For the city Turks of Istanbul and Izmir, the windswept reaches of eastern Anatolia are the land of the dadas, a regional word of compliment and respect that means "brother" and carries chivalric connotations. There, the Byzantine frontier fortress of Theodosiopolis became, in 1048, one of the first Seljuq conquests on this rolling, broken plateau. Today, as modern Erzurum, 725 kilometers (450 mi) east of Ankara, the city is still a repository of the old Seljuq values of honor, fierce competition and, of course, horsemanship.
Dadas II, however, is no "brother knight"; he’s not even a human: He’s a one-eyed white stallion, and his rider, Ismail Yilmaz, carries on tradition as a player of cirit (pronounced "jireet"), a javelin-throwing sport played on horseback since Ottoman times. Dadas II and Yilmaz have reached the 2001 national cirit championships in Erzurum; their seven-man team, called Erzurum Athspor, is set to compete against two other local teams and a visiting delegation from Manisa, a city in western Turkey. At stake are the bragging rights as the best of this year’s Turkish equestrians—and a small trophy.
Cirit means "javelin" in Turkish, and as a game it has metamorphosed over the past several centuries from a martial drill into a full-blown spectator sport. Its avid core of present-day aficionados is centered in Erzurum, where the sport has its own stadium, and a new rule book is evolving in response to feedback from fans and players. While the game needs no introduction in eastern Anatolia, where 15 out of the 20 teams in the National Cirit Federation are based, the challenge now, in the mind of federation president Nihat Gezder, is to introduce cirit as a televised sport to the nation. Later, if Istanbul is chosen for the summer Olympics in 2012, he hopes it can be presented to a worldwide audience as an exhibition sport.
As a former basketball player, Gezder appreciates any game whose outcome can hang in the balance until the final moments of play, and his tweaking of the rules has this end in mind. He already presents well-attended demonstration matches in Turkey’s bigger cities each summer, every year drawing more fan interest. "By the time Istanbul plays host to the Mediterranean Games in 2005," he boasts, "every Turk will know cirit as well as they know football."
Cirit certainly has all the makings of a popular spectator sport: speed, skill, pageantry, high scores and danger. Its roots go back to the off-season practice of the Ottoman cavalrymen known as sipahis, who were, as Jason Goodwin wrote in Lords of the Horizons, "if not the first centaurs to bear arms since the days of myth, then men at any rate hard to tell apart from their horses."
A modern cirit field is nothing like the real Ottoman battlegrounds outside city or fortress walls, where the spear-, bow-, and sword-armed sipahis, said to number 150,000 at the height of their power in the 18th century, faced musket-bearing Europeans. The Turks derided the musketeers as "mounted apothecaries" for their reliance on powder horns, bullet pouches and loops of fuse; in turn, Pietro della Valle, an Italian traveler in Istanbul in the year 1615, records that the English ambassador "laughed at the old style of weapons being carried" by the Ottoman soldiers he watched passing by. "But...," della Valle reports, "I said that they were not to be despised because of this, for it was with just these weapons, rather than arquebuses and guns, that they had taken from the rest of us [Europeans] the strongholds of Rhodes, Agrigento, Chios, and many other famous fortresses."
Longer and narrower than an American football field, a cirit field measures 132 by 40 meters (144x40 yd). There are three "end zones" at each end of the field, each about six meters (20’) deep: a team’s waiting area, a neutral zone and the opposing team’s throwing area. A modern cirit javelin is a meter-long, rubber-tipped stick of turned beechwood that somewhat resembles a pool cue—not nearly as lethal as the barbed steel Ottoman version that today is displayed in Istanbul’s Military Museum.
The game begins with a rider cantering his horse toward the other team’s end zone, entering the throwing area and launching his cirit across the neutral zone at any one of the other team’s seven players. The defending players use their own cirits to deflect the incoming one—most often successfully—whereupon any one of them can spur his mount at the attacking player, who must simultaneously wheel his horse around to gallop back upfield.
This element of surprise and the fast-charging chase is the heart of the game’s excitement. The pursuer tries to launch his own cirit at the retreating player, who must either evade the toss with a deft shift in his saddle, or reach out and catch the cirit in midair, or be hit. But the pursuer has another option as well: Instead of throwing, the pursuer may, if his horse has a good start, try to outride the other, drawing abreast of him and shouting "Bagisliyorum!" ("I spare your life!")—a gesture that echoes the chivalry, real and imagined, of long-ago battles.
Indeed, the game of cirit echoes all the tactics and conventions of a cavalry battle: quick retreats, evasive maneuvering in the saddle, challenges to single combat, defiance of an opponent’s weapon and a regard for the well-being of one’s horse before one’s own. (Tellingly, the veterinarian on hand for the match is one of Erzurum’s best; his counterpart for human injuries is a mere medical intern.)
Flag-waving referees posted at the center line and at each end of the field award both positive and negative points: positive points for hitting an opposing player, outriding him or catching an incoming cirit; negative points for infractions that might endanger the horse, such as riding out of bounds or intentionally striking a horse, or for falling off, throwing from inside the neutral zone or throwing from closer than five meters (16’) during pursuit.
Dadas II and Ismail Yilmaz are in good company. His best teammates come from two cirit dynasties in the outlying farming village of Çiftlik. Teammate Erdinç Incesu, mounted on Sokollu (named for Sultan Selim II’s grand vizier Sokollu Mehmet Pasha), and his brothers Muhittin (on Uçan Tay, "Flying Colt") and Dinar (on Aslan, "Lion") are coached by their elder sibling Recep, as well as their father, Hanfi, a 75-year-old white-bearded patriarch. Speaking with a chuckle from behind his dark-tinted glasses, Hanfi says, "I may not ride fast anymore, but I can still get to town in a hurry when I want to."
Yilmaz and the Incesu clan are joined on the team by the Dedeoglu family players Necmi and Metin, and their coach and older brother trfan, who is also the mayor of Çiftlik. Like the senior Incesu, 65-year-old Heve Dedeoglu maintains he can still play a competitive game.
Speaking in the warmth of his family home’s tea room on a rainy October night before the three-day tournament, Irfan Dedeoglu is calm. "Cirit is not dangerous for the players, and it is not dangerous for the horses, if they are well trained. I’m more afraid of getting injured in a football match." His brother Recep chimes in. "We care for our horses the way a football-club coach cares for his players. It’s all psychological."
Çiftlik takes pride in its claim to raise the finest players and horses in the sport. A rival team in the tournament in fact calls itself Çiftlikspor, even though none of its players come from the village, apparently in the hope that the name will bring them luck or prestige. Ask anyone in Erzurum who breeds the finest cirit horses, and they are sure to mention Çiftlik’s native sons Salusari Hafiz, Haydari Evni and Otuzlu Dede. And who are the most famous players of years gone by? Konglu Fariz, Pezkerekli Mehmet and Dursun Dedeoglu, grandfather of Necmi and Metin—all from Çiftlik.
In the past, some top cirit players from the inner circles of the Ottoman court were immortalized in verse. Vasid Mahdumi was a musician, composer and sporting favorite of the early 18th-century Sultan Ahmet II. Court poet Sayyid Vehbi wrote this about him:
His game was sometimes polo, sometimes cirit,
And his songs and music in our ears would meet.
Neither Persian nor Indian, Uzbek nor Turk
Could overshadow him in verse or sport.
The great 17th-century satirist Ömer Efendi, whose nom de plume was Nefi, hailed from near Erzurum, and was presumably able to recognize a good game of cirit when he saw one. In one of his biting portraits-in-verse of royal hangers-on, collected under the title "Arrows of Fate," he had this to say about a hapless player:
He can’t play cirit but thinks himself a player even so,
You’re not called a gardener for watching the garden grow.
We know that Nefi was strangled by one of the many who had found themselves at the pointed end of his wit. Was his executioner perhaps also a cirit player?
Snow comes early to Erzurum. The treeless mountains are like a white wreath around the apartment-block city and its historic Seljuq and Ilkhanid monuments, the famous Double Minaret Medrese and the Yakutiye Medrese. The ski resort at Palandöken looms above the last tier of seats in Erzurum’s cirit stadium, where the first day of the tournament has dawned clear and cold. The field is in bad shape, with standing water and mud flats from end to end. But the players prefer this to hardpacked earth: Less strain on their horses’ tendons, they say, and the full oval horseshoes hold firm in muck of any depth.
Erzurum Atlispor will ride first against the team from Manisa, a town near Izmir where the game has been transplanted—apparently with some success, since Manisa comes into the tournament with the best record of the four teams present. The team is cocky for another reason, even if their horses are tired from the 30-hour trip. Some of the players, including the thickly mustachioed Hüdaverdi Baysal, who at 61 years is the tournament’s oldest, fancy themselves stars of the silver screen as well as the cirit field: They appeared in the "Young Indiana Jones" television series as a band of desert horsemen.
They dress smartly, too, in red-and-white striped jerseys, and they braid their horses’ tails in elegant double-tufted knots, and they check girths and bits one last time. The white horses on the Çiftlikspor team all have bright henna on their tails, making gleams of dark red under the sun. The Erzurum players, for their part, comb out their horses’ tails to full fluff—a curiously dandyish look for such a muddy field.
This attention to horse tails is part of tradition, too. Ever since the Turks lived on the Central Asian steppe, at a horseman’s funeral his horse’s tail was cut off and draped beside the body. In Ottoman times, horse-tail insignia preceded the commanding pasha at the annual departure for the summer campaign. The Italian della Valle described the cavalry setting out to fight the Persians on May 21, 1615: "They were thousands," he wrote, "all under six single cornets, and they were recognized by the pennants on their lances." Horse tails tacked to upheld lances led the procession, "carried in this manner," he continued, "because once when a soldier lost the standard in battle he cut the tail off a horse and tied it to the top of a lance, and in memory of this they have been used ever since."
Erdinç Incesu eyes the Manisa team with trepidation. "I couldn’t sleep last night, from nerves," he says. "Not because I am nervous but because I don’t trust my horse. He almost bucked me off after yesterday’s workout. And I’m not nervous about Manisa’s riders either, only about their horses. Are they better than ours? I wish we could see their game videos."
Even so, the cirit teams certainly have nothing of the fearsome aspect of the sipahis, who were mustered from their land grants in the Anatolian and Balkan hinterlands for summer campaigns. "A very bizarre sight" della Valle found them, "both for their garb, which as a rule is very tucked up, and for the many diverse skins of wild animals with which they go adorned, slung across them in the manner of Hercules and the other ancient heroes."
Most feared by opponents were the so-called "sipahis of the Porte," a standing force of professional horsemen, the mounted equivalent of the Janissaries, quartered and trained in Istanbul. One company was composed solely of left-handed riders, so they could ride at the Sultan’s right and present arms as a mirror image of the right-handed sipahis who rode on his left.
The cirit tournament begins with introductions and handshakes at center field and a parade by each team with its flags. Then a wild blast of military music, played on duval (hand drum) and zurna (double-reeded horn), comes over the loudspeakers. "Music always accompanied battle," says historian Özbey Güven of Gazi University in Ankara, who has written the definitive book on the traditional sports of the Ottoman Empire. "If horses could be taught not to fear martial music, they could be taught to fear nothing."
The music is followed by the amplified words of the popular Erzurum poet Sadi Akatay: "Napoleon said," one verse proclaims, "‘In Egypt I fought against Turkish horses, not against the Turks.’" Erzurum Atlispor’s horses, adorned with blue-beaded collars hung with wooden pendants in the shape of the Turkish star and crescent, seem to acknowledge the praise, pawing the ground and tossing their heads.
The game begins with deliberately staged sallies, as the riders test the field and their horses. Most pursuing riders hold their fire during the chase-back, opting to play it safer by taking their turn in the throwing zone and tossing from a standing position. If a cirit is thrown during the pursuit and misses, the rider must retreat, scoreless, and also forfeits the chance to force negative points on whomever in turn might pursue him back up the field. In any case, a few "cirit boys," much like the ballboys on a wet day at Wimbledon, stay busy running across the field to retrieve errant throws.
The game heats up just at the end of the first of the two 45-minute periods. When a rider enters the throwing zone, he is challenged by the feints and false pursuits of players on the other side. This keeps the throwing player off balance, unsure from which side of the line his pursuer will emerge. But such tactics can backfire, for if two such feinting players enter the neutral zone together, before the opposing player has thrown, their team is penalized two points.
The chase-backs become more competitive too as time goes on.
Cries of "Haydi!" ("Come on!") and "At! At!" ("Throw! Throw!") come from fans and players alike. Several riders take falls, one for a second time, a double humiliation for which he is penalized double points. By the time the half ends, it is clear that Manisa is ahead, even if the score is not posted as play unfolds.
As Erdinç. had said before the game, "Either we will be beaten by seven players, or by one horse." That these are special horses, unaccustomed to common field work, is obvious. Almost all appear to have some thoroughbred blood in them, some having come straight from the racetrack. English and Polish bloodlines are most often cited by their owners, although the Arabian’s distinctively concave face is apparent too. None display the stocky features of the Kazakh drayhorse, the everyday cart-puller of Anatolian villages.
Whether these are the same horses della Valle described is unclear. "For staying power, for excellence in toil and for usefulness in war and on journeys," he wrote, "I regard their horses as better than ours." But the trappings in Erzurum are certainly different from those of the 17th century. No more are the horses "caparisoned with cloth of gold almost down to the ground" and mounted with saddles set with rubies, pearls and sequins.
In fact, the tack on the cirit horses has the patched-together look of the battle campaigns of yesteryear, as every extra bit of cash goes instead to their feeding, transport and veterinary care. Stringy and worn goat-hair underblankets, rusty stirrups doubling as spurs, and old saddle leathers in terrible need of restitching are the order of the day. But the skill that both horse and rider display is never shabby.
The secret of throwing a cirit far and true is, the players say, all in the spin. Just before launching it, a rider licks his fingers for a better grip, then with a straight-elbowed heave somewhere between sidearm and underhand, and using his horse’s forward momentum in his favor at the point the front feet hit the earth, he lets it fly. Given the prohibition on throwing from within five meters (16’), most retreating riders are able to shift their seats in time to avoid an incoming toss. That is a good thing, for—rubber-tipped or not—a cirit is still a flying javelin.
Seventy-five-year-old Bakir Bayraktutan rides up and down the sidelines during the game, schooling his horse even though his team, Dadas Atli, has been knocked out of the championships. "We are getting ready for next year, and I will play until I die," he promises. His 50 years of experience in this game are certainly something the younger players need to reckon with.
At the players’ reception the night before, federation president Gezder speaks eloquently of the game’s lineage and legacy. "‘Cirit brings peace where it once brought war. It binds players, horses and javelins into a harmonious whole. It belongs to all the cultures—Seljuq, Ottoman and Republican—that make us who we are." Notwithstanding these professions of good faith, Gezder also announces that any team’s challenge to the official scoring must be preceded by the posting of a substantial bond.
Manisa holds on, even after Erzurum Atlispor improves its game in the second half, and Manisa wins the match by a single point. Coaches of both teams note deficiencies to be made up the next day. Yasar Kaya of Manisa plans to change two horses which seem sluggish. Hanfi Incesu comments from the stands that only Uçan Tay, his son’s horse, tried his best. "The others did not run well," he complains, "and our team deserved to lose."
The day’s following match between Çiftlikspor and Derebogazi Atli turns into a desultory affair, as the already muddy field has now been trampled into a veritable bog. The hapless villagers from Derebogazi manage a final score of zero, and they lose by 14 points. No one seems to care, and the stadium quickly empties in the fading light.
The games on the tournament’s second and third days end with even wider margins: Erzurum wins by 20 points, and Manisa loses to Çiftlikspor 17 to 11. The horses tire by the minute, and the coaches raise their eyebrows higher and higher over missed calls and what they see as mis-awarded points. The fans, natural partisans of their local teams, add their rising voice to the mix, and it’s not long before the whole place echoes the typical mood of a heated football match.
The last game dissolves into a smalltime sports riot. Some fans try to climb the fence separating them from the field; one team trots off in disgust before the results are final; the announcer’s voice over the loudspeaker grows tinnier with excitement.
Federation president Gezder seems chagrined, but the video crew from Turkish Radio and Television takes it all in stride. They have seen Turkey’s powerhouse football finals, and this scene, they assure Gezder, is far more polite. If anything, it proves that cirit can arouse modern passions—and that’s pretty good for a traditional sport.
If not quite the hero of the tournament, the horse Uçan Tay certainly walks away with his share of honors. By coach Recep Incesu’s reckoning, he scored more than half of his team’s points. A short walk is all that separates the white stallion from his box stall and a bucket of sweet feed back in nearby Çiftlik. Uçan Tay will spend much of the rest of Erzurum’s snowy winter warmly stabled beside the Incesu family home, where the same gateway leads to both the family’s front door and the horse’s wood-beamed stall. The gold victor’s trophy, by all rights, should be displayed on his stable wall.
Louis Werner (wernerworks® msn.com) is a free-lance writer and filmmaker living in New York.
Thorne Anderson ([email protected]) is an American free-lance photojournalist based in the Balkans.