Turkey, Sports, Culture

Oil wrestlers battle for glory in Turkey

Ancient Kirkpinar Oil Wrestling Festival marks its 658th anniversary, yet competitors’ will to succeed is fresh as ever

Ali Murat Alhas   | 05.07.2019
Oil wrestlers battle for glory in Turkey

EDIRNE, Turkey 

Turkey’s northwestern Edirne province has once again become the battleground of an ancient sports event where wrestlers compete to win a golden belt and honor a centuries-old tradition.

The Kirkpinar Oil Wrestling Festival, which is being held Friday, is one of the world’s oldest sports events and has been held annually in the province since 1362, with wrestlers engaging in a physical and mental struggle without the use of any equipment.

In traditional oil wrestling, wrestlers wear leather pants, rub olive oil on their bodies and tackle each other on grass fields to be the last man standing, which will earn them the title of Chief Wrestler (Baspehlivan) and the right to wear the prestigious golden belt for a year.

To Turkish people, wrestling has become such an indispensable part of the country's culture that it is often referred to as an “ancestor sport”.

Throughout history, Turks -- particularly soldiers -- have used wrestling for training purposes, as a show of bravery, or even as a way of winning the hearts of their lovers.

“Oil wrestling unites people across our country, and I’m proud of being part of this ancient tournament that has been going on for centuries. It reflects our culture,” Ali Gokcen, an experienced wrestler, told Anadolu Agency.

Forty-year-old Gokcen, with 25 years of experience in Kirkpinar wrestling, said local traditions were the main dynamics creating a national identity, and the Kirkpinar festival, in this context, played a huge role in shaping Turkish culture.

“Wrestlers from various provinces come to the city of Edirne to mark this festival and our culture. We start with prayers, read our national anthem, remember famous wrestlers and respect our cultural heritage with the young generation of wrestlers hanging around,” he said.

Gokcen went on to say that wrestling on the “holy” grounds of Sarayici, where the festival is held, was a source of pride in his eyes, whether he won the tournament or not, as he was taking part in a sport once played in the Middle East by the Holy Prophet Muhammad (pbuh).

“Sweating on the grounds where the legendary wrestlers appeared for centuries is an experience that I cannot put into words,” he said, adding he would continue to be part of the Kirkpinar festival his whole life.


Unique rituals and characters of Kirkpinar

Just like any other longstanding events, the Kirkpinar oil wrestling festival has also developed unique rituals and characters throughout history, including a candle with a red base.

Centuries ago, when communication tools were limited, Kirkpinar patrons would send candles with red bases to other villages to inform people about the coming tournament. Today, with the aim of preserving the tradition, authorities still send such candles to wrestlers.

Then comes pesrev, the ritual dance of wrestlers where they warm up, fire up the crowd and salute their opponents. Gathering around the referees, the wrestlers perform this ritual to salute the crowd, partly test their opponents and gain spiritual power.

The announcer, or "cazgir," is responsible for introducing wrestlers to the spectators. With his rhymed poem read in an authentic way, he invites wrestlers to the field and then says prayers.

In addition, a team of zurna (flute) players and drummers also play a huge role in this ancient festival. They not only perform on streets and invite people to the matches but also play their instruments to inform the wrestlers during the match, especially when the tempo declines and the crowd wants to see some real action.

The Kirkpinar Aga, the patron of the festival, is responsible for launching the wrestling event.

Although the role of the patron has transformed over the years and became more symbolic today, traditionally, these patrons are supposed to provide financial assistance to wrestlers and organize charity events in their hometowns to honor the festival.


Why use olive oil?

At first glance, the use of olive oil might sound strange for those alien to the context, but there are multiple explanations.

It is almost impossible for wrestlers to grab each other when they are covered with oil, making this sport much more difficult and demanding in terms of energy, hence more fun for the spectators.

Another popular belief in Edirne province suggests that wrestling events are usually held under extreme sunlight and olive oil would serve as a sunscreen and protect the sportsmen.

On the other hand, Ali Güres, a Turkish historian who studies wrestling, argues there is another reason to explain the oil’s use. He says there were many flies in the wrestling area when Kirkpinar was first launched and oil was simply used to keep them away.

With 2,380 wrestlers expected to take part this year, three tons of olive oil is expected to be used at the 658th Kirkpinar festival.


Ottoman heritage

In Edirne province, one can see the Ottoman Empire’s influence over the city, which should not be surprising, given that it was once an Ottoman capital. The Ottoman sultans supported and promoted oil wrestling events during their reign.

Koca Yusuf, known as the Terrible Turk in the U.S., was the chief wrestler of Sultan Abdulaziz and was sponsored by the Ottoman palace. Murat I, the Ottoman emperor who conquered Edirne province, opened one of the earliest wrestling lodges in the country.

Murat I, Mehmet the Conqueror, Bayezid II, Suleiman the Magnificent, Mahmut II and Abdulaziz were among the emperors who supported the ancient Turkish tradition of oil wrestling or took part in wrestling themselves on different occasions.


Survival of cultural tradition

Ertugrul Tanrikulu, the deputy mayor of Edirne province, said the local municipality and state authorities did their best to ensure the survival of the historic Kirkpinar oil wrestling festival as it is directly related to Turkish culture.

“We try to preserve this sports event in its original form,” he said, adding the rituals have been the same for centuries and even the revisions were carried out in line with the traditional understanding of wrestling.

Noting that the municipality, after four years of searching through archives, has created a digital database, which is "http://www.edirnekirkpinar.com," he went on to say that the Turkish state has tried to ensure the survival of oil wrestling culture while keeping up with the digital world.

He added that the Kirkpinar oil wrestling festival was inscribed in the list of UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity and global recognition of this tradition would help it survive for more centuries.

With 2,380 registered wrestlers and fully booked hotels, Edirne province marks the 658th Kirkpinar oil wrestling festival and honors Turkey's historic and authentic oil wrestling event.

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