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Gers have been accommodating Mongolian nomads for approximately three thousand years. Although the very term “Ger” may sound quite unfamiliar at first, it actually refers to the traditional yurts constructed by the native nomadic families of Central Asia.
The Mongol Ger continues to be used up-to-date. The fundamental principles of the authentic Mongol Ger design used for thousands of years are still applied nowadays. But the urban life has started to influence the traditional Mongol Ger, too.
Mongolia became independent in 1921 after it gained sovereignty from China. Apart from China, Mongolia is neighboring with Russia. With a key location between two of the most powerful countries globally, according to World Atlas, Mongolia has a population of 3 179 997 people.
Today, more than half of the Mongolians live in Gers – 90% of the rural population and 61% of the urban population located in the capital of Ulaanbaatar.
An increasing percentage of the population has been moving to yurt quarters in Ulaanbaatar in search of a more stable economic future which can be hard to achieve living the nomadic herders’ lifestyle.
Conveying and preserving the authentic traditions of the Mongolian ancestors’, the Ger is much more than merely a portable accommodation.
In fact, “Ger” means “house”/ “household” in Mongolian, and as we know fair well, there is no other place like home in the entire Universe. Assembling and disassembling the Ger allows nomads to move in search of better pasture for their livestock.
But the process of assembling and disassembling the Ger is not simply a practical feature.
Instead, it is a richly symbolical custom that has helped to keep the nomadic families close-knit, transferring the ancient know-how through the centuries and carrying accumulated wisdom of the nomadic lifestyle from one generation to another.
The Unique Structure of the Mongol Ger
The core structure of the Ger revolves around portability. But while the Mongol Ger is superbly functional for the nomadic lifestyle, it is also exquisitely sophisticated.
Each Ger is created by assembling a round structure of walls. Additionally, poles and a peaked roof serve to provide the Ger with reliable stability.
Stability is much-needed considering the harsh weather that can often face Mongolian nomads with challenges. But that’s also why the Ger is easy to disassemble.
It can take anything from 30 minutes to 3 hours to assemble or disassemble a ger.
If the nomads encounter unsuitable meteorological conditions, they may need to swiftly move to another place where the livestock can find fresh sources of food.
Meanwhile, the Ger is suited to endure the merciless weather of the Mongolian steppes. For this purpose, the Ger doors were built with solid wood and a strong wooden frame capable of withstanding the ravages of the winds in the region.
Because of the aerodynamic shape of the sloop roof, winds were blocked from eventually tearing off the roof beams. Moreover, the circular shape of the Ger provides effective heating and cooling of the dwelling.
The earliest types of Gers were situated straight on the ground and no additional flooring was present except for the richer families who utilized felt rugs in order to cover the floor.
Nowadays, the natives have found a solution to poor flooring by using wooden floors during the cold winter season.
Being flat and dry, the steppes and plains of Mongolia are regularly subjected to extreme weather. Spring winds blow with up to 9 kilometers per hour, making the stability of the Ger a top priority for the nomads. Nevertheless, the temperatures in the region easily reach 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit) during the summer and -30 degrees Celsius (-22 degrees Fahrenheit) during the winter.
Thus, each detail of the structure of the Ger is profoundly related to providing a well-founded shelter for the nomadic families. A lot of knowledge and wisdom is put into every single detail.
The Poles and the Peak of the Mongol Ger
The felt is made by rolling and pressing textile (typically sheep wool) with the addition of applying heat or moisture to make the fibers mat together until a smooth surface is formed. The felt helps to keep heat intact inside the Ger while the canvas placed over the felt prevents rainwater from entering the Ger.
The felt and canvas are tightened together with the use of ropes. This approach works in two directions – it makes the Ger easy to assemble but also easy to disassemble. The ropes are traditionally made from animal wool or hair, most commonly sheep or camel wool but horsetails and/or yak tails hair is regularly used, too.
Every tiny aspect of the Mongol Ger’s construction is tested through time and practice, and the natives have employed a remarkable understanding of the laws of nature to create the best-working shape and structure of their dwelling.
The components are manufactured through a complex system of production. Fine skills are needed to design and craft the roof poles and wall lattices. Roof poles are fastened to their crown ring and wall head knots with their two ends that are used to make roof framework.
Revealing the Secrets of the Toono: The Crown Opening of the Mongol Ger
Crown rings are among the most respected components of the Mongol Ger. Known as Toono, a crown ring is the upper ring of the Ger.
The crown ring is such an essential component as it ensures that the flow of fresh air is constantly circulating inside the Ger, turning the seemingly simple crown ring into a unique form of a natural air-conditioner.
But what’s more, the crown opening is crucial for the proper distribution of sunlight into the Ger.
The construction of crown rings is then again subordinate to the natural qualities of the wood material, just like every other tiny piece used in the construction of the Mongol Ger.
Traditionally, just a single half of the stem of a birch tree is utilized for the creation of the crown ring.
The Mongolian nomads understand the natural properties of the trees, and so they cut birch trees’ stems in the summer when the material is completely dry and perfect to use.
The Toono used to have a nut-like shape. Later on, the next generations implemented their fresh knowledge to upgrade the shape of the crown ring, turning it into a bottleneck-like structure.
In the 17th century, the shape of the crown ring was once again changed, although this was actually the final change of the Toono’s shape up-to-date. A wheel-cut shape has proved to be the best working one.
In older days, the crown rings were designed by curving the wood. However, nowadays, curved crown rings have become quite rare.
Instead, the spirit of the new centuries can be found in the way Mongol Ger artisans implement modern-day decisions into the traditional construction of the Ger.
Thus, an easy and simple way of gluing the curved pieces together has become more common in the making of crown rings, turning the once shelter dwelling-type Gers into much more sophisticated in their design, although the basic components do still remain authentically intertwined with the ancient knowledge of the natives.
The Mongolian Ger craftsmen use only certain types of wood obtained from the trees growing in the mountains.
Each piece of wood has to be carefully hand-planed. The wooden poles must be as smooth and dry as possible, and the one end is always shaped more narrowly and rectangular.
Wall Lattices of the Mongol Ger
Wall lattices are especially important in the construction of the Mongol Ger, too. They are typically made out of larch or brushwood.
The wood material that forms the wall lattices is shaped into thin sticks. These thin sticks are heated and pressed in order to become slightly curved. Next, holes are cut into the wall sticks following a certain size that allows the craftsmen to connect the sticks by tying leather knots.
The sticks forming the wall lattices are always neatly crossed in a particular order. Since the cross points are tied by leather knots, the Ger becomes easy to dissemble by untying the knots.
By the simple process of squeezing or stretching the wall lattices, Mongolian nomads can transport their Gers whenever and wherever needed. The Ger is light enough to be carried around.
Meanwhile, it is also flexible so that it can be easily packed into a compact form for transportation. Simultaneously, the Ger is so sturdy that it can be dismantled and reassembled without negatively affecting the quality and durability of the construction.
But apart from being such an ingenious structure that can’t be seen anywhere else in the world, the craftsmanship of the Mongol Ger is much more valuable than the mere practical side of the portable shelter.
The Mongol Ger as Part of the Nomadic Art and Crafts Strengthening the Family and Communal Bonds
The entire household is involved in the creation of the Ger, bonding the families, as well as the neighboring nomadic groups, close together.
Playing a vitally important social and cultural role, the Mongol Ger master craftsmen are highly respected within the local community.
The men are involved in gathering and prepping the wood material but they also participate in the making of the elaborate wood carvings that are seen as an equally important structure of the Ger. Next, both women and men get involved in painting, stitching, sewing, and felt-making.
After making the crown ring, roof poles, two pillars, and wall lattices painted traditional ornament patterns are added.
“Mongolian traditional patterns and decorations will be perfect and beautify if you choose the right combination of colors and make the design gently,” says Gavaa Amirdaabazar who is a Ger pattern and decoration art heritage bearer of Uyanga soum, Uvurkhangai province.
Only the nicest colors and patterns were used in order to make the Ger more beautiful and elegant.
Distinct colors and shapes influenced by the living nature did not merely beautify the Ger but also symbolized the deep connection of the locals with the surrounding environment. Mountains, rivers, fire, and clouds are only part of the nature-inspired patterns.
Each construction element of the Ger was painted with auspicious symbols, such as the 12 zodiac signs that were often used in decorating the crown ring.
Images of dragons symbolizing bravery can be seen on the pillars, and in most cases, these were first finely carved before being painted over.
The Mongol Ger is an art form itself but it is easy to look far beyond the structure of the Mongol Ger when digging deeper into the rich history of Mongolian art and crafts.
All the way back to the second half of the second millennium BC, Mongolian art and crafts reached highly developed periods.
Undoubtedly, wood was one of the most significant materials for the nomadic tribes.
But most noteworthy, wood was seen as a sacred material rather than merely being perceived as a practical element.
By carving wood into stunning objects used in the sacred Shamanism practices, the Mongolian nomads have managed to convey their deepest beliefs referring to conscious, philosophical, and aesthetic aspects of thinking.
Most household items were also made out of wood, including but not limited to boxes, cupboards, utensils, and the traditional musical instrument of the Mongolian nomadic community – the Morin Khuur.
But the descendants of the ancient Mongolian nomadic tribes are not only masters of working with wood. The locals knew the secrets of crafting mesmerizing objects out of metal for centuries.
One of the hallmarks of Mongolian metalwork is the Mongolian silver cased knife.
When entering the Ger, each man has to take out the knife from his sash and hang it down as a sign of his pure intentions and deep respect towards the members of the community.
The mesmerizing artwork of embroidery, applique, and artistic stitching further highlight the array of talents possessed by the gifted local artisans.
Leather crafting employing exquisite ornamental designs is yet another distinct and original example of the art and crafts of the Mongolian nomads.
The influence of Genghis Khan was highly beneficial to the development of art and crafts in nomadic Mongolia. It was during the Mongol Empire reign that the artisans traveled across Europe. This lead to incredible cross-cultural influences.
Later on, art and crafts that are closely associated with the Mongol Ger kept flourishing under the influence of Buddhism, with apparent elements of Indian, Tibetan, and Nepalese art.
While art and crafts of the native Mongolian nomadic community were blooming and developing, the very roots of the ancient traditions influenced by the nomadic lifestyle remained untouched by the hands of time.
Thus, the structure of the Ger remained the same across the country, bringing a spirit of unity among all Mongolian nomads. As the wooden frames are also decorated with traditional ornamentation, that further strengthens the close-knit bonds within the nomad community.
Furthermore, every member of the family is engaged in assembling and disassembling of the Ger, including young children who get their very first lessons in Ger structuring and maintenance.
These family operations allow the minors to learn the secrets of the ancient Mongol Ger craftsmanship in a very intimate way.
By letting the kids watch the elders and soak up the wisdom of their ancestors’, the Mongolian nomads have managed to preserve the incredible cultural heritage of their nation thanks to the spectacular use of the Mongol Ger throughout the centuries.
“There were several really skilled wood smiths like Shuumaa Osor, Dorj. Following them, I have learned craftsmanship traditions of the Mongolian Ger. Lately, my son has inherited and become a wood smith,” says Sereenendorj Sanjaa who is an elder wood smith of Khujirt soum, Uvurkhangai province in the short UNESCO documentary introducing the traditional craftsmanship of the Mongol Ger and its associated customs.
The Amazing Craftsmanship of the Mongol Ger: Final Food for Thought
Fortunately, the traditional craftsmanship of the Mongol Ger was recognized as part of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2013 and is currently under the aegis of UNESCO.
But except for recognizing the craftsmanship of the Mongol Ger because of its uniqueness, there is profound wisdom that is deeply embedded in the art of crafting a Ger.
A traditional Mongolian proverb states that “A bad person’s voice is loud.”
According to the natives, a conversational style which is loud and has a high pitch is evil and immature.
Those who know how to speak must first learn how to listen, just like the artisans creating the Mongol Ger have first learned to recognize the laws of the nature in order to implement them in their ancient crafts.
Nowadays, when getting more likes on the social media has made us become louder than ever, it almost seems as if customs such as that of the Mongol Ger are becoming less valued by society.
But the only way to save the incredible diversity and rich cultural heritage of the planet for the next generations is to learn from the one-of-a-kind craftsmanship of those who used to inhabit this world long before we were even born.
Because trees speak a language only those who want to hear will ever learn to understand, and woodworking remains a bridge from one generation to the other – just like the amazing craftsmanship of the Mongol Ger keeps the heartening family traditions alive.