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Turkish Oil Wrestling – Top Fighters Clash In Fethiye

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Over two decades of living in Turkey and we finally get to experience our first Turkish oil wrestling (yağlı güreş) tournament.

Shirtless Turkish oil wrestlers on a grass pitch.
Turkish oil wrestling came to Fethiye

Our neighbouring province, the Mediterranean Province of Antalya, has a strong tradition in hosting oil wrestling festivals and has produced some of the country’s top wrestlers.

The Yeşilyayla oil wrestling festival in Antalya’s Elmalı is said to be even older than the famous Kırkpınar Festival.

Whatever the case, they’re certainly amongst the world’s oldest wrestling events.

Some of the smaller festivals occur quite local to us. And yet, we’ve just never made it there on the day.

Traditional Oil Wrestling In Town

So, when the posters went up around Fethiye, advertising an event to commemorate 100 years of the Turkish Republic – an event featuring some of the country’s most famous Turkish oil wrestlers – we knew we had to be there.

Like the traditional camel wrestling event that was held a few years ago, the oil wrestling was to take place in nearby Karaçulha; just a dolmuş ride away.

We had no excuse!

Leather Trousers & Oil

What did we know about a Turkish oil wrestling match before this event took place?

Not much, at all, actually.

Obviously, we knew there were gonna be lots of big beefy guys about the place, striding around in leather trousers, skin smothered in oil.

Turkish oil wrestlers wait to begin their tournament at the edge of the grass pitch. Trees and mountains are in the background.
We were right about those leather trousers

Of course, we also knew that this sport is an inherent part of Turkish culture – the subject of one of Turkey’s most famous festivals; the Kırkpınar Oil Wrestling Festival that has taken place for hundreds of years in the Edirne province, close to the Greek border.

Having taken place annually from the end of June since the 14th Century (1370) era of the Ottoman Empire, the Kırkpınar Oil Wrestling Festival was recognised by UNESCO and awarded Intangible Cultural Heritage event status in 2010.

What We Witnessed, What We Learned

Fethiye Belediyesi (local council) had organised a one-day event where many of the top Turkish wrestlers would be present.

Household names of the oil wrestling world like Ankara’s Ismail Koç, Cengizhan Şimşek and Ismail Balaban (amongst others) would be taking part.

These are the guys who have, over the years, earned the title of Başpehlivanı (chief wrestler or head wrestler) and Turkish wrestling fans are all familiar with the names.

Bad Weather

The weather forecast for the day of the event was atrocious. Thunder, lightning and heavy rain.

The bouts were to begin at 9am and we’d spotted that the hourly forecast displayed a dry spell up until just after lunchtime.

So, we jumped on the dolmuş and got there nice and early to at least see a bit of what oil wrestling is all about.

We’d just missed the younger kids taking part in their matches. Their aim is to also, one day, hold the title of Başpehlivan and to be victorious at the Kırkpınar Festival in the Turkish city of Edirne.

Oiling Up

Turkish oil wrestlers take oil from a jug to oil their bodies.
The yağcı holds the oil jugs whilst the wrestlers smear it onto their bodies

On this day in Fethiye, we arrived to catch the final bouts of the young guys.

Announcements were made and the mayor, famous wrestlers and organisers paraded the perimeter of the pitch to the accompaniment of drums and the familiar sounds of the zurna flute.

Meanwhile, the yağcı (the guy with the jug that apparently contains a mixture of olive oil and water) stood at the edge of the pitch, whilst the wrestlers coated themselves and their kıspet (leather trousers) in the mixture.

The oil on the bodies of the wrestlers makes it difficult for the opponents to get a grip of each other so a popular move is for the wrestlers to reach down inside each other’s kıspet!

Two oil wrestlers mid bout. One holds the other upside down and reaches into his breeches.
Getting a better grip

This allows for a better grip (or so we’ve been told).

And, just in case you’re wondering, we’ve also been told genitalia is strictly out of bounds.

As we stood taking in the spectacle, we soon worked out that this was a one-day exhibition knockout divided between different weights and age groups.

Oil wrestling festivals can also take place over a number of days.

Numerous bouts were taking place simultaneously, each pair of fighters with their own referee.

Turkish Oil Wrestling – The Peşrev

As the bouts were finishing, the next group of oil wrestlers were introduced. And we witnessed the next oil wrestling ritual…

A group of Turkish oil wrestlers walk forward to greet the crowd.
And then we witnessed the Peşrev

A long row of beefy oil wrestlers started to walk and swing their arms and legs towards us across the grass.

As the sound of the zurna filled the air and announcements were made, we could hear the hands of the wrestlers slapping onto the oiled leather around their thighs.

And then a dip down to the floor with left knee and a touch of the grass.

This is a ritual we’ve read about since being at the event on the day – the Peşrev.

After the grass, they touch their belly, mouth and forehead with their right hand, before raising their arm towards heaven to Allah.

Let Combat Commence

We’ll be honest; we had absolutely no clue what was going on in each bout. Or who was winning and why.

Fortunately, the numerous eagle-eyed referees were keeping track of proceedings.

Two referees watch the bare-chested combatants.
Combat begins after the Peşrev

Hundreds of years ago, there was no time limit for an oil wrestling match. They could go on for longer than a day!

Obviously, this wasn’t very practical for all concerned so, in recent years (1975), a time limit of 40 minutes was introduced for the başpehlivan category.

The victor is the one who gets his opponent on his back, belly facing the sky. And if there is no clear winner, the match is decided on points after an extra 15 minutes wrestling.

When there are just two oil wrestlers left for the final bout, the triumphant fighter is awarded a golden belt.

If they win the belt three years in a row, they become the eternal owner of the golden belt.

Street Food

Now, you know us. Food is a big part of our lives. And the great thing about traditional Turkish festivals like this is you can guarantee some decent Turkish street food!

As important as the event taking place, as far as we’re concerned.

Whilst we watched some of the oil wrestling bouts, the ever-looming dark clouds were now accompanied by rumbles of thunder.

We took ourselves off to the food area to see what was on offer…

Cooks prepare street food at a food stand. The sign above tells us they are köfte specialists.
Lots of meat was on the menu

Not ideal if you looking for vegan or vegetarian dishes but, for us, we were spoilt for choice.

Cağ kebab, et sote and şaç tava dishes, köfte and gözleme.

But we headed further along the row of stands.

A Turkish man cooks slices of sucuk on a griddle. Rings of sucuk are hanging behind him.
A little of what you fancy…

We’d seen the sucuk stand on the way in when we arrived and had already decided sucuk ekmek – slices of sucuk in a crusty half bread – was the lunch for us.

Hot half breads in hand, we headed off down the hill back towards the centre of Karaçulha to get the dolmuş home; polishing off our oh-so-satisfying sucuk-packed sandwiches in the process.

The heavens did indeed open and it absolutely tippled down.

Our thinking was that the oil wrestling event would, unfortunately, have to be stopped.

We were wrong! We followed along live on Facebook as these wrestlers continued their bouts in the torrential rain.

Something to bear in mind if you ever make it to an oil wrestling event. These guys are not fairweather wrestlers. The show goes on!

If you’re travelling around Turkey and you would like to catch a Turkish oil wrestling event, they usually take place throughout the summer months. Look out locally for posters.

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Jennifer date

Saturday 25th of November 2023

Was lucky enough to see this outside Olu holiday.

Turkey's For Life

Sunday 26th of November 2023

hi Jennifer, thanks for your comment. We'd love to experience the oil wrestling in Edirne, one day. :)

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