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A Life in Tents

Peter Alford Andrews and his late wife, Mügül, set out to catalogue the traditional yurt – the ultimate portable dwelling. It became their life’s work.

  • Mügül with Ali Khan, leader of the Geyiklü tribe of the Shahsevän, Iran, 1974

Some 30 years ago on a working visit to north China, I was invited to lunch in a yurt on the Mongolian steppe. The meal consisted of camel broth and roast lamb, washed down with mare’s milk and lashings of Maotai firewater. My host was a Mongol herdsman, a part-time nomad, and – of course – a trusted member of the Communist Party. The other guests were a group of Chinese tourists from Hong Kong.

Last year I spent a night in a “luxury yurt” in the mountains above Santa Barbara, California. It was equipped with a full kitchen range, a giant fridge, dishwasher, high-tech sound system, and had a double bedroom with en-suite bathroom tacked on the back.Today there are probably more tourist yurts in Asia than there are nomads, and yurt mania has swept the West. So it is comforting to discover that someone has devoted a lifetime to cataloguing authentic nomad dwellings from north Africa to Anatolia, the Middle East to Central Asia. And it is somehow appropriate that this painstaking inventory should be the work of an Englishman.

Dr Peter Alford Andrews is no romantic, however, but a methodical researcher whose encyclopaedia-sized books have been hailed as the last word on the subject. I went to see him at his modest suburban house in Bristol and found a man much younger and livelier than his 80 years. He showed no ill effects from his arduous life under canvas (or, more accurately, felt). He spoke rapidly and fluently, with what seemed total recall. His extraordinary attention to detail led Mügül, his Turkish wife, to joke that he was “trying to embrace the ocean”. For nearly 50 years, until her death last year, Mügül was his close collaborator.

Andrews was born in Lyme Regis, Dorset, where his father was a doctor. He was sent to Stowe School and got into Cambridge University, where he read medicine before switching to architecture. He found in Bernard Rudofsky’s book Architecture Without Architects a reference to a complaint by Arthur Upham Pope, the doyen of Persian art historians, that no one had given the “architecture” of tents the attention it deserved. Andrews decided to put that right.

While employed by a firm of architects, he determined to make a survey of nomad tents throughout the Muslim world and started to visit nomadic areas. Time was short: the way of life was vanishing. Nomad families who resisted the temptation – or official pressure – to give up their way of life were importing modern technology and materials. In Turkey they were using polythene skins and Terylene ropes, and everywhere trucks were replacing camels. Andrews realised that to fulfil his aim he needed to become an ethnologist and linguist, and began an intensive round of postgraduate study in art history, Persian, Ottoman, Turkish and Russian.

In 1964 he met Mügül, who had come to London for a difficult (and successful) operation for a congenital heart condition. The meeting was a defining moment for them both. Not only was she prepared to give her life to his project, but she helped expand and deepen it: the architecture of tents became the starting point for an ethnological inventory of their decoration, hangings and furniture; of how the domestic space was adapted to marriage and children; the planning of the camp ground; the annual migratory pattern of the occupants; the history of the tribe – even the climatic background. Mügül Ataç (her first name was a contraction of Ümmükülsum, a courageous ancestor) came from a distinguished background, the Kadirbeyzade family of pashas from Gümüşhane. Her paternal grandfather was Atatürk’s finance minister. Andrews revisited Turkey in 1967, and became a Muslim.

For her part, Mügül agreed to share with her husband the nomadic life he had set his heart on. After a few days’ honeymoon in an elite club in the Princes Islands, the couple decamped to the Taurus Mountains to live with “black tent” nomads – so-called because their tent felts were made of dark, oily goat hair. Mügül, who had grown up in a house with ten servants, had a gift to get on with all sorts of people. Her presence in nomadic camps was accepted by men, and she soon learned to talk in various Turkic dialects to tribeswomen reluctant to converse with strange men. Mügül became her husband’s intermediary and fellow fieldworker and illustrator of his books. She also made her own paintings and drawings and produced her own book on Türkmen needlework. A year after the wedding, the couple were in Morocco, working from a VW camper van – later discarded because it distanced them from the nomads. Mügül discovered she was pregnant and returned to England to give birth to the first of two sons.Andrews meanwhile embarked on a PhD thesis at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London. It was to take him ten years. Emerging as The Felt Tent in Middle Asia, the two-volume thesis was later accepted as part of a German academic series and, financed by the J Paul Getty Trust, was eventually published in 1999 in two even bigger volumes by Melisende, London, as Felt Tents and Pavilions: The Nomadic Tradition and its Interaction with Princely Tentage.

The books traced the development of everyday (nomad) dwellings and ceremonial (“princely”) tents – which under the Timurids and Mughals could house several thousand people and required several thousand more, using windlasses and elephants, to put them up. The research covered the period from 3000 BC to the 19th century, and an area from Manchuria to Turkey, including India. The result, wrote one reviewer, was “detailed, daunting, exhaustive, exhausting and richly rewarding”.While writing his PhD, Andrews taught architecture at Oxford Polytechnic (now Oxford Brookes University), a post from which he says he was dismissed for exposing an embarrassing case of plagiarism by one of the students. He was offered a job by the Institute for Ethnology in Cologne. He and his wife stayed in Germany for 25 years.

During this time, a second big work on tents was compiled, this time omitting the “princely” or “urban” types. It is an encyclopaedic work of reference called Nomad Tent Types in the Middle East, though it covers virtually the whole “felt belt”. Tents are divided into two broad categories and the book is in two parts. The first part, published in 1997, deals with “frame tents”, structures with separate covers which can be dismantled and transported separately. They are usually called yurts, but this is a misnomer. A yurt is not a tent but a camp site or tribal area – in modern Turkish it can mean anything from a youth hostel to homeland. Tents are oi, oüy or üy in Turkic languages (hence ev, the Turkish for house) and ger in Mongolian.

The typical “yurt” is the trellis type of frame tent – one of no fewer than 56 types that Andrews identifies. Others include rib, bender, tunnel, armature, vaulted and arched. Everything is described: the frames, the coverings, cordage, bands, screens and furnishings. Campsite plans are included, except in cases where the camp dogs proved too officious and would not let Andrews roam freely. There are two volumes: one of text and one of illustrations.The second part, still in preparation, deals with velum tents(from the Latin for sail or covering) or black tents, in which poles and covering are interdependent. In this they are said to symbolise marriage, the man being the pole, the woman the felt, and neither able to stand without the other.But it is for another kind of survey that Peter Andrews is best known in Turkey – his ethnic survey of the country, which was as controversial as it was unusual. Nothing like this had been attempted (at least since Nazi times).

With the assistance of Rüdiger Benninghaus and various contributors, Andrews recorded the ethnicity claimed by people in 10,000 villages, many of which had never appeared on any map. The book was published in 1989, with a new edition and second volume in 2002.Other departures from his principal theme included a survey and description of Sazin, a fortified village in north Pakistan, done for the anthropologist Karl Jettmar, and a book about the tent collection at the Calico Museum of Textiles at Ahmedabad in India. Both had illustrations provided by his wife. I asked Dr Andrews whether he hankered after the nomadic life he had spent so much time and effort recording. “I’m too busy to hanker,” he replied. “Besides, it wouldn’t be the same without Mügül anyway. Her companionship was so important to me.” Now an honorary research fellow at Bristol University, Andrews has plenty of work in progress besides the much-awaited second part of Nomad Tent Types. But he still keeps in his garage the trellis tent which he and his wife bought after selling an astrakhan coat which her mother gave her at her wedding 50 years ago.

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