Oil wrestling! We’ve probably all dreamed about witnessing this in a certain manner… at least perhaps in the manner suggested by B-comedies and gentlemen’s magazines. And while this is perhaps fun, and most certainly entertaining for the heterosexual male demographic, in Turkey, oil wrestling is in fact a time-honoured tradition carried out exclusively by large, burly men.
Yağlı güreş (Turkish for “grease wrestling”) is the national sport of Turkey, and the annual Kırkpınar oil wrestling festival dates back to the mid-14th century. Oil wrestling is a revered part of Turkish culture – the festival is part of the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage List. Turkish oil wrestling can trace itself back even further than the Kırkpınar festival, with evidence found as far back as 2650 BC in ancient Egypt, Assyria, and Babylonia. With modern Turkey’s cultural ties to both the ancient Persian Empire as well as the Islamic Ottoman Turks, the current version of oil wrestling borrows from a variety of practises coming from its mixed influences. The Kırkpınar tournament is the largest and most important oil wrestling tournament in Turkey, and winners of other may be eligible to compete in it, though only 1000 spaces each year are available in all.
The Kırkpınar festival takes place in the town of Edirne (formerly known as Adrianopolis) in the northwest part of Turkey historically known as Thrace, close to its borders with Greece and Bulgaria. Matches take place on the island of Sarayiçi just outside the town. While historically the event was sponsored by an agha (a rich local figure, a nobleman of some stature) who sponsored hosting and feeding all competitors, organized prizes, and officiated matches, the town of Edirne now has official mandate to run the event on an official basis since 1964.
Modern oil wrestlers are called pehlivans (Farsi for “hero” or “champion”), and apparently used to wrestle entirely in the nude. However, with the Ottoman conquering of Turkey and the subsequent spread of sharia laws on modesty after the 10th century, wrestlers began covering their lower body in a lederhosen-like garment called a kisbet, which traditionally was made with water buffalo hide but now tends to be made from calfskin.
To be victorious, a competitor needs to get a firm hold of his opponent’s kisbet; however, since both men are covered in olive oil, this obviously is much easier said than done, particularly when leather pants are added to the mix. This means almost always now reaching literally down into the pants and grabbing hold on the ass of the pants, which, if you’re comfortable with your own sexuality, is totally fine, I guess.
Matches used to have no time limits at all, but since 1975, the limit is 40 minutes in the baspehlivan (“chief wrestler”) category, and 30 minutes in the pehlivan category. 15 and 10 minutes of additional time may also be used to settle deadlocks in each category, respectively. Before the imposition of time limits, apparently some matches could last a day or two, which seems absolutely insane and possibly the most exhausting thing imaginable.
The baspehlivan of Turkey, declared annually in the Kırkpınar tournament, is nationally revered as an athlete and celebrity. The winner receives the title, a medal and a gift of some livestock as well, typically; if the same wrestler wins the tournament three years in a row, he wins a golden belt with almost 3 pounds of 14-carat gold.
And yes, these guys are jacked, and tough as hell. And yes, the whole thing is most certainly extremely homoerotic to Western viewers. I apologize in advance if this is not your thing, and I say you’re welcome in advance if it is. Either way, I don’t judge.
I respect that oil wrestling has so much cultural significance for Turks everywhere (it’s even taught in special schools dedicated solely to the sport), but quite honestly, I think of all the sports I’ve written about so far in this series, this one is probably the one I’d least want to participate in. That said, flaming soccer balls and dead goats are also quite unappealing to me, so I suppose in a life or death situation, I’d take my chances with sweaty, greasy men out for fame and glory.