Please scroll down to look at images from a small selection of the projects we have been recording over the past fifteen years.

All images on this page are (c) Gordon Clarke. Images may be used on the web, in books and other publications subject to our licence terms here:

Arbore Huts of Reed

Southern Ethiopia
Visited 2012 and 2014

Afar Mat Tents

North-east Ethiopia
Visited 2019

The Afar occupy a large region that extends from Ethiopia into Eritrea and Djibouti. This includes some extreme habitats from the ancient basalt lava flows, to the rift valley mountains in the north and wetland swamps in the south. Throughout they use a grid frame, covered with mats, although the size of the frame and materials used adapts considerably to the period of migration and the availability of local materials.

The Afar peoples are Eastern Hamites who speak a Nilo-Hamitic language and live in a roughly triangular area of the Danakil desert between the high Ethiopian escarpment and the shore of the Red Sea. There are about 250 000 Afar living in what is one of the most inhospitable areas on earth, for the most part consisting of dry rocky land, much of it below sea level. There is no rain for nine months of the year and temperatures can reach 50 °C (122 °F) . There is one large river, the Awash, running down into the Danakil desert, but like other smaller rivers it fails to reach the sea and peters out in a series of lakes. The Afars are Muslims and while they have been integrated within an overtly Muslim set of religious attitudes many of their rules pre-date the arrival of Islam.

The Afar economy is based on keeping a range of animals and it is the possession of animals by which a man's wealth is measured. The Afar keep cows, sheep and goats for meat and milk, and camels, horses and donkeys for transport. Since most ofthe Afar's land is a desert of volcanic rock weathered down to sand they are forced to spend much of their time on the move and for much of die year when water and grazing are scarce the whole camp must continually move on to another waterhole or new pastures. The armature mat-covered tent is transported on camels. 

The camp is chiefly the women's province. They keep it clean, look after the sheep, goats and milking cows, take care ofthe children and build the mat tents in which the Afar live. The tents are always owned by the women who also make and pitch them. The woman's dowry includes the tent, the bed, and other tent furnishings. It is the men's job to build enclosures for the animals and to do any job that entails moving away from the camp. 

The camp is in a circle with two to six tents on the outside enclosed by a thornbush; there is a thornbush corral for the sheep and goats at the centre.

Baka Pygmies


Dorze, Chencha

Southern Ethiopia
Visited 2012 and 2014

High in the Rift Valley Mountains in Southern Ethiopia, the Dorze people have developed a technique of splitting and weaving bamboo. They use it to make fences and baskets, coat it with clay to make storage pots, even make bee hives out of it, but most importantly, they make whole houses from it. Even the scaffolding and the ladders are made from bamboo?

It takes a lot of preparation, the bamboo is not used in the round, as for many Malaysian houses, but split, flattened out, and then the pith is removed. This makes the pieces flexible enough to be woven between uprights, set into the ground and then gradually added to as the height rises. Eventually the builder will start to pull the pieces in and weave rings of decreasing size until they are finally closed with a crown, woven separately on the ground.

Cheaper houses are then thatched with wheat or barley straw, but the best are covered with bamboo sheaths, the base of the leaves that crows around the culm. There is a myth, propogated by local tour guides, that they are covered with banana leaves, for a variety of banana is ideed grown locally. It does not friut but a bread can be made from the fermented pulp from the leaf ribs, but it is not durable enough to cover a house. However the bamboo leaf sheathes can last 10-20 years.

The houses are over seven metres high, and this allows for the gradual shrinkage, for rot and termites eat away at the base of the house, and it will typically lose some 2 to 5 centimetres in a year (see picture below). The main doorway between the porch and the house is very tall for the same reason, although the door into the porch is simply re-woven every few years. 

The houses are made by specialist builders, exclusively male, and it takes three or four craftsmen around two weeks to build a 5-6m diameter house. Usually the house owner will help out, cutting bamboo and carrying materials in order to reduce cost. Once finished, the house will be subdivided with chambers for sleeping, and frequently around a third will be given over to a cow and chickens.

Like much traditional African architecture, the houses are becoming increasingly rare as people prefer now to move into rectangular earth-walled buildings with tin roofs.

Horse-Drawn Travellers


Throughout Britian the traveller tradition continues. Just as the Romanies picked up the horse and vardo from the travelling showmen in the mid-nineteenth century, so a new tradition of people who chose to live on the move has developed. Starting in the late-twentieth century, when spare pockets of land are few and far between, life is a mixture of joy of freedom and struggle against those elements of the settled population who find discomfort in their presence.

Many survive through their skills in crafts, carved mushrooms and painted horseshoes among them. 

These photos were taken very close to our base in South Devon, and thanks to Kelly, Cruisy and Lee for letting us see their lives.

Tekna Berber Black Tents

Algeria-Morocco Border

Kyrgyz Yurt


Making a Yurt

Click to watch the video.

Made from willow and felt. Most of the production is now carried out in one or two small villages. Many of the nomads are now only semi-nomadic, spending the winter months in lowland villages, some many kilometres from the plateau grasslands that they occupy in the summer months. 
The traditional yurts have steeply sloping roofs, much steeper than the Mongolian ger, and this helps to avoid the internal posts that are frequently present in the ger supporting the central ring. The felt is made from three layers of sheep’s wool, white on either side and a thicker layer of brown/black wool in the middle. Although just as effective as an insulator, the brown wool is much cheaper to purchase. I sometimes wonder why the nomads don’t just breed white sheep! The three layers are laid in opposite directions and this gives additional strength to the felt. A good cover will last some eight to ten years before it starts to wear thin, and increasingly the nomads use a layer of polythene under the felt to provide additional waterproofing and to extend the life of the cover.
We only encountered one small herd of yak up in the mountains, and the yurts are now almost exclusively moved by trucks, or even small cars. This has led not only to an increase in the size of the yurt, but also definitely to the amount of furniture and material objects that are carried. It is interesting to note just how quickly the pack animals have disappeared now they are no longer needed to carry things. It would appear that there is less status to owning camels here than in the desert regions. However, the yak were definitely owned by a wealthy family, so some status must accrue.
There can be a huge difference in size and quality of yurt, ranging from an elaborately decorated yurt some 6 to 7m in diameter, to a simple and threadbare yurt of a local fisherman perhaps only 4m across.
The architecture is also changing as the Chinese now mass-produce steel framed yurts with light cotton or vinyl covers, which sell for around a third of the price of a local hand-made yurt. Most of the high quality yurt makers are now supported by exports to Europe, which plays a vital part in keeping this tradition alive. The nomads are also adopting simple frame tents, which are even cheaper, although most families we saw maintained at least one traditional yurt.

Many thanks to Jane from "Silk Road Tours" for assisting with the arrangements for this trip.

Shahsavan Alachigh
An Iranian Yurt

Northern Iran

Tibetan Black Tent

Amdo, Tibet 

Berber Cave Dwellings

Atlas Mountains of Morocco


Caves may, or may not, represent the earliest of human dwellings, and there is evidence that many formed permanent homes for more settled communities. They are not usually the realm of nomads, for once a group has left a cave empty, it becomes available for another group to occupy. However, the peaceful Atlas Mountain Berber nomads keep a time honoured respect for each family's different caves, while at the same time maintining that no-one owns, or even has rights of occupation to, any particular cave. This is a very healthy response to questions of land ownership. While you need it, it is yours, when you no onger need it, it is free for someone else.

The caves are occupied typically during the colder months, when the nomads will bring their flocks down from the peaks to lowland areas closer to local villages and away from the snows. In the summer months they slowly climb the heights, occupying a series of small caves as the months go by, until in summer they use small black tents to pitch in the highest areas. Of course, this brings the families closer together, and summer is a time also for meetings and marriages.

Most of the caves are naturally formed, but not deep. Many have been adapted over generations, some by the simple addition of a few boulders to keep the winds from the fire, others quite elaborately with caves merging into stock pens and with new chambers being excavated for different parts of the family.

Hamer Conical Huts

A very rare example.

Southern Ethiopia
Visited 2012 and 2014

Komi Choom
Reindeer Herders in Siberia

Visited 2015 and 2016 

Nenet Reindeer Herders in the Yamal Peninsular



Sinai Desert
Visited 2009 and 2010 

The Arab black tent holds almost mythical status in the realm of nomadic architecture, and there are dozens of different variants. Possibly the best known is the nine-pole tent used by many Bedouin people, which achieves a balance between economy of timber use, a scarce resource in these desert regions, and the maximisation of useable floor area achieved by raising the whole of the tent off the ground (compare with the Tekna tent, for example where the sides almost touch the sand).

One side of the tent is traditionally the makhad, a place for meeting and receiving guests, the other is for family occupation.

Today, the tent is undergoing rapid change and many Bedouin are settling into small shelters mostly made from concrete block at tin. The region has become increasingly arid, rainfall is diminished and water tables are dropping, and the population is increasing rapidly. Many old tents are to be seen piled by these shelters. The nomads are unwilling to dispose of them, 'just in case' they should one day want to return to nomadic life.

All images on this page are (c) Gordon Clarke. Images may be used on the web, in books and other publications subject to our licence terms here:

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