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The life of the nomad

Nomads were, and still are, dependent economically and physically on their herds of animals. For transport, they relied primarily on horses and camels. As a result, camels, and horses in particular, were highly valued. This is 'reflected in the wonderful array of woven and embroidered decorative trappings used to ornament the animals – shaped blankets and saddle covers, flank trappings, head and rump harnesses, knee pads and, for Turkmen horses, special silver and carnelian-studded leather horse jewellery.' (Sumner, 1999:28)

The only way for people to survive in this arid region was to move with their herds of sheep and goats from place to place each season. This became possible in the third millennium BC when nomads began to use horses as transport, and importantly they learned to ride horses. Camels were also used for transport, and herds of sheep and goats grazed and moved with the nomads on their seasonal travels to find good grazing. Sheep and goats provided both food and drink and wool for clothes, rugs, wall hangings and furnishings.

It has been estimated that each nomadic family unit needed about 100 kilograms of wool a year to make their own clothing and felts, which is roughly equivalent to a hundred large, thick woollen sweaters. (Sumner, 1999:24)

Photo: Julie King

In addition to horses and camels, portable homes (the felt yurt) were vital to the nomadic lifestyle. The yurt allowed the nomads to survive in very cold weather. This portable lifestyle meant that art and creativity were expressed in the rugs, furnishings and clothes which were also portable.

Setting up and transporting the yurt
The yurt consisted of between five and eight sections of willow-wood lattice tied together to form a circular frame. A space was allowed for a doorway, which traditionally faced east. More wooden slats locked into a small, circular frame at the top to form the roof. This allowed the yurt to be collapsed, transported and set up with ease. Women could set up a yurt completely in just two to three hours. Three camels were needed to transport the yurt and the family's household possessions.

Photo: Adrienne Cobby
Photo: Adrienne Cobby

Textile products for the yurt
A broad woven band was tied round the middle of the yurt to stabilise it. For special occasions, such as weddings, ceremonial bands were brought out and wound around the yurt. Thick, shaped felts held with woven ropes formed the outer walls and roof. The inner walls were made from woven reeds or lined with printed cottons. The ground inside was covered with felts; pile carpets and flat-woven rugs (kilims) which featured beautiful patterns and rich earthy colours were placed on top.

Photo: Adrienne Cobby
Photo: Adrienne Cobby

Areas inside the yurt
The yurt was divided into areas for cooking and living. The cooking area of the yurt was on the right and was considered to be the women's area. The men's area was to the left and often housed the riding equipment. If the household was more affluent they may have had separate yurts for cooking, producing rugs and entertaining visitors.

Photo: Adrienne Cobby
Photo: Adrienne Cobby

Household goods were stored in carved wooden boxes or woven bags (juval, torba etc.) strapped to the lattice. See Fig. 2 Tekke Turkmen torba.

ekke Turkmen torba
Fig 2. Tekke Turkmen torba
Small bags like this were suspended from the wall of the nomads' yurt (tent) and used to store household items. The major (large) gul, geometric motif, is of a type often seen on Tekke torbas, while the minor (small) gul occurs in different forms in a range of weavings.
Wool warp and weft, wool and silk, asymmetrical knots, made in north-western Afghanistan, about 1900. 1520 x 1030 mm.
Powerhouse Museum Collection 96/391/1, purchased with the assistance of the Oriental Rug Society of NSW, 1996.

The everyday clothes of the nomads were functional and attractive. Their ceremonial dress in particular is noted for its beauty.

… the densely embroidered chyrpys (silk coats) with long false sleeves worked by Tekke Turkmen women until the early 1900s… had different coloured ground cloth depending on the age and marital status of the woman wearing them and were worn for special festivals. They are still made, but without the false sleeves and with less embroidery. (Sumner, 1999:28)

Survival of the nomads
To survive as nomads groups needed:

  • safe routes
  • good grazing land
  • a ready supply of water
  • sufficient wealth to own the necessary equipment.

However, even with all this, nomads were subject to the extremes of weather, the violence of other tribes and the threat of wild animals. Life as a nomad could be far from idyllic.

From the initial domestication of the horse as a riding animal to the Manchu conquest of China in 1644 CE, the nomads of Central Asia have interacted, often violently, with the cultures that surround them. The first wave out of the Caucasus, the Indo-Europeans, set the pattern of raids, invasion, settlement and eventual blending into the local civilisation. (Sumner, 1999:10)

Often this resulted in nomads moving to more fertile land and settling. Even so there were always plenty of other nomads to take their place. 'Settlement demands order, control and planning; nomadism requires flexibility, mobility and opportunity.' (O'Bannon, 1998: 10)

The interdependence of nomads and oasis dwellers
Although at times there was conflict between the nomads and oasis dwellers, the oasis cities relied on nomads for animals and animal products such as wool, leather and meat. The nomads depended on the oasis dweller for agricultural food products, silk and cotton threads, textiles and the products of craft workshops: metalwork, woodwork and ceramics.

During times of relative peace and prosperity, direct trade also took place between the nomads and the major civilisations: Greece, China, Iran, Byzantium. At annual border-town fairs luxury items, tools, household goods and agricultural products could be exchanged for fine horses and furs, wool and leatherwork and sometimes goods stolen in raids on caravans or distant cities. Because of the breadth of the nomad range, they acted as a means of transmitting arts and ideas from the borders of China to the heart of eastern Europe. (Sumner, 1999:11-12)

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