how at the edge of the canopy roof facing the ger, those tabs seems to be stretched out horizontal?  And yet on the other edges they seem to be hanging down vertically, so I don’t know.

The same iconography is used at the top of the felt encampment walls/screens, and it would make sense to have those felt panels hanging from tensioned ropes — although with lines that straight, I wonder if they’re more canes.  What’s holding up those encampment walls?  Answer: The end verticals and every second or third middle vertical pole is pegged out with guy ropes.

I count at least four layers to the walls of the ger. Over the latticework structural wall, there’s a white liner (outside the khana lattice, not inside).  The primary wall layer looks to me like reed matting — possibly the red decorative banding is joining individual mats?  Reed walls are not uncommon among the various regional and temporal yurt variants.  The swagged outer walls, apparently raised for ventilation, are some kind of white material, possibly silk?

You can see (especially on the red-roofed ger) that the door is rolled, with a white lining. There are little white markings along the edges of the trim on the red roof. Are those decorative, or do they indicate some kind of tied fastenings?

The profile of the roof suggests the roof-poles are steam-bent, and that is one big bubble of a tono (roof ring), with the square smoke hole offset to the front.

A modern Uzbek frame

Compare the profile of the roof and the size of the tono to this modern Uzbek yurt (image sourced from Wikipedia):

Uzbek yurt frame

Fig. 3 Uzbek yurt frame


The latticework of the walls is much tighter.  The walls are straight, as are the roof poles, apart from the “shoulder” that adds height to the walls.  At the base of the walls looks to be a strip of material that would (it appears to me) extend out along the ground a bit, buried in sand.  This would keep sand from blowing in under the walls, and also deter small wildlife from getting in.  I have not yet found a period depiction or description of a ger with a wooden door.  Period doors appear to have been made out of materials that can be rolled or draped.  There’s a pre-Mongol funerary jar (will update this with a link when I can find one) with a pivot hinged door (fired ceramic not being known for its drape), but that one example by itself is not enough to extrapolate any further.

The double canopy set-up

Here are the two gers again, from different verses in the story, each set up for a banquet with a double canopy out front. In both cases, the canopy nearest the viewer is the double-poled style with the central ridge beam. It’s the middle one — the one between the front canopy and the ger — that’s interesting:

Red Khitan ger with double canopy

Fig. 4 Red Khitan ger with double canopy

Blue Khitan ger with double canopy

Fig. 5 Blue Khitan ger with double canopy

It clearly uses four poles, and those poles are not aligned with the central ridge, so there must be some kind of gable action going on, obscured by the front canopy.  This is suggested by the angle of the seams.

The seam lines, not indicated on the main canopy, would seem to indicate the thing was pieced in strips, with the seams aligned to the stakes used to peg out the sides.

Felt is of course not limited to loom widths, but if you are going to be pegging it out like that, I can see how you’d want some seams or even sewn-in cordage to take the strain.

Note that those canopies can be used on their own:

Standalone canopy for Khitan picnic

Fig. 6 Standalone canopy

Gabled vestibules

And here they are again in different scenes, this time with funky little gabled vestibules out the front:

image of ger with vestibule and canopy

Fig. 7 Khitan ger with vestibule and canopy

Khitan ger in winter with vestibule

Fig. 8 Khitan ger in winter with vestibule


The red ger is clearly rugged up for winter, with the addition of felt walls and some kind of massive tarpaulin, probably made of more felt.

In each example, the vestibule is made out of the same materials as the ger.  Although it appears to join up very snugly, it’s not clear exactly how.  There doesn’t appear to be any overlap, and on the blue one, the swagged white drapery is interrupted at the join as if the vestibule was just plonked onto the front after the main ger had been put up.  I don’t see how you would lower the outer walls if you wanted to.  Maybe you can’t.  Or maybe there are some things that the artist is not as precise about.

The door of the blue ger is made of the same matting as the walls, with the addition (if you zoom in) of a subtle hexagonal decorative pattern.

Wedge tents

Check this out; Mongols got pup tents!  Or anyway the Khitans did.

Brown Khitan wedge tent

Fig. 9 Brown Khitan wedge tent

Red Khitan wedge tent

Fig. 10 Red Khitan wedge tent

Blue Khitan wedge tent

Fig. 11 Blue wedge tent

They’ve got the same reinforcing seams that the pegged-out larger canopies do, and they have tidy little floors and ties to hold the doors open.

What I don’t get is why the artist has drawn latticework inside.  I would chalk it up as an error on the part of the artist, but they seem to have been so careful in other details.  Hmm.  Although, if you did have a solid frame under your felt, it would explain why there don’t appear to be center poles or any guy ropes.

Anyway, are those just for storage, or do people live in them?

Smaller gers

Here’s a close-up of that smaller ger in the back of Fig. 7:

Close-up of smaller Khitan ger

Fig. 12 Close-up of smaller ger

The door of this one is rolled up matting, without the white lining.

There doesn’t appear to be a smoke-hole, or else the smoke-hole of this geris not centered over the door.

There’s cooking going on outside this one, and although I’ve cropped it out of this picture, the cart parked out the back is not as fancy as the cart parked out the back of the chieftain’s ger.  Maybe only the big cheese gets a smoke-hole?  Or maybe that little window has some other purpose?

Here is what looks to be the same “cooks'” ger from another angle, with the matting walls removed:

Khitan ger with walls removed

Fig. 13 Another angle on the “cooks'” ger


Note the red band along the base, like the band along the bottom of the Uzbek yurt in Fig. 3.

Here’s a sweet little red ger:

Small red Khitan ger

Fig. 14 Small red Khitan ger

Small red Khitan ger

Fig. 15 Small red Khitan ger

Again, it’s difficult to say for sure just from the images whether these are used for storage or if people live in them.  None of the various tents in the illustrations show furnishings inside, apart from the matting floors and the chieftain’s carpets.

This one has a one-piece roof without the “bubble” tono, and again without an apparent smoke-hole.

Up next: Mongol tents in Persian sources.