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Discovering Dalyan - Oil Wrestling in Turkey

Oil Wrestling

How does this sound? You are sitting in a grassy field in Turkey, with the sun beating down on your face, a welcome breeze running through your hair and there are a few dozen leather clad, tall, dark and handsome men, half naked and heavily doused in oil running around in huge displays of virile masculinity. It sounds like a few people's idea of heaven right? But add a crowd of several hundred rowdy supporters, ceremonies of flair and prestige with forty loud banging drums and forty whining pipers dancing around you and you may think otherwise. Welcome to Turkey’s oldest sport; Yağlı Güreş.

Turkish Oil Wrestling

It is a strange kind of competition, one that seems familiar yet, as with many Turkish traditions, has an added nuance of crazy about it. Olive oil certainly presents an added quality to a sport that has seemingly been around since the dawn of time. Every civilisation seems to have had its own variety of wrestling, from sumo in Japan to the staged theatrics of American WWF. The Ottoman style of wrestling was one of the first and oil was added to make the competition more interesting. Oil wrestling plays such a tremendous part in the culture, heritage and tradition of Turkey that it has become as popular a form of entertainment there as a guitarist and singer has to events in England. You could see oil wrestlers at a Turkish wedding, a village fair or even a circumcision. Whatever the celebration, oil wrestlers are on hand in the wings to help pass the time.

Dalyan Oil Wrestling

Oil Wrestling in Dalyan

The league of oil wrestling however, is as serious as the olympics, with festivals and tournaments engaging locals and tourists all over Turkey throughout the summer months. There is a huge amount of money and tradition in this sport and fans all over the world are incredibly invested in this ancient sport. Finally, after a long hiatus, oil wrestling has returned to Dalyan and it is here to stay. Taking place at the end of the tourist season, anyone visiting Dalyan in October could enjoy a day out at the local stadium to watch these greasy hunks getting hot and sweaty on the pitch. If you ask me, it’s another great reason to visit Dalyan!

The History of Oil Wrestling

The original oil wrestlers in Turkey were the conquerors of Edirne, the second capital of the Ottoman Empire and the 1st land conquered in Europe. During the campaign of the Ottoman Empire launched by Sultan Orhan Gazi to capture Thrace (the area of land that connects Europe to Asia) his son, Süleyman Pasha and 40 warriors camped on the outskirts of Samona, now in Greece, on their way back to Bursa after conquering parts of the area. To pass the time and add some entertainment to their long days, the warriors started to wrestle for fun. As many of the warriors won their matches or conceded, there were two that seemed to be unable to beat each other. They organised a rematch near Adrianople (now Edirne, a Turkish city on the Bulgarian and Greek borders) on their way back and fought from morning until midnight with neither one wanting to admit defeat. It was only when both warriors eventually died of heart attacks from exhaustion while wrestling that the match was declared over.

Modern Day Edirne

Modern Day Edirne

Their comrades buried the warriors under a fig tree where they died fighting and then left to continue the Empire’s journey to conquer Thrace. When the warriors returned to the burial site some years later, they noticed that several springs had appeared at that very spot. The warriors named the place Kırkpınar, which means “forty springs” and in time warriors began to organise oil wrestling tournaments there and the sport became a tradition in Edirne. The year 1360 is adapted by the organisers of the present day Edirne Kırkpınar tournament as the date when Ottoman soldiers started to organise an annual oil wrestling event. This legend makes Kırkpınar the world’s oldest continuously sanctioned sporting competition.

The Kirkpinar Statue

The Kırkpınar Statue

The ancient history of oil wrestling tournaments links back to the Persian Mythical Era of Iran, which started in approximately 1065BC. The legendary wrestler (pehlivan) of this time was called Rostam, a hero who is said to have saved his country from evil forces again and again. In all tales, myths and stories, there has always been a common respect for oil wrestlers.

Beni Hassan Tomb

Evidence of Early Oil Wrestling, the Beni Hassan Tomb, Egypt, 4000 Years Ago

The “pehlivan” is described as being a man with great strength in body and mind as well as spiritually, but they are also of good values, being kind and generous, wise, humble and honest. Before 1582, pehlivans who weren’t of a military background were obtained from prisoners of war and slave sources; the healthiest and strongest young men were recruited from the various provinces of the Ottoman Empire. Wrestling championships were held everywhere. Every city and village had its annual wrestling event and the sport also occurred at social and ceremonial events as well as during the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan.

Ottoman Oil Wrestlers

Ottoman Oil Wrestlers

Why Olive Oil?

There are 85 million olive trees in Turkey and the country is one of the world’s leading traders in olive oil. They must have an excess of the golden liquid and are simply looking for things to do with the left overs! No, but in all seriousness, olive oil has become hugely important to the Turks. It is used generously in Turkish cuisine and their mezes and vegetable dishes are mostly based on the main ingredient of olive oil. Turks are more than aware of the health benefits of olive oil such as its inflammation fighting properties, antioxidants and the fact that a little a day can keep heart disease away, but the Roman era brought about the most interesting use of olive oil; mosquito repellent.

A Wrestler Covered in Olive Oil

A Wrestler Covered in Olive Oil

The Roman Empire collapsed for many reasons, but one major issue that the Romans faced was a malaria epidemic, one that certainly shook the lives of those residing in Kaunos, the ancient city which overlooks Dalyan. Mosquito nets, standing in smoke and even burning animal faeces were not enough to keep the infected mosquitos away. Long after the Roman Empire was gone, people learned to mix “kafur”, a potent berry, with olive oil which proved to be an effective repellent to the life threatening insects. Legend has it that soldiers would continue to wrestle while covered in the oil and hence oil wrestling was born.

Wrestlers Cover Their Opponents in Olive Oil

That is one theory, another is that the use of oil in wrestling is for spiritual reasons. In the Ottoman Empire, wrestlers learned their art in special schools called “tekke”, which were not merely athletic centres, but spiritual and religious too. Spiritually, the wrestlers believed that “man is not simply made of matter, the other half of the human equation is the spirit and spiritual being”. The wrestlers oil up their opponents before they fight, which signifies the importance of balance and good character in such competitions.

Wrestlers' Kisbet

Wrestlers Wear Kısbet

Religiously, wrestlers started covering themselves according to Islamic law and a special leather clothing was sanctioned which covered the competitors below the knee. The clothes were long shorts made of leather and some believe that oil was added to the wrestling to make it more difficult for the wrestlers to grip their opponents. Many believe that the art of using olive oil to make the fight more difficult comes from the Roman Greek Gladiators who apparently came up with the idea. Apart from being a long standing tradition and the thing that sets this style of wrestling apart from any other, that is exactly why oil is used in Turkey today. The “liquid gold” simply makes the fight more difficult and more interesting. In Turkey, oil wrestling is known as ‘Yağlı Güreş’, which translated means ‘grease wrestling’.

What you Need to Know

An oil wrestler is called a ‘pehlivan’, which literally means ‘hero’ or ‘champion’. A pehlivan is usually sponsored by a rich businessmen or politician and their sponsorship pays for their training. Each pehlivan is required to wear long shorts which cover the wrestler from the waist to below the knee. The shorts are made of leather from water buffalo hide or calfskin and are accompanied by a thick belt which is comprised of four layers of leather. These shorts are called ‘kısbet’. Each wrestler carries his kısbet to and from the competition in a ‘zembil’, a bag weaved from river reeds. If a pehlivan is sponsored, their sponsor’s name will be marked on the back of their kısbet with metal studs and many wrestlers will wear a black leather arm band under which they keep a written down prayer that they believe will see them through the competition.

Kisbet marked with sponsor's name

Kısbet Marked With a Sponsor's Name

The ‘Güreş Ağası” is the name given to the man who runs the wrestling federation, but ‘Ağa’ is the name that is given to the man who wins the title of tournament boss through a financial bid. People from all over Turkey bid money to be the Ağa of that year and a single bid can be anything in excess of 400,000TL. The highest bid wins and at the tournament, the Ağa is given a ram to sacrifice. In a way, you could say that bids are placed on the ram itself. For some tournaments, the bids to be Ağa for the following year are placed before the tournament final in an auction organised by the local municipality (council). The Ağa becomes the tournament’s main sponsor, financially responsible for the running of the event, including the cost of the ceremonial medals. He attends the matches as a dignitary and launches the festival during the opening ceremony. The Ağa is also responsible for medal presentation at the end of the event.

The Aga and his dignitaries

The Ağa Bids to Become the Tournament's Boss

Just as with any modern day sport, oil wrestling has its very own commentator called the ‘cazgır’. The announcer is always present and really adds to the atmosphere of the games. He is on hand to announce the wrestlers before they fight and he recites rhymes, poems and quotes to motivate the competitors; these poems are known as ‘salavat’. The cazgır is chosen according to his age, city of residence and lifetime achievements. In addition to the presence of the Ağa and the cazgır, at each match there are 40 drummers (davul) and 40 pipers (zurne) who in turn add to the overall atmosphere of the event. The musicians follow the Ağa during the opening ceremony but are also present at every match as the music is integral to the wrestling. Themes specific to oil wrestling are played before and during matches and the wrestlers fight in time with the rhythm of the music played.

Davul in Kirkpinar

Davul in Edirne Kırkpınar

Before each match, the wrestlers first cover their competitor in olive oil from the traditional vats presented for each tournament. They then complete a ceremony of dance called a ‘peşrev’, which means ‘warming up dance’. Actually in Turkey, a peşrev is also an instrumental form in Turkish classical music. It is the name of the first piece of music played during a group performance called a ‘fasıl’ (musical suite). Technically, the form uses long rhythm cycles which stretch over many bars which is translated to the wrestlers pre-match warm up. The davul and zurne play their rhythmical Turkish tunes as the wrestlers complete their dance moves. Each wrestler takes a series of steps. They then put their left knee on the ground and touch their own knee, lips and foreheads with their right hands three times. Once the peşrev is over, they suddenly jump ahead shouting “Hayda bre pehlivan” which means “Come on wrestler” and the match begins. During the medal ceremony, prizes are given for the best peşrev of each class.

A Version of Peşrev from Kırkpınar 2014

The upper age limit of any oil wrestling tournament is 40 years old, but anybody placed in the top 16 can continue beyond 40 years if they wish. There are thirteen categories in each competition and three placed winners from each category. “Baş Pahlivan” is the highest category for chief wrestlers and categories decrease in weight classes, including “Toz Koparan” (kickers up of the dust), “Tesvik” (encourager), two classes of “Minik” (small and sweet) and the youngest for twelve year olds and upwards, “En İyi Peşrev” (best beginner).

Lower Weight Clases

Lower Weight Classes for Youths

Pairs are chosen by judges who consider the size, age, height, weight and track record of each competitor, apart from the “Baş Pahlivan” category where match ups are decided by a lottery in full view of the stadium crowd.

Bas Pahvilan Category

Baş Pahlivan Category

In order to gain victory, a wrestler must follow the rules and not use excessive force or else he can be eliminated. He must also only use moves from a list of 350 that the wrestlers have to stick to. There are five moves which can find him a winner. The first is called the ‘crush’, a manoeuvre which places his opponent on his stomach where he can be trapped by sprawling on top. A half nelson in this position will find the wrestler a winner. Managing to completely rip the kısbet from an opponent’s body will also signify a win. There are places on the shorts that the wrestlers can grab, for example, stitches are put inside the shorts and inside the thick belt which aid the wrestlers in grabbing their opponents. If a wrestler is able to lift his opponent entirely from the ground and carry him for five paces, a win is declared. During a flip, if ones navel is exposed, the wrestler has lost and his opponent takes the win. A wrestler is also able to submit at any time, also declaring his opponent the winner.

At attempt to rip the kismet

An Attempt to Rip the Kısbet

While medals are given to the winners of each category, there are two hugely sought after prizes in an oil wrestling tournament. The 1st prize winner of the Baş Pahlivan category receives a 14 carrot gold belt when he is named “Champion of Turkey”. If that wrestler wins the tournament three years in a row, he is eligible to keep the gold belt forever. The winner at Edirne Kırkpınar also wins $100,000. The second belt is presented to the tournament’s Ağa, who also gets to keep the belt if he holds that position for three years running.

The Golden Belt

In a rather wonderful tradition, once a wrestler reaches the top weight category, the Baş Pahlivan, so long as he has come from a traditional upbringing, is presented with an apprentice. One of the juniors is assigned to a successful, high class wrestler for mentoring. Every junior becomes a “cirak” (apprentice) and every wrestler eventually becomes a mentor. The master trains with his apprentice and teaches him everything he knows about the art of oil wrestling. After the master quits the “arena of the brave”, his apprentice continues his tradition and upholds his mentor’s name.

Oil Wrestling Today

History tells us that oil wrestling really is an ancient sport and it is the oldest sport that still continues today. The annual tournament that takes place in Edirne has occurred in Turkey every year since the 13th century making it the longest continuously running sports event in the world, solidified by the Guinness Book of World Records in 2001. As a result of its history and tradition, oil wrestling has become the national sport of Turkey. The Oil Wrestling competitions held in Turkey each year always begin with the event at Edirne Kırkpınar in July and has done every year since the 13th century. The municipality of Edirne sends a red candle to all world cities as an invitation to the festival and the most successful Turkish wrestlers from all over the country are sent to participate at Edirne Kırkpınar.

Wrestling Ground at Edirne Kirkpinar

The Wrestling Ground at Edirne Kırkpınar

Atatürk reformed the sport during his rule putting the organisations directly under his own sponsorship. He ordered Selim Sırrı Tarcan, a Turkish educator, sports official and politician to restyle oil wrestling for the new Turkish Republic. As a result, the winner of the Erdine competition became known as the “Champion of Turkey” and westernised, modern day medals began to be awarded outside of the highest category. An organising committee was formed to make decisions about the tournaments and only the committee is now able to stop a match, disqualify wrestlers if necessary or cancel events. Until 1975, there was no time limit for wrestling in Kırkpınar and sometimes pehlivans would wrestle for days on end until they could establish a winner. Today, wrestling in the highest category is limited to 40 minutes per match and if no winner is found, another 15 minutes is added and the one who scores the most points in this last period are accepted as the winners. In lower categories, the matches last 30 minutes with 10 minutes of added time.

Wrestling Matches

Wrestling Matches Last 30-40 Minutes

Modern day Turkish oil wrestling has made a splash in Europe with MokumTV in Amsterdam showing a weekly program on the A1 Amsterdam channel in 1996. Turkish dignitaries believed that Kırkpınar would exceed the borders of Turkey and unite the world. In 1997, the Amsterdam Kırkpınar was held and was covered by 22 television companies including CNN and the BBC, 950 wrestlers from Turkey took part in the competition and Amsterdam became the most important annual event after Edirne. While oil wrestling hasn’t taken off in Europe outside of Amsterdam, it continues to be the most important sporting heritage of Turkey, with 2016 marking the 656th festival of its kind. During a year, about 300 different oil wrestling games are held in Turkey with an average of ten million spectators. In 2010, the Kırkpınar oil wrestling tournament was declared a UNESCO intangible heritage event.

One of 350 Allowed Moves

Oil Wrestling in Dalyan

Edirne Kırkpınar is the main oil wrestling festival in Turkey and these days the event is held on Sarayiçi Island, known sometimes as Kırkpınar Island, in Edirne, where it has been held since 1924. If you want the true and original oil wrestling experience, Edirne is the place to go. The festival in Edirne takes place in July each year, in 2016 it will be held between the 18th and 24th of July. However, there are over 300 oil wrestling leagues all over Turkey and there is now an official, top class league near Köyceğiz which means regular oil wrestling tournaments in the Dalyan area.

Oil Wrestling in Dalyan, 2015

In October 2015, Dalyan saw the return of oil wrestling in a wonderful event put on at the Dalyan Stadium. It was the first time oil wrestling had come to Dalyan in fifteen years and the event was extremely popular, particularly with the locals.

Crowds Attend Dalyan's Oil Wrestling Event

Crowds Attend Dalyan's Oil Wrestling Tournament, 2015

Fortunately it is now in the area to stay and every October will bring oil wrestlers from Köyceğiz and all over Turkey to Dalyan. If you happen to be in Dalyan later in the year, the festival is set to take place there on the 16th of October. You could be one of ten million fans of oil wrestling world wide to enjoy this wonderful and rather greasy sport!

Many Thanks to Faye Smith for her Photos of the 2015 Oil Wrestling Event in Dalyan

I would like to take this opportunity to thank Dalyan Junior School Principal, Adem Aydemir for agreeing to be interviewed about Oil Wrestling in Turkey. Mr Aydemir used to wrestle himself and is a keen supporter of the new top class league in Köyceğiz. He was very kind to spare me his time and teach me about the history, tradition, rituals and rules behind this amazing and entertaining sport.

Is it safe to travel to Turkey?

The Dalyan exposé has begun! The project will run until the 23rd of May and will include a lot of exciting articles 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.

See our Exposé Page Here

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