Greased Up Kırkpınar: A Unique Oil Wrestling Festival in Turkey
The Ottoman army… Marching to occupy Rumelia (Balkans)… A small fortress is taken over by Suleiman Pasha and his 40 fellow soldiers… They’re hungry, exhausted. After having their meals, all 40 start wrestling, which is a common pastime activity among the “men” of the time. It takes ours, the wrestling, but 2 soldiers, Ali and Selim, cannot defeat one another. They call it a tie and move on.
After a while, somewhere near Edirne, they decide to put this struggle to an end, start wrestling again… Hours pass, there’s no winner… The dusk envelopes the land, still, there’s no winner… The struggle continues with the light of several candles, it goes on and on through the night. Out of exhaustion, towards the morning, both wrestlers breath their last, still without a winner.
Years later, people come across with a spring right on the spot where the wrestlers died. They call it “Kırkpınar” (40 Springs). To honour them, they wrestle, every year, for over 600 years!
This is the legendary story of “Kırkpınar Oil Wrestling Festival”, which is a UNESCO Intangible World Heritage.
The event is basically an “Olive Oil Wrestling Festival”, during which the wrestlers are required to put olive oil on their bodies to make it more difficult to grab the opponent. It’s organized every year since 1355 AD (yeah, that’s right) at the end of June in Edirne, Turkey.
Although the sports festival had taken place in the region “Virantekke” of Edirne, since 1923, the games have been held in “Sarayiçi, Edirne”.
The festival being one of the most traditional ones in Turkey, the games look nowhere like the modern olympic wrestling games.
The only gear that a Kırkpınar wrestler wears is a “Kıspet”, which looks like tights but made of genuine leather. The knees of Kıspet are especially important because if they’re not tied properly, the opponent of the wrestler would easily grab it, which is a great advantage since the bodies are covered in slippery olive oil.
A drum and a shrill pipe traditionally accompanies all the games, from the beginning to the end. The players of the instruments should be trained for the traditional “wrestling rhytms” and they should be able to adjust the rhytm accoding to the pace of the match.
Apart from the refrees, there’s a man walking around and shouting to introduce the wrestlers to the audience. This man is traditionally called “Cazgır”.
And the winner of the games is awarded a prestigious golden belt, along with cash or valuable golden coins.
So where does money come from? Since it’s a world heritage, Kırkpınar Oil Wrestling Festival is partially funded by the government, but the real prestige belongs to the “Patron of Kırkpınar”, who is traditionally responsible for everything from the wrestlers’ gear to the accommodation of guests. But nowadays, it’s more like an auction where rich men compete with their financial capacities to have the title “Patron of Kırkpınar”. It is also quite likely that a 1:1 statue of the Patron will be erected near the stadium.
Although the festival had to be cancelled several times due to wars and invasions, it’s still quite popular among men and the 659-year-old tradition will apparently continue for hundreds of years. If you happen to visit Edirne, Turkey at the end of June, make sure to ask where the games are held!
by Kutay Uzun
About the Author: “Kutay Uzun is an instructor of English with an MA degree in Turkey. Apart from working, he’s a Couchsurfer, occasional tourist guide and a 20-day traveler every year. So far he’s seen a majority of Europe including Georgia. In 2014, he started EcoTripSos – Budget Travel Guide where he publishes articles on the ways of travelling on a budget along with country facts/rankings and tourism related news in order to provide a resource for travelers, especially for starters. Since then he’s been teaching, blogging and travelling whenever he can.”