Nomad Tents

Steppe Nomads had a wide variety of tents that were used throughout history. Tents varied because of tribal affiliation, class status, type of economy (hunting vs. herding), outside cultural influences, and materials available. Here we will talk about steppe nomad dwellings in general and “Hun specific” information is at the end of this page.

One of the earliest style tents used by steppe peoples was a round tent called an “Altai yurt”. Altai yurts varied by region and time period.

Altai yurts had a “strut” design which means that they had vertical poles that made up the walls. The poles were pounded into the ground. Several poles made up the roof.

The main variations of these tents were in the way that the roof was constructed. The simplest design is called a Chapari which has the roof poles lashed together. With the Sagaitsi and Teleuti we see the use of roof rings that the roof poles were attached to. Altai Yurts could be found spanning all over the steppe from Central Asia to Eastern Europe.




A portable version of this tent (photos below) looked much like a European round pavilion except that it had a smokehole up at the top. Vertical poles formed the sides and were held up by ropes and stakes. Covers were made of hide or felt and were often decorated.

Another popular tent that was found throughout Central Asia is called a “bender” tent since the frame is made from bent poles that form a dome-shaped tent. In modern times, this type of tent is affiliated with Iranian nomads and is referred to as an alachigh, but in earlier time periods, they were used by a wide variety of steppe nomads. (In fact, variations of this type of tent have been found all over the world.) Below are photos of some bender tents that history reenactors have made.

Some tents were built with horizontal branches woven in between the vertical poles in order to strengthen the foundation. This type of tent was especially useful to sheep herders since it formed a corral-like structure. This was because as herders, they needed to sometimes bring lambs that were born early in the season into their tents in order for them to survive the cold. It was these types of woven structures that eventually evolved into collapsible lattice work walls.

Used by many Turks and Mongols, the trellis/latticework tent (known in Mongolia as a ger)varied from tribe to tribe. The most common differences found were in the style of smokehole, roof pitch, and decoration.

In the middle ages, gers were covered with whatever materials were local. The most common materials were felt or bark and some were even built out of wood. In modern Mongolia, felt gers are produced and marketed by a company, so the bark gers are no longer in use. In the forested regions however, the wooden gers are still very common and resemble a Navajo Hogan. Wooden gers were permanent structures and not portable.

Felt covered ger

Wooden ger

Bark covered ger

The photo on the left shows a ger covered in woven reeds.

The photos below show Mongolian wooden gers.

Not all dwellings built were round. Some Tuvans built dwellings that were square and covered in bark. Some Kirghiz used square shaped tents covered in felt.

Large rectangular tents were often used by Mongol khans to conduct court business or run a war campaign from. It was taboo to touch the guy ropes of these tents (just as it was taboo to step on the threshold of a ger). To touch the guy ropes of a khan’s tent could result in a death sentence. If a person was unaware of the tradition, they would usually get a warning. Today in Mongolia and Siberia, these tents are still used for large gatherings and celebrations.

Small tents (that somewhat resemble a geteld tent) were used for hunting excursions, war campaigns, caravans, etc. This type of tent is called a maikhan in Mongolian.

Another type of tent used by the Mongols and throughout the Middle East was a smaller tent that is referred to as a khayma or a “disked bell”. This tent had a smokehole that was supported by two upright poles (sometimes a single pole that poked through the center). The short walls were held up by ropes and stakes. These tents were widely used during the time of the Mongol Empire and were used primarily for soldiers.

Below: Mongol tents. Paintings done by Rashid al-Din (1247-1318). Rashid al-Din’s father and grandfather were both courtiers to Hulagu Khan and Rashid followed in their footsteps to serve the Mongol court.

So what types of tents did the Huns use? Priscus reported in his journals that the nobles lived in wooden houses built with “carved wooden boards beautifully fitted together”. Priscus mentioned that others lived in tents, carts, and “huts”. This is only accurate for the Huns in Attila’s camp, however. These Huns had settled into a permanent base in what is now Hungary. Research shows that the Huns most likely used Altai yurts (see top of page) as their tents since the latticework style yurts were unknown in their time period. When the Huns camped, it was recorded that their camp was set up in a certain order that had meaning and that tents were not set up in a random fashion.

The best book on steppe nomad tents is called Felt Tents and Pavilions: The Nomadic Tradition and its Interaction with Princely Tentage by the esteemed expert, Dr. Peter Andrews. Dr. Andrews has spent almost a half a century researching the way that nomad tents were constructed and this immense book discusses them in depth. When trying to design the yurts for our tribe, we contacted Dr. Andrews for advice on what style of yurt would be the most historically accurate for Huns. We were so lucky that he responded to our inquires and was willing to give us advice. To properly determine the type of yurts to use we needed to consider time period, location, and the economy of the tribe (hunting Vs herding), that we are reenacting. Furthermore, we needed to also consider that each tribe had a unique style of yurt to differentiate them from other tribes. One could tell one tribe apart from another by looking at the design of their yurt or how it was decorated. Following this tribal tradition, it made sense for us to design yurts that would be unique to us as a tribe within the framework of the other parameters already mentioned above. The goal was to make our camp look like an authentic tribe instead of a “generic” nomad camp.

Bearing all this in mind, our group chose to build Altai yurts with the single center pole for the smoke hole in order to make it more portable for the events we travel to. Since our personas are from the Sugdak region, it was most likely that due to the local economy, yurts would have been covered with hides instead of felt. Since covering all of our yurts in hides was not a practical option for us, we chose to use canvas that we have dyed brown to have the appearance of hide.

Further sources on nomad tents

As mentioned above, the best source of information about any type of steppe nomad tent is Felt Tents and Pavilions: The Nomadic Tradition and its Interaction with Princely Tentage by Dr. Peter Andrews. This book discusses the variety and design of tents and carts that were used throughout steppe nomad history. The book also discusses how the camps were set up, organized and even some of the titles of camp officers and their duties.
Here is a link to Dr. Andrew’s web site where you can find his publications and his curriculum vitae (qualifications, education, field work experience, research positions, etc.)

Below is a link to a review of his book.

Here is a link to an interesting article on tents in the Mongol Empire by Caroline Stone, who is the senior researcher of the “Civilizations in Contact” project for the University of Cambridge.

A few more books of interest:

Circle Houses: Yurts, Tipis, and Benders by David Pearson
Mongolian Cloud Houses by Dan Frank Kuehn
Caravans to Tatary by Roland Michaud
Tents: Architecture of the Nomads by Torvald Faegre

You may ask: “What about nomad carts and wagons”? Yes, carts were extremely important to the nomads. Someday we might add a section about them as well as photos of our Hun camp. Hopefully we can get some other early period stuff on here as well- Scythians and Sarmatians. Feel free to send camp photos to share.