The tent, man's changing shelter, is the soul of solitude. There is no steppe or desert to which a tent does not have the privilege of communicating life. Wherever man arrives or rests, nature recognises him as king. Have you read an admirable novel by Fenimore Cooper, The Prairie? It is a bleak solitude, where silence and emptiness reign. Look, however, at the heart of the immense pampas, a luminous point, barely visible: it is there that man appears: immediately this luminous point expands throughout the horizon, and radiates with the incompressible power of an exploding fulminate. The effect of this irradiation of man, on inert and dead nature, is irresistible: no one will manage to depict it with a more powerful brush than the robust American novelist.
In the tent, man lives in two ways: he is obliged to take possession of everything around him; and in this taking of possession, he experiences the bitter pleasures of conquest. His ear is open to vague or distant sounds; and the great winds come to him as if to bring him news from infinite spaces. The man lost in the steppes, if he has a shelter, gathers up, so to speak, all his sensations, concentrates his life in order to strengthen its relaxation, takes advantage of everything and enjoys the slightest accidents that occur.
I have lived in tents, and I affirm that there is no sensation more vivid than that of arriving at the bivouac, of seeking the source conducive to ablutions, whether one is a pagan or a Christian, of setting up one's shelter while one's companions go into the brush to gather dry wood to cook the food supplied, and, when the meal is over, of falling asleep to the indefinite and vague noises that the surrounding nature lavishes upon you, as to the king of creation. It is a special kind of pleasure that one experiences, without being able to define or express it.
The tent is the shelter of nomads, that is to say, of those who herd cattle, those who hunt or maraud, or those who wage war, which is all one. When you live in a tent, you are always in a militant state.
However, one should not think that the use of the tent inspires disgust for the sedentary life or contempt for property. There are Arabs in Algeria who live in tents, and who are not vagabonds: they are even the richest and most honoured chiefs, whereas the Arabs who live under the gourbi, a sort of hut in the middle of the scrub, are little esteemed. The tent Arab has rich carpets, splendid harnesses, and brilliant weapons. He has many herds following him, which he drives to the ungrazed grass; and many camels carry his baggage. His falconers follow him, and also his incomparable greyhounds. If he crosses a stream, he does not dismount to fill his cup: a silver goblet attached by long chains, like a censer, hangs from the saddle tree. He unties it, dips it in the water, brings it back full and drinks without even bending down. Such is the Arab of the tent, hospitable, very polite, great lord. I imagine that the high barons of the Middle Ages lived no differently, in the midst of war or marauding, but with less comfort and elegance.
See the tent of the emperor of Morocco at the Champ de Mars. It is conical, like most Arab tents. A large mast surmounted by the crescent serves as its pivot. Ropes as numerous as in a ship on high seas descend from the mast and serve to fix the camel-hair fabric unrolled all around, and stretched by pegs which fix it to the ground.
At the back of the tent, respectively at the shroud that serves as a vestibule, you see a juxtaposition that offers a resting place. This requires an additional set-up that is quite different from the general system of the tent.
Let's look at the tent of the Governor General of Algeria, exhibited on the other side by the Ministry of War. It is the same system as for the Moroccan tent; but what a simplification! Half an hour is more than sufficient to erect the French command tent, and it does not take a quarter of an hour to fold it up. The shroud is the same; but there are two poles which, lengthening the shape of the tent, make room for two side reductions: the fabric is made of hemp, instead of camel hair. Hemp is less permeable to rain; but camel hair is more permeable to air, which is a great advantage in countries where rain is rare.
It must take quite a long time to put up the tent of the emperor of Morocco, because of its complications and its uncivilised tools. In short, one feels that the Moroccan tent, like the Arab tent, is made for living in, while the French tent is made only for passing through.
Once again, those who have not been nomads cannot imagine what concentration of life takes place around a tent. The horses, stripped of their harness, neigh at the stake. The carpets are spread out under the shelter that has been erected; the fires are lit; coffee is already smoking in the filigree-protected Chinese cups. Night comes; the dogs bark while the horses neigh, sensing the coming of the jackals, a stinking and cowardly troop, attracted by the smoke of the tent. However, the sweet sounds of the Numidian flute mingle with the monotonous songs of the camel driver; and this concert reaches your ears, sifted by the winds from afar, which rustle the brushwood as they pass. But alas! the dogs become hoarse from barking at the jackals, which eventually annoys you to tears.
I remember, in this connection, a rather piquant adventure which happened to us on the road from Constantine to Guelma. We had, with M. le Président Germane and M. le conseiller d'État Lestiboudois, received hospitality in the douar (or meeting of tents) of the Beni-Yanini, if I am not mistaken. In spite of the hoarse barking of the dogs of the tribe, we were asleep; when suddenly we heard a whole pack of furious animals pass over our heads: it was an unfortunate jackal which had penetrated into the cantonment, and which all the dogs of the tribe were pursuing over the cover of our tent, whose path the pursued animal had taken. It took us some time to realise this and to go back to sleep. This alarm reminded us of the fantastic hunt of King Arthus.
How different from the Arabs are the customs and habits of the Russian nomads! Here, they are fur hunters and border marauders, between Asia and Europe, who live in tents.
There are two tents of nomadic Russians on the Champ de Mars, shown in our drawing: a yurt of Kirghiz from Turkestan, and an ourassa of Yakuts from Siberia. If I say that all nomads, subjects of the Czar, who have no fixed abode, are called Kirghiz in Russia, I believe that I will have given a more exact definition of the word than if I were to stray into a distinction of races.
The Kirghiz-Kaissac, or Kazac, properly so called, is of Tartar origin: he wanders in Turkestan and the regions bordering on Russia and China; his religion, if he has one, emanates from the Koran freely interpreted. The vast country he dominates is divided into three hordes or Orda, and comprises. 400,000 tents providing shelter for 3.5 million inhabitants. There is the great Orda, which extends between the Caspian and Aral Seas, south-east of the Urals; the middle Orda, between Turkestan and Siberia; the small Orda, between the Tourgai and the Volga.
The Kirghiz of the large horde are partly dependent on China; the others are nominal subjects of the Czar. In reality, both are more or less independent nomads. They are very hospitable, as one is in all countries with a rare population where the coming of a stranger is considered an event of consequence.
Consider the yurt that houses them. A wooden hoop, supported by stakes, serves to cover the ridge of the tent. The fabric that wraps it is made of treaded cowhair. Inside the tent, which is round in shape, is lined with cut and soutaché cloth, which announces a great search for luxury.
It should be noted that the cut and soutaché cloth is the luxury tapestry in Morocco, Tunis and Algeria, as well as in Turkestan; and I do not know of a more elegant and richer furnishing fabric. The effect can be admired in the tent of the Governor General of Algeria as well as in the yurta of the Kirghiz. You will see that the fashion for soutaché cloth will take hold, following the Exhibition, in our civilised flats; the doors of the Tunis palace have already caused a furore in Paris.
The Kirghiz are thus relatively civilised, though nomadic. They raise large herds in the almost arid steppes: they endure, under the well-sealed yurt, excessive heat and rigorous cold, which follow one another without transition with high winds; and this is why their yurt is firmly fixed to the ground.
They are warriors, since they are nomads; and Fiance has seen some Kirghiz among the Cossack squadrons. In addition to the produce of their herds, they hunt and fish, plus maraud. Sober, moreover, like the Navarrese, but indulging like them in long kermesses.
How different are the poor Yakuts whose Ourassa rises not far from there! The Yakuts roam these vast steppes on the left bank of the Lena, 9,000 kilometres from St. Petersburg, between the Ice Sea, China and the province of Okhotsk. There are about 200,000 inhabitants there, that is, less than one inhabitant per fifteen square kilometres. Where else would they live in the midst of this inhospitable land and climate, if not along the rivers and on the shores of the lakes which, fortunately, abound in these inclement regions. They are even more hospitable than the Kirghiz; and this is explained by their greater scattering. The birch forests serve them for shelter and heating; the horses and reindeer are their companions, and the lakes provide them with food.
Can you imagine what it is like in a country where there is not one inhabitant for every fifteen square kilometres? Do you understand how a man, isolated in these vast unfruitful solitudes, must react powerfully on himself to regain his existence?
Here is the Ourassa, his summer home. It is a gathering of birch branches, bundled together like rifles on their bayonets. Between these branches crossed in a bundle is passed, like a weft, a birch bark. This guarantees sun, a little less wind, but nothing more. Only, if you were lost in the steppes, you would see with unspeakable emotion the hospitable Ourassa looming on the horizon.
In winter, the Yakuts exchange the Urasa for a birch plank gourbi. These planks are covered with furs inside. Before the planks are put in place, a hole is dug deep enough to protect the Yakut from the icy winds that blow across the ground. How could the Yakut not be brave, having to fight constantly against a rebellious nature and the vicinity of polar bears?
Every man who lives in a tent is naturally a warrior, I said. So let's move on to military tents. When we hear of a tent story, it means that it is a soldier's story. The War Office's display of tents is complete, and we can, if necessary, make a comparison with the display of the English army in the field.
Here, first of all, is the Council tent. It is a conical tent, erected on a pole topped by a hat, serving as an opening for the renewal of air. Around the pole is attached a table which serves as a writing surface and a shelf. It is used by general officers or military intendants. The weight of this tent, with its mast and radiating poles, is 121 kilograms; it costs barely 368 francs. A quarter of an hour is enough to erect it: it can be folded and loaded into the vans in ten minutes.
Another tent of the same shape, but less rich, is assigned to the ordinary officers, and serves as an ambulance if necessary. It can serve as a shelter for 16 infantrymen, or for 8 horsemen with their harness. There are two round shelves stacked around the mast. The weight is 72 kilograms and the price is 239 francs.
The English ambulance tent has a roof, instead of a hat and a cone. So that, as it does not receive air from above, it was necessary to open windows in the canvas. The English tent gives shelter to twenty men instead of sixteen. But its fittings do not seem to me to be as well arranged as in the French conical tent, besides the fact that it must cost much more, and that it must be less convenient to erect and to fold up.
It is above all in the marching tent and in the shelter-bag that our superiority in camping seems to me unquestionable.
The marching tent is erected on three poles, two of which are driven into the ground, the other being placed horizontally on the two perpendicular poles and serving as a roof ridge. The shelter canvas is stretched over it, and fixed in the ground on each side by stakes. The weight of this tent, used by the non-commissioned officers, is 13 kilograms, and its price is only 46 francs.
The marching tent has no guy rope, nor does the simple soldier's shelter-bag. Here there are only two training sticks instead of three. Two squares of canvas, one with buttons, the other with buttonholes, form the two walls of the tent: the rest of the equipment consists of three stakes to fix the two squares of canvas in the ground, and a line to stretch the canvas on the front. The bag-tent-shelter houses two soldiers, each of whom carries half the load in his kit. The weight of this load is less than one kilogram for each. As for the price, it barely exceeds 7 francs 70 centimes. I don't think that the time needed to set up or fold up this shelter exceeds three minutes.
All around the marching and field tent, a gutter is dug, so that the rain sliding on the impermeable canvas does not penetrate the sheltered area.
It was Marshal Bugeaud, I believe, who perfected the shelter tent to this extent during his harsh campaigns in Algeria.
What we call travel tents is only an imitation of the military tent, with the added expense of money and the loss of time.
From the comparative study we have just made of the tents of the Champ de Mars, it follows that we are ahead even of the nomadic peoples, as means of camping. Only under the nomadic tent do we find life; under the military tent, we find only bivouac.
©L'Exposition Universelle de 1867 Illustrée