If buildings grew naturally, like trees, tents would be the mushrooms of the architectural forest— appearing overnight, briefly noted, vanishing just as quickly, leaving no permanent record of roots, rings, or stumps.
At one time the mainstay shelter of nomadic man, the tent was replaced—starting about 10,000 years ago —by homes, temples, and palaces of sturdier material. But something odd happened on the way to extinction. As buildings of wood, stone, and marble increased in grandeur and scale, so did the tents.
For remote tribes and nomadic peoples, the tent was still the house. For soldiers in the field, it was rudimentary shelter. For their commanders, however, tents were palaces abroad, trumpetings of importance to cow the peasantry and intimidate the foe. And even near the capital cities where sturdy, permanent, often splendid architecture flourished, the tent flowered anew.
The resplendent tent of Xerxes, would-be conqueror of Greece, was described by Herodotus as “an immense pavilion hung with gaily colored tapestries of oriental design and equipped with tables and couches of gold and silver.” It so impressed the Greeks (who captured it) that Xerxes’ field headquarters soon became the model for the theater of Pericles in Athens.
Alexander the Great had a marriage tent hung from fifty 30-foot columns of silver and gold, large enough to house 100 couches and to host 9,000 friends of the groom (who also happened to be marrying, to cement the ties between Macedonia and Persia). Its roof was a dome: woven, painted, and brocaded inside with sun, moon, stars, and all the signs and deities of the heavens. Later called the Cosmic Tent or the World Tent of Alexander, its plan was adopted by Nero and by Byzantine emperors as an imperial symbol, replicated in the design of their throne rooms.
In China, Marco Polo was received in “The Great Tent of the Khan,” richly ornamented and “large enough to cover a thousand people.” His host, Kublai Khan, was emulating his notorious uncle, Ghengis Khan, who campaigned with an elaborate royal tent surrounded, wherever it was pitched, by smaller “yurts” to house his entourage of wives.
When George V had himself crowned as emperor of India, it was once more the royal tent which arose to confirm the gravity and grandeur of the occasion. But now it was Tent City. India in 1911 had hundreds of regional princes, rajahs, and nawabs to accommodate in such a ceremony, so the coronation site outside Delhi blossomed with literally thousands of tents: 475 grand encampments covering an area twice the size of Manhattan.
Thus the most primitive structural form of man— born as a raw stratagem for survival—had been born again, elaborated into the grand emblem of pomp and circumstance afield: portable symbols of mastery and might, raised like historical exclamation points on the Plains of Phillipi, the parade grounds of Charlemagne, or the royal barges of Cleopatra and Napoleon. These spectacular short-term castles could be hoisted overnight to endow any incident, anywhere, with a sense of great occasion.
It was a principle easily adapted. P.T. Barnum understood it perfectly. Today, the Public Relations Department orders a large, colorful tent along with the bunting for groundbreakings and cornerstone-layings. For a golf tournament, a garden festival, a revival meeting, a country fair, a World’s Fair, or an outdoor wedding reception, there is no surer way to suggest large stature than to rent a large tent.
No matter what anyone thinks about big tents, the visceral reaction still reverberates with history. When suddenly there is a building where yesterday there was nothing, something important must be happening.
The first known dwellings outside of caves are reed and mud (twig and daub) huts around the Mediterranean and tented huts of hides and bone in the colder regions of Eastern Europe. These were constructed by hunting cultures such as the Cro-Magnons, who replaced Neanderthal Man in Europe. Though difficult to date in any precise way, tented huts are seen in cave paintings 10,000 to 20,000 years old and probably go back at least 35,000 years. One tent site at Molodova, Russia, has been tentatively dated at 40,000 B.C.
In her Atlas of Early Man (St. Martin’s Press, 1976), archaeologist Jacquetta Hawkes characterizes the Cro-Magnons as the first real problem solvers. They improved the tools of hunting (inventing, for example, the spearthrower), dressed warmly in the resulting furs, and made needles out of antlers to sew these pelts together.
Certainly when hunters kill woolly mammoths—which the Cro-Magnons were doing in southeastern Europe as the last ice age began to recede—the skins they haul back to camp are large enough to suggest not just tailoring but architecture.
Remains of one such dwelling in Pushkari, southern Russia, show a tented hut 98 feet long, with a row of hearths down the center, apparently one to a family. The mammoth skin coverings may have been supported by mammoth ribs and tusks (wood was scarce) and were anchored against the wind by the weight of mammoth bones, tusks, and teeth.
Most tents of the ancient world, great and small, have disintegrated without trace or plan. One brilliant exception is the tabernacle tent of Moses and the Israelites, whose divine specifications are clearly set forth in the Old Testament.
In Exodus 4:26, Yahweh tells Moses to make a tabernacle—a portable sanctuary and “Tent of Meeting” —with “ten sheets of fine twined linen, of purple stuffs, violet and red, and of crimson stuffs… finely brocaded with cherubs.”
These sheets are specified as 28 cubits (about 50 feet) long and 4 cubits wide: in all, roughly 350 square yards of fabric, sewn together in two great sections. Each half was to have 50 purple loops, and 50 gold clasps were to join these loops when the tent was erected. Over the entire tabernacle, a second tent of goat hair was to be laid. A third layer was to be ram skins, dyed red, and finally a covering of leather over that.
The framework is described in similar detail. Acacia wood uprights, ten cubits high and one and a half cubits wide (the cubit was a unit approximately equal to the length of a forearm, from the tip of the middle finger to the elbow: commonly, 18 to 22 inches). Each post was plated with bronze at the ends and fitted with two bronze tenons or pegs at the bottom, to fit into twin sockets of silver.
There were 26 uprights—ten each on the north and south sides, six on the west, leaving the east end open to the front of the tabernacle—all held together by cross-arms at the top. At the two corners where the side walls met the back wall, the end posts of each row were fastened together for structural rigidity.
It was a staggering load to carry through the wilderness. In metal alone—for post sockets, clasps, hooks, plating, and for the altar and its furnishings —the Israelites gathered over 12,000 pounds of gold, silver, and bronze. But such is the burden of history. In this imposing tabernacle, the people of Moses created a binding community symbol, a visible sense of purpose through all their wanderings. The tabernacle tent was the portable precursor to the great Temple of Solomon they would eventually build in Jerusalem, using the same plans to establish its basic proportions.
Long before the arts of spinning and weaving matured, stone age nomads of the Steppes invented felt. Formed by the wetting, heating, and pressing of animal hair, this matted, non-woven material may have been the first manmade fabric. For the ancient Mongols, it served as clothing, bedding, floor coverings, foot coverings, saddlebags, and—most conspicuously —as the fabric of circular tents known as yurts.
Described by Marco Polo, this sturdy, weathertight tent was already an ancient form in his time. For Tartar princes, the yurt was elaborated in grand scale, with intricate designs—inlays of brightly dyed goat hair or wool, pressed into the original felt.
Today’s yurt is probably close to the original form. Small, usually plain white and occasionally plain black, the yurt is still raised on the Mongolian plains by shepherds and yak breeders who require a portable residence to move with the seasonal changes of pasture.
Felt sidecloths are mounted on a cylindrical screen of wicker or interlaced sticks. Longer wood strips are bent over the top, forming arches for the dome. These are secured by a wood ring at the top, which is also left open as a chimney. The whole arrangement can be quickly dismantled—or hoisted intact onto a wagon bed—when the time comes to move on.
Once human ingenuity had contrived the tent, the umbrella was all but inevitable.
True, its invention has not been pinned down. No first-ever bumbershoot is known. No ancient shards of proto-parasols have been unearthed to suggest when or where the idea arose, or even if it was raining at the time.
Fortunately, in Noah’s part of the world, an inspired weather forecast led to the building of a boat rather than an umbrella; but even before Noah, Egyptian aristocrats (who reckoned not with rain) delighted in elaborate royal umbrellas and, as Douglas Tunstell has termed them, “honorific parasols.”
In ancient China and India, umbrellas not only held off the sun and the rain but also symbolized the heavens—one’s personal replica of a dry sky. And like the tents of the mighty, the umbrellas of the mighty took on great ceremonial and often religious significance. One of Buddha’s Eight Treasures was an umbrella with seven tiers; and in the conventions of Indian sculpture, a parasol with no one under it represents the Buddha’s invisible presence.
The phenomenon was worldwide. Pizzarro quickly singled out Atahualpa, ruler of the Incas, because in all the royal Inca entourage only the king had a parasol.
The Chinese, meantime, had invented the first folding umbrellas, and either they or the Japanese had conceived a DaVinci-like twist on the whole idea. Old Japanese prints show maidens parachuting by parasol from the top of the Kiyomizu Temple.
It took prodigies of engineering and structural design to achieve the first true masonry domes, and it took centuries. Why this elusive goal was so vigorously pursued is still a mystery.
Stones, bricks, and timbers clearly were not going to cooperate with any early architect who had his heart set on a dome. Only recently— with the advent of steel, aluminum, reinforced plastic, and laminated wood—has the notion of large spherical sections become the least bit practical. Yet from earliest stone age structures, there are evident signs of a struggle to master the stubborn physics of the dome.
At first, these attempts took the form of corbelling—laying stone courses in decreasing circumferences until they almost met at the top. Then there were wooden domes, hewn with excessive effort in ancient India, Russia, and the Roman Empire. Ptolemy II had the ceiling of his domical tent painted to look like stone. There were even domes carved out of solid rock, including some in the Catacombs. In the far north, one Eskimo could build a dome single-handedly in an hour or two. But how to duplicate this feat on a large scale, with blocks of stone instead of snow, had yet to be imagined.
When the Romans developed the arch, the stage was finally set for Hadrian’s Pantheon with its coffered dome, and Byzantine architects soon perfected the form.
By that time, history had been insisting on domes for thousands of years before anyone knew how to build one.
In primitive societies worldwide, the earliest shelters—tents, pit houses, earthen or thatched huts—were often circular and covered with a curved roof, occasionally conical but usually of domical form. Why? Because that’s what gravity does to saplings covered with hides, or to dirt heaped into a mound.
When “civilization” finally developed, human memory had already been conditioned by 50,000 to 100,000 years of feeling at home in circular areas covered by crude spires or domes. These yearnings plus the perceived “dome of the heavens” may have fueled the religious importance of domes and the willingness to regard domical structures as places of great importance.
Thus the spire and the dome may have emerged first as tents, and much of architectural history can be seen as an effort to recapture the tent in stone.
For those who dislike such speculations, a somewhat more rudimentary explanation is available. It may be that when structural ideas are forming under the domes of architects who inhabit a spherical planet, certain forms are inevitable.
In 1806, Napoleon and Tsar Alexander I met in delicate negotiations to decide, at least briefly, the fate of eastern Europe, Turkey, India, and Scandinavia. Protocol required that they convene in suitable spendor, but at the palace of neither.
The chosen halfway point was Tilsit, at the far western tip of Russia and the northeastern tip of Napoleonic Europe, where the Neman River separated their two armies. At mid-river, on a barge, a magnificent tent was erected, and there the first meeting took place.
In a surprisingly agreeable three hours, Napoleon concluded a series of understandings and remarked that if Alexander were a woman, he would take her as his mistress. When he decided instead to marry Alexander’s 15-year-old sister, the Franco-Russian treaty began to crumble, and the stage was set for 1812, Tchaikovsky, Tolstoy, and great numbers of lesser men settling the same issues from lesser tents.
It was Genghis Khan who, around 1200 A.D., convinced the ever-warring Mongol princes to stop fighting for each other’s cattle and start fighting with other people, for broader and greener pastures. Within a hundred years, the Mongol empire stretched from Poland to Korea under Kublai Khan.
Fierce combatants and superb horsemen, the Mongols had the additional advantage of staying power. They never tired of a campaign out of homesickness or low morale because—Nomads from the beginning—they carried “home” wherever they went. The warrior’s tent was not a temporary field expedient; it was his house. For Genghis Khan, his tent was his castle.
Charlemagne (Charles the Great) never met Harun-al-Rashid (Aaron the Upright), but their empires met around the Adriatic, and the two of them controlled the majority of the civilized world in the late eighth and early ninth centuries. Harun, the mighty Caliph of Baghdad, controlled all of southwestern Asia and northern Africa. Charles, in forty years of brilliant campaigning and political arranging, consolidated most of Europe in his Frankish Christian empire. Though their bordering provinces were often at war and the borders themselves elastic, the two rulers maintained diplomatic courtesies by way of lavish exchanges of presents. And though Charlemagne’s empire grew stronger while the Byzantine sphere was faltering, it was Harun-al-Rashid who proved supreme in devising gifts, two of which survive in all of the many Charlemagne legends. One was an elephant, a source of much wonder just as Hannibal’s elephants had been the cause of great terror a few centuries earlier. The other was a tent—a brilliant display of rainbow colored silks—which became the pride of royal encampments through the latter days of the Emperor’s ceaseless campaigns.
Compared with the fathers of other countries, George Washington settled for a smaller and utterly unadorned tent at Valley Forge. It can still be seen there, recently placed on permanent view at the Valley Forge Historical site—a plain canvas marquee tent the size of an average living room. The stark essence of rugged revolutionary spirit, it stands in the field where history (or at least Fifth Grade history books) recorded bloody footprints in the snow.
They weren’t the General’s footprints. After three days in the tent, he issued orders and specifications for the building of log houses to replace tents, then retired for the winter to the nearby home of Deborah Hewes.
In the Fall of 1777, a supremely confident General John Burgoyne and his British regulars marched into the colonies from Canada and quickly arrived at an impasse. Attempting to move on Albany, they were trapped by the Americans at Bemis Heights. After two unsuccessful attempts at breaking through, Burgoyne, with low supplies and little hope of reinforcement, hit on a plan for escape.
Under cover of night, the British packed up and quietly moved out, unnoticed because they had left all but one of their tents standing, complete with campfires.
The stratagem worked perfectly except that Burgoyne’s northward march was less nimble than his mind, slowed down by such burdens as 30 wagon loads of the general’s personal belongings. His retreat was outflanked and stopped at the Hudson.
There, Burgoyne’s officers met in their remaining tent and—with grapeshot and musketballs ripping through the canvas—decided to surrender.
When the Roman legions campaigned in far off territories, they took their towns with them: tent encampments as highly organized as their cities. Working to a fixed and familiar plan, they could quickly quarter 10,000 men plus equipment and animals in such a way that everyone knew where everyone else was. In an age when all communications were carried on foot, the military advantages of a portable hometown were considerable.
The encampment was planned from the inside out. After a site was selected, the general’s tent (Praetorium) was positioned on a main street, Via Praetoria, running the length of the camp. This was intersected by the Via Principale and the Via Quintana at fixed intervals which sectioned off the regular army from the allied army.
Framing this quadrangle was a fortified trench, making surprise attacks almost impossible. Almost. In his campaign against the Belgae, Julius Caesar narrowly escaped the only known incident in which he was taken by surprise. All of the Belgae tribes except one—the Nervii (from which the word “nervy” alas does not derive) —had quickly surrendered. The Nervii shadowed the conquering legions through a day’s march, then attacked while the encampment was being organized.
Fighting in unaccustomed chaos, the Romans finally managed to drive off the attackers, and Caesar survived—or there might have been a Celtic rather than a Roman encampment shown here.
During the Crusades, rumors kept drifting back to Europe of a mighty eastern priest-king, Prester John (Presbyter John) who would soon join with the Christian knights to retake the Holy Land. After Marco Polo and other travelers failed to find any trace of the Prester in the East except further fables, the search shifted to Ethiopia—the one Christian kingdom in medieval Africa.
A Portuguese delegation arrived on the Red Sea coast of Ethiopia in 1520 bearing gifts and offers of a treaty for the legendary king (who would by this time have been at least 400 years old; but then, the legend included a marvelous mineral spring that restored youth).
Eventually they would find the Negus, the ruler of Ethiopia, and would have to settle for him as the long sought Prester John. But first they had to find the capital, and that took six months because no one seemed to know where the capital was. In a land of fierce rivalries and ambitious chiefs, the Negus was able to maintain power only by keeping his headquarters constantly on the move, along with his infantry.
Though the mountainsides teemed with stone churches and walled monasteries, the imperial city itself was just a tented encampment, surrounded by the massed tents of the imperial army.
If Harvard were to take up the case of the American Big Top, it would probably be in the Business School rather than the School of Architecture. The incredible flowering and then folding of the great circus tents, for all of their structural ingenuity, is essentially a case history in marketing.
The early circuses in Europe and America had played in buildings, as had the Greek and Roman circuses before them. Their problem was that just so many tickets could be sold each year to the limited population within reach of a stadium, hippodrome, or arena.
When the early traveling circuses took the show to the people around 1790, they would perform in the open and then pass the hat. Too few people pitched in, so canvas walls soon appeared, hiding the show from all who hadn’t paid admission.
Revenues improved, at least when the sun was shining. In the 1820’s, Nathan Howe added a tent roof to his Mid-Atlantic traveling circus, increasing the number of playing and paying days, and the Big Top was born.
The first circus tents were round, with one center pole in the middle of the performing ring. As competition intensified, a second ring was added, then a third, and canvas roof strips connected the tent tops to make the Big Top bigger.
The Ringling Route Book of 1892, bible of the circus industry, describes one Big Top as a “180 foot round top with four 50-foot middle pieces—or 180 by 380 feet.” The great tents of Kublai Khan and Alexander the Great would have fit nicely inside. This Ringling Brothers tent could seat eight to ten thousand and, by the 1940’s, the audience grew to 13,000.
Logistically, the great tenting circuses were marvels. Transported first by wagon, then by train, finally by truck caravan, they were sudden cities, appearing by Gypsy magic in any field or fairgrounds and then sending out their Pied Piper parades of clowns, lions, and elephants to empty the nearby towns.
But more was less. Costs rose faster than the trapezes, and there was a limit to the size of a market and the price of a ticket. In 1956, John Ringling North closed the last Big Top on the Heidelberg Raceway outside Pittsburgh—where now there is a discount house.
Circuses moved back indoors, and Joe McKennon—a former trouper and author of The Logistics of the American Circus—pronounced the unsmiling eulogy: “It’s gone for good, and we just ain’t never gonna bring it back.“
There is a woman near Traverse City, Michigan, who moved into a tepee and lived there right through the fearsome winter of 1978.
The hardest part? Learning how to get up in the morning without falling down. “You don’t realize,” she told a reporter, “that when you get out of bed your eyes automatically line up with the walls.”
When the walls slant, the floor comes out wrong. How does she solve this disorientation problem?
“I close my eyes.”
If the history of tents is fragmentary, it’s because tents are biodegradable. Quickly erected, they quickly disappear, feasted upon by bacteria rather than archaeologists.
Until recent times, anything reasonably easy to build was temporary. Grunts, groans, and heavy stones were the only means of permanence, and no large structure figured to last much longer than the man-years it took to build it. If a hundred men worked twenty years to raise a temple, it might last twenty hundred years. Egyptian pyramids probably averaged something like 150 million man hours to build; so far, they’re 40 million hours old.