Last week, the 651st Kirkpinar oil wrestling festival was held in the town of Edirne, about two and half hours from Istanbul.
Oil wrestling dates back to the mid-1300s, when Edirne was the capital of the Ottoman Empire before Istanbul, then Constantinople, was captured from the Byzantines. It is considered by some to be the longest continuously practiced sport in the world and has become a must see on any visitor’s summer trip to Turkey.
During Ottoman times, the wrestling was meant as a sport for entertaining the Ottoman royal court. Today, the competition is held in a stadium in Edirne. Several matches occur at the same time, with judges keeping track of points as other contestants wait on the sidelines, eager for their turn. Before they begin wrestling, attendants pour oil over their bodies from pots with long necks. The thick oil covers their bodies covered only by leather shorts and surrounding grass. A troupe of drummers announces that it is time for a new group of wrestlers to take to the field and they begin.
Male wrestlers as young as 12-years-old can participate in the competition. The wrestlers throw each other around. Sometimes they actually lift each other into the air and bring them down. It appears difficult to get a grip on each other.
“These two are really going at it, over here,” one observer says. Others can barely contain themselves and jump up to lean over the fence and scream and cheer.
Parents and family members passionately encourage their children from the sidelines. Water bottles are thrown onto the field when contestants appear to be getting too hot. The players jog over to down some of the water and throw their arms wide when they feel that their performance is being judged unjustly.
There is the occasional groan or outcry from across the field from a wrestler who had lost his match and is out of the tournament. Some race over to the judges, who are in a booth above the field to yell, ‘he was hitting me!’ or ‘there was not enough time!’
Their complaints appear to carry weight and several of the people who complain, are allowed to continue to compete; at least for a short time.
The event is largely a family affair when there is a lot of pressure on the contestants to perform well. Outside of the stadium, families sit around in mini-encampments outside their cars. They light fires, barbecue lunch and prepare tea. If their son wins, their lives will be dramatically changed because of the prize money.
A carnival or a fair perhaps. There is shopping and many different stands selling wares and food. One man calls over that his fruit juice must be tried. It is so fresh and sweet, that it is possible to drink four glasses, one after another.
This is a sport where you do not win only because you are the biggest or the strongest. You also have to be fast and use your mind as much as your body to defeat your opponent.
The contestants might compete for years before finally coming even close to winning. One young boy lay in the grass outside of the stadium, depressed and staring off into space after being thrown out of the competition.
His uncle comes up and leans over, chastising his melancholy and raises his arms up in a gesture meant to remind the boy that there would be another match the next year and he could compete again when he was bigger and had more practice.
After all, experience matters. At the end of the day the judges declared Ali Gurbuz, a man from the coastal city of Antalya, to be Baspehlivan or head wrestler.
Photography: Justin Vela