Two thousand four hundred years ago, Türkmen of the Yörük ethnic group would travel the silk road and the mountains of Anatolia, carrying their wares and goods from town to town, ready to sell in the local bazaars. In an age long before trains or cars, when roads were merely dirt tracks, the only way to carry such a number of people and belongings was by camel. These wondrous beings were perfect for the Turks as they needed very little maintenance. They could store food and water for days on end, they could withstand a variety of climates; they were strong and fearless creatures! A camel caravan was the perfect way to travel. But these animals were not merely workers or even pets, they became part of the family. The Yörük people put their livelihoods and indeed their own futures in the hooves of their beloved camels.
The days were long and the nights even longer. The heat of the ground roads and the cold and snow of the mountains would take their toll on the people but the camels could cope with all weather and all situations. In some cases, the children would even sleep up close to the great animals to keep warm at night. These nomads would spend month upon month travelling around Turkey and the Middle East. Their days would be long and laborious in-between markets and their nights would be tough and lonely. The camels would be everything to these people; transport, friendship, a warm bed, warriors and their saviours in difficult times.
After a long day at the bazaar, the men of the families would sit together and count their takings for the day with some barbecued meat and several glasses of rakı. Of course, even today, rakı is the answer to everything! One evening, after just a few mouthfuls of their beloved aslan sütü (lion’s milk), a camel owner bet his fellow market friends that his camel could beat his rival’s if they wrestled each other. Bets were placed and the camels wrestled until one ended up laid out on the floor and so ‘Camel Wrestling’ was born. For thousands of years, ‘Camel Wrestling’ has been one of the favoured forms of entertainment in Turkey.
Imagine Glastonbury during the ever popular festival. Streams of people are arriving, music is pumping from various places, people are laughing, banging drums and dancing as they queue with their tickets to get in. Some are in costume, some have their faces painted and they are carrying deck chairs, tents and blankets. You can smell meat cooking on barbecues at every turn you make. Families are settling in together and friends are joking around. You can hear a crackle in the air as thousands break into their first beer of the day. The hustle and bustle is contagious, everything around you is electric, the noise is almost stifling, even though the festivities are yet to begin. Excitement is in the air, something great is about to be witnessed!
Take all of this and place it in a sandy, dusty arena on the southwest coast of Turkey, a modern take on an ancient amphitheatre. A large open area is surrounded by wooden benches, manmade fires roast kebabs and endless rows of burly, moustached men sit together, downing glasses of milky water as their wives cook and their children play in the sand. The atmosphere is the same, the crowds of people are the same, the music is just as loud and the excitement is just as raucous. The only difference is that you are not about to see one of the latest bands play, you and 20,000 other people are about to set your eyes upon the most famous camels in Turkey as they wrestle for glory!
In ancient Yörük culture, camel wrestling was one of the most important kinds of entertainment in daily life. Across Anatolia, a camel caravan was one of the only ways to travel until the first railway lines were constructed in the early 19th century. Camel wrestling matches were eventually organised as evening entertainment by camel caravaneers who brought goods to the local bazaars. Camels, by nature, wrestle in the wild, so competitions were probably widespread between nomad caravans across the Middle East and South Asia, but the practice soon became most popular in the Aegean region of Turkey.
In Turkey, camel wrestling is known as ‘Devre Güreşi’, a sport in which two male Tülü camels wrestle each other. Back in the day, fights between the camels would have been encouraged by leading a female camel in heat before them in order to raise their testosterone levels and instil their need to prove themselves as worthy partners. The male camels would then wrestle in an attempt to win over the lady.
A Tülü Camel is a hybrid creature, a mix of a Bactrian camel, a large, even toed ungulate, native to the steppes of Central Asia, bearded and sporting two great humps, and a Dromedary camel, known more widely as an Arabian Camel. Dromedary camels are also a large, even toed ungulates, but with just one hump and very distinctive features such as a long curved neck, a narrow chest, double layered eyelashes and bushy eyebrows. Dromedary camels are originally from southern Asia and the Arabian peninsula. Tülü camels are notoriously strong and were useful to the Yörüks for work such as ploughing as well as carrying heavy loads, they were so strong and dependable in fact, that they were used during war by the Ottoman Turks. Despite their strength and vitality, the Tülü camels are generally docile, tame and fertile creatures and this is the reason why camel wrestling only takes place during mating season, when they are generally more virile.
In 1920, the Turkish National Aviation League held camel fights as fundraisers in order to purchase planes for the Government of Turkey. The events became so popular that an American military officer attempted to take the practice to the US, but due to the American Civil War his attempts were halted. Despite the popularity of camel wrestling in the early 20th century, the government began to discourage the practice in the 1920s, deeming it too backwards of a practice, possibly in response to animal rights activists. However, many locals see the practice as a continuation of the tradition of their ancestors. The current form of camel wrestling as we see it today, with more safety initiatives and proper rules and regulations, was launched in 1982 and the new government of Turkey began encouraging the competitions as part of Turkey’s historic culture and a new draw for tourism.
Camel Wrestling Today
Camel wrestling these days is mainly restricted to the Aegean region of Turkey. The events are historically held during mating season for three months, coinciding with the fertile period for female camels, when males are more inclined to attack their rivals, with the motivating factor of a nearby female camel. This practice is not as frequently used now due to the degree of violence it causes. However, in keeping with tradition, the camel wrestling season runs in the winter time, usually between December and March. The most prominent camel wrestling leagues are in the Aegean and Mediterranean regions in Anatolia. Matches take place in small towns and villages such as Karpuzlu and Koçarlı near the city of Aydın, Sarayköy and Buldan near Denizli and the most famous event takes place in Selçuk near Ephesus and Izmir.
Preparations happen all year. The camels are really well looked after by their owners, as the more beautiful and successful they are, the more money and prestige they are worth. Camel owners really do love their animals, some even have their own personal trailer and demand a procession when they arrive at a competition. The camels are fed well during the summer months to increase their weight and strength and they are bathed and groomed regularly.
Male camels begin wrestling at the age of 10 and some continue for over a decade. Just as humans wrestle, camels are put into a weight class and only wrestle with camels in their class. Camels are also classed according to their tricks as different camels have different skills. Some wrestle from the right, some from the left, some trip others with their feet, tricks known as "çengelci", some trap their opponents head under their cheek and then try to sit, known as “bağcı" and some push at their rivals to make them retreat, a skill known as “tekçi”. In general, the camels fight by using their necks as leverage to force their opponent to fall down.
Matches between two camels are timed and last no longer than 10 minutes. There are three ways that a camel can win a wrestling match. The first is by making the other camel retreat. If a male camel is scared away, the remaining camel is declared the winner. If a camel screams out of fear, he loses the match. The only other way a camel can win is by forcing his opponent to fall to the ground. The owner of a camel can also throw a rope into the field to declare a forfeit if he is concerned for the safety of his animal, and there are several referees on hand to stop the match if it becomes too violent. Camels also score points throughout the match for their tricks and artistry. Should the match end in a draw, these points are used to declare a winner.
Today, camel wrestling can be a big business. Many of the very best camels are named after politicans, world leaders and strong historical figures. There are currently an estimated 2,200 Tülü camels in Turkey, bred specifically for the competitions. A successful camel can eventually be sold for over $20,000.
Roughly thirty annual festivals in Aegean Turkey each year from December to March. Roughly 100 camels take part in these events, with each camel competing in approximately ten matches. Events always happen on Sundays, usually in football stadiums and typically last ten minutes each match. At the end of the season, there is often a tournament of champions in which the best camels compete. Many international tourists attend the events, making them a key part of the tourism industry in western Anatolia. Many tourists are drawn to the events because they are seen as an authentic part of Turkish culture.
These days camel wrestling is more for show, really more comedic than a blood sport. Camels wrestling for precedence in a herd or during mating season is a normal part of the camel’s life, it is just in this case, people watch to see if it happens. In reality, the sport is declining as the cost of keeping, feeding and training a camel solely for competition is expensive and only the rich can afford to do it. Camel wrestling, as a spectator event, is really for the gamblers, as large bets are wagered by owners and spectators alike, though it is almost impossible to tell whose camel is likely to win.
What happens at the event?
A camel wrestling event usually takes place over two days and really is quite the spectacle. As mentioned before, the preparations for the season begin months and months in advance, with the camels well looked after and fed over the summer months. Just before the season starts, a camel owner will parade his elaborately saddled camel through his local villages to show off his animal and to show any other competitors that they would be foolish to challenge his beast. The arrival of the camels to an event in the days before the matches begin is also a party in itself, with onlookers and fans ready and waiting in the streets for the most famous of the camels to appear.
The camels are often draped in colourful and decorative rugs, carved saddles and many bells. The day before the event, once all of the competitors have arrived, the camels participate in a march through town followed by many musicians with flutes and drums. But the first big moment for the camels is a beauty contest. The beauty pageant is taken extremely seriously, with a panel of judges picked for their camel related or academic backgrounds. The owners spend many hours dressing their camels in glitzy banners and bells, the camels are bathed and cleaned and they are also marked on their looks, whether they have a fine coat of hair, or a particularly special neck arch. The winner gets a new bell and there are celebrations with drinks afterwards.
The “Cazgır” narrates the fights, he is like a sport’s commentator, he recites poems and praises the camels and he announces each camel, naming and introducing them. The “Cazgır” is the most prominent person throughout the event, present at every twist and turn and his voice will echo across the arena during the beauty pageant and on match day. The musicians are also ever present, akin to some of our own football teams’s bands who attend their matches. The musicians add to the atmosphere of the event as a whole, but also support the various camels and jeer on the wrestling matches with the crowd.
The actual wrestling can be somewhat underwhelming to someone not familiar with the intricacies, although onlookers do have to occasionally flee from an oncoming camel that is in retreat from his opponent. Flying saliva and urine is also a problem when the camels get excited! In the arena, two camels are led out by procession, introduced by the “Cazgır”. In the olden days, a female camel would be paraded around them to get the bull camels excited, today, the camels are just encouraged by their owners. The camels will then half heartedly butt each other and lean on one another until eventually one of them gives in and runs away or sits down or the match is declared a draw. The running away is often the most exciting part of a match as an owner will try and chase their camel through the crowds and spectators have to scramble away. In truth, it is only very occasionally that the camels will actually fight.
Each camel will take part in their ten matches and at the end of the day, the winners are announced for the tournament and the beauty pageant and the celebrations begin. The prized camels are presented with their winning bell and the owners get together and salute their camels with a few glasses of rakı.
At these events, the camels and their owners are serious celebrities. Their photos are even displayed in ceremonial tents near the ground. Several of the camels become household names and command large sums of money for entering their competition because they raise the calibre of the event and attract large crowds. Some camels can be worth up to 200,000TL and camel owners can be paid anywhere between £120 and £3500 for their camels to take part in the festival, depending on how famous they are. So you can see, today, camel wrestling is more about parading around these fine animals and a celebration of camels than it is a fight to the death over a woman!
Is Camel Wrestling an Animal Rights Issue?
In the past, camel wrestling has been likened to bull fighting or cock fighting and yes, of course in the past activists have been right to be concerned about the welfare of the animals. In the past, without a female present to spur on the bull camels, several cruel tactics were used to encourage them to fight. Some camels were starved for months in advance to make the irritated, and many owners would goad their animals into battle using sticks and whips. Some organisers in the past have used a tactic called entanglement where the camels were forced against each other in the hope that they would become more aggressive.
Turkish animal welfare groups have also pointed out that the fights are now technically illegal according to the country’s animal rights laws. The local municipalities acquire special permission for such events from the district governors’ offices under the cover of festivals. The Freedom to Earth Association also based in Turkey agrees that tradition is no excuse for an exemption in the law. Another controversial element of the sport is that most camels are not bred in Turkey but are smuggled over the border from Iran. Whether this conflicts with the idea that camel wrestling is a historical practice of Turkey becomes questionable or not is up to those interested in the events.
These event are also potentially hazardous to spectators if the camels attempt to flee through the crowd. Other hazards include camel spittle. On some occasions fights also break out between the owners of camels, especially after a few glasses of rakı! It should be noted that over the years, event organisers have listened to the concerns of animal rights movements and steps have been taken to ensure the safety of the camels and the spectators. In some people’s eyes, it will always be cruel to keep an animal in captivity for the sole purpose of entertainment, no matter how well they are looked after.
Is Camel Wrestling Acceptable as a Cultural Heritage of Turkey?
Many will tell you that camel wrestling is actually instinctual dance of masculinity done amongst male camels in mating season; camels often wrestle in the wild, it is in their nature. The camels, apart from donning their colourful decorations, are simply in their natural environment, doing their thing, but in front of people. Camels are not naturally aggressive and they are so well cared for these days that it has just become fun to admire them and watch them bumble around with each other rather than to encourage them to fight. These days, points are awarded for style and technique rather than any violent reactions.
Guardian reporter, Alev Scott says that “The reputation for barbarism is unfair, the wrestling is much less violent these days. At one time a female camel would be tethered in view of the arena to galvanise the male camels into furious, sexually charges battle. Now, the contestants are merely bored virgin males who would probably pick a fight with each other anyway. Biting is forbidden, and the fight is broken up if the camels succumb to temptation. Most are well trained.”
The camels have their mouths covered up to prevent them from hurting each other and if there is a risk of injury, the referee stops the wrestling. There is also always a team of 22 people on standby to protect the camels should they need to step in. Fights are always restricted to 10 minutes to protect the animals. For their owners, keeping their camel safe from harm is the number one priority to ensure they have a successful career and a happy life. Don’t forget how much these camels are worth in prestige and financially, any injury or violent attack would immediately de-value them.
Although the name of the sport infers a dangerous and violent event, experiencing a camel-wrestling match in Turkey is anything but. These prized possessions are decorated to the nines and spend the majority of the day standing proud as they wait their turn to spar for a match lasting just minutes as dozens of caretakers watch on. Winning, although nice, is not the sole objective, as these events are more so about appreciating the beauty of these spectacular animals and the community that the love of camels brings together.
"It's all about the fame of the camels that wrestle and displaying their beautiful and grand stature," says Müjdat, a camel owner, “it is not so much about winning each fight, but more the reputation gained from multiple wins and showings that raise their value and make a name for the owner of the animals themselves. These animals are highly revered, even considered holy, and the emphasis of these wrestling events is entirely on keeping them safe, in what would be a dangerous bout in their own natural surroundings.”
So, the locals, the spectators, the camel owners and the event organisers see camel wrestling as a show of beauty and brawn. They are social occasions, a day of fun, for picnics, barbecues and drinking plenty of rakı. Tour operator, Burak Sansal says that “It’s worth going once just to see and know that there isn’t a lot of blood and gore involved in the sport, it is really quite gentle.”
Where can I see Camel Wrestling?
The best place Selcuk to experience camel wrestling is in Selçuk near Ephesus and Izmir. The Selçuk-Efes Camel Wrestling Festival is the most popular of its kind and over 20,000 people turn out to enjoy the spectacle each year. The event takes place between 10am and 5pm on the 3rd Sunday of January each year and the beauty pageant happens on the preceding day. The event is held at Pamucak Beach, about 7km away from Selcuk. 2016 will mark the 35th year of the Selçuk festival.
The Dalyan exposé will run for 3 weeks in May and will include a lot of exciting articles every day and videos on our YouTube channel with interesting interviews with business owners and those who work in tourism in Turkey. We'll also be tackling safety issues and what terrorism means for Turkey and the beautiful riverside town of Dalyan.