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Volume 28, Number 5September/October 1977

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Wrestling With A Twist

Written by John Lawton
Photographed by Turk Haberler Ajansi
Additional photographs by Ara Guler

For four grueling hours the two men fought to pin each other to the ground. But each time one seemed certain to succeed, his opponent slipped free. In a unique twist to one of the world's most universal sports, the two wrestlers were coated from head to toe with olive oil.

Now the two 280-pound contenders for Turkey's greased wrestling crown crouched locked in combat in the center of the grassy arena as 10 turbanned drummers beat an incessant tattoo. Sweat dripped from the matted ends of Kara ("Black") Ali's heavy mustache and ran in rivulets across the glistening skin of Mustafa Yildiz as the two men heaved and strained to overpower each other.

The throb of drums mingled with the sounds of revelry and the smell of charcoal fires in the hot afternoon air. In the woods, fields and fairgrounds surrounding the stadium, happy jostling crowds made merry, seemingly oblivious to the epic struggle going on inside. In the arena, however wrestling fans, crammed into the banked stands, tensed as the referee stepped forward to decide the deadlocked contest. By drawing lots he declared Yildiz the winner. It was a short-lived triumph. Inan ensuing, fierce ten-minute struggle, Yildiz in turn was downed by Aydin Demir, who was declared the new bashpehlivan - champion greased wrestler - of all Turkey.

So ended the 615th annual Kirkpinar Tournament: a week-long greased wrestling elimination contest that combines strength and skill, tradition and pageantry feasting and festivity.

The tournament, which dates back to the 14th century, takes its name from the place where, until recently, it was always held. According to legend, Kirkpinar was the scene of a fierce battle between Turks and Bulgars in which 40 Turkish warriors, all renowned wrestlers, were slain. As the spot where each man fell is said to have become a tiny spring, the Turks named the meadow Kirkpinar, or "Forty Springs" and - in honor of the dead - have held an annual wrestling tournament there ever since.

When Kirkpinar was recaptured in 1912 by the Bulgarians, the site of the tournament was moved to the former Ottoman capital of Edirne, near the present-day Turkish-Bulgarian border. But the name and the traditions prevailed.

As in days of old, greased wrestlers from all over Turkey still come to the Kirkpinar Tournament each June to match their strength and skill for the sport's most coveted trophies - and cash prizes. Last year, over 300 wrestlers took part Bouts are held in five categories: from wiry, agile lightweights to hulking, stolid heavyweights. But the main interest centers on the battle for the heavyweight crown.

At Kirkpinar, wrestling is more than just a sport. The tournament begins with prayers at the Edirne cemetery, where some of Turkey's most famous wrestlers are buried. This is followed by the auction of a sacrificial lamb. The highest bidder becomes the agha, or master of ceremonies, of the tournament and his bid - this year 105,000 Turkish pounds ($6,000) - becomes the prize money. During the contests, the agha, dressed in the rich red and purple gold-embroidered costume of an Ottoman lord and escorted by black-clad bodyguards, struts around the arena or sits grandly in a special box smoking a water pipe.

The wrestlers fight in relays, with as many as 20 individual contests going on in the square arena at one time. As there is no time limit, each bout ends when one of the wrestlers pins his opponent's shoulders to the ground.

Before each bout, competitors douse themselves and their opponents with olive oil from huge, metal cauldrons hanging in the wrestlers' compound. They then line up and, yelling bloodcurdling battle cries, execute a series of aggressive leaps and slow-motion maneuvers designed to unnerve the opposition -and oddly similar to the traditional warming-up exercises of Japanese sumo wrestlers. Drums and horns are played throughout the contests.

Getting a firm hold on a slippery opponent and maintaining it long enough to twist him on his back require both strength and speed. One favorite trick of greased wrestlers is to force one hand down the top of an opponent's thick, black buffalo-hide breeches and the other up the leg, clasp him in the middle, heave him off the ground by the breeches, and hurl him on his back. They also use such conventional holds as the headlock, hammerlock and half nelson.

As the ranks of the contenders are thinned excitement mounts, and as the finals approach thousands of people converge on Edirne: wrestling fans, gypsy fortune-tellers, politicians, belly dancers, traders, pickpockets, fair folk and families. As one result the old bustle and importance that Edirne enjoyed as capital of the Ottoman Empire from 1362 to 1453 is revived. As another a contagious carnival atmosphere spreads through the streets and, apart from those who absolutely cannot avoid working, everyone takes a week off to join in.

Wrestling has long been a favorite sport of the Turks, but they adopted the use of oil from the Byzantines when they first conquered Edirne. Then it became a favorite court sport of the Ottoman sultans, who personally presided over the annual Kirkpinar Tournament. Several sultans, in fact, were wrestlers in their own right; Sultan Murat IV, for example, died an unbeaten champion. Turkish wrestlers reached their zenith in 1898, when Koca ("Big") Yusif Ismail toured the world, trouncing all comers. But on his way back to Turkey after an unbeaten tour of the United States, his ship, unfortunately, sank and Koca Yusif, who kept his winnings in gold in a money belt drowned.

Actually wrestling goes back much further than the Turks and the Byzantines. Hundreds of holds are depicted in the murals at Beni Hassan, Egypt dating from before 2000 B.C., and a bronze figurine of two wrestlers, cast about the same time, was found at Khafajah, near Baghdad, Iraq. The Greeks introduced wrestling into the Olympic Games about 708 B.C. In the Far East the two sons of the Japanese emperor wrestled for the throne in 858, and in Europe the sport reached its pinnacle in 1520, when King Henry VIII of England challenged Francis I of France to a bout at the Field of the Cloth of Gold. The Frenchman won.

In recent years, especially in the television era, wrestling in the United States and Western Europe has degenerated into a frequently prearranged display of rough-and-tumble theatrics. But it is still taken very seriously in Turkey. Turks start off as children thrashing around in the dust of Anatolian villages. The best of them finish up on the grassy meadow at Kirkpinar. And Kirkpinar champions usually make it to Turkey's national wrestling team. In international bouts, the competition may be tougher - but at least your opponent isn't covered all over with grease.

John Lawton, a veteran UP1 reporter, now freelances from Istanbul and contributes frequently to Aramco World.

This article appeared on pages 20-21 of the September/October 1977 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for September/October 1977 images.