Wrestling with legends
It would seem that wrestling dates even further back into prehistoric times, a way of showing off strength and agility, with or without rules.
Fifteen thousand years ago someone in France painted wrestling scenes in a cave. Nearly 4,000 years ago, the Egyptians were painting wrestling scenes in their tombs. The later Phoenicians were also known for their wrestling prowess. In the Bible, Jacob wrestled with an angel. It would seem that wrestling dates even further back into prehistoric times, a way of showing off strength and agility, with or without rules.
The Sumerians have left us the legend of the demi-god Gilgamesh who, in his effort to show that he was worthy to become king, wrestled with Enkidu. He appears in the Epic of Gilgamesh and lived around 2500 BC. Wrestling scenes appear in sculpture and other literary sources from ancient Mesopotamia as well.
The Greeks like to present themselves as though they discovered wrestling. Certainly they have been responsible for bringing the sport into the present. One story concerns Hercules and his wrestling match with Antaeus. Hercules, on his way to complete his eleventh labor, is waylaid by Antaeus, a half giant spawned by Poseidon and Gaia, respectively god of the sea and goddess of the earth. No one could pass Antaeus without wrestling with him and ending up dead because he possessed enormous strength as long as he remained in contact with the ground. When Hercules learned this, he used it to lift Antaeus off the ground so that he lost all of his strength and was vanquished. The wrestling match of Hercules and Antaeus became a familiar theme in Greek art.
In Homer’s Iliad, there is the account of the wrestling match between Ajax and Odysseus in which the two men reached a draw much to the surprise of the onlookers. Ajax was by far the stronger man but Odysseus was able to use his proverbial intelligence and guile to even the match out.
Leaving aside legends, the Greeks were particularly partial to sports and wrestling was considered one of the top sporting activities. Its rules were simple. The winner had only to throw the loser to the ground three times, otherwise there seems to have been few rules although eye-gouging was out. Wrestling was added to the sports events organized in the Olympic Games in 702 BC as an independent sport and also as part of the pentathlon which consisted of track, discus and javelin throwing, long jump and wrestling. It was one of the ways in which the Greeks trained their young men in the martial arts. It is said that the philosopher Plato wrestled.
The Romans conquered Greece but seem to have been unimpressed by wrestling. Several sources say that they adopted it although they cut out a lot of the brutality. The main reasons by the Romans differed in their approach to wrestling stems from two reasons: the Romans had a standing, professional army whereas the Greeks were civilians called up to serve in times of emergency; and in Rome the citizens formed an elite that was more interested in spectator sports, these being performed by slaves. In the end, what is referred to as Greco-Roman wrestling was allowed in the first modern Olympics in 1896.
As for the Byzantines, there’s little evidence that wrestling was held in high regard, although Emperor Basil I (r. 867 - 886) who was from Macedonia and of peasant stock, personally beat a challenger from Bulgaria.
The legend of Kırkpınar
The past makes the 652nd oil wrestling matches at Kırkpınar in northwest Turkey look positively modern by comparison. The matches are said to have begun in 1360 – nobody’s quite sure. And for several years over the centuries it was impossible to hold them because of ongoing wars but one has to suppose that the numbering continued. The Greeks, by the way, claim that they were holding these wrestling matches here before the Turks had ever arrived in the area.
The legend essentially goes that one day 40 Turkish soldiers came upon a meadow near Samona, now in northern Greece. It seemed like a nice place to rest so they decided to do just that. To while away the time, some of them began to wrestle but finally two of them were left. They went on wrestling into the night until they were too tired to continue. When their companions woke up in the morning they found the two had died from exhaustion so they buried them there. The next year the companions came back to pay their respects and found that the 40 springs had appeared in the meadow where the two graves had been.
This is how Kırkpınar (Forty Springs) supposedly got its name but the wrestling matches originally were held elsewhere and it wasn’t until the twentieth century that the games were moved to Kırkpınar and more exactly to the area called Sarayiçi (meaning within the palace) just outside Edirne.
The Turks have also embellished the initial legend by attaching this story to Süleyman Paşa, the oldest son of Orhan Gazi, the second ruler of the newly founded Ottoman dynasty. Suleyman Paşa is sent a dream in which he sees the crescent moon, a symbol subsequently adopted by the Turks as their emblem, rising above the sea and the Asian and European continents tied to one another with a silver chain of light. When he wakes up, he takes 39 companions, gets on a boat and sails to the European shore where he sets about conquering the nearest fortress of Tzympe (Cinbi). Prior to this all of the conquests had been in Anatolia.
Then one day Süleyman Paşa and his companions decide to rest in a meadow area not too far away. They’d been hunting perhaps because Süleyman Paşa enjoyed that sport. They began to wrestle – and we know the rest of the story but in this case, the number 40 comes from the number of his companions. Forty in any case is a number that has symbolic significance in Islam. It is the Prophet Mohammed’s age when he begins to receive the Qur’an. He prayed and fasted in the cave for 40 days. There is also a hadith (tradition) attributed to the Prophet Mohammad that the prayers of a person who gossips would not be accepted for 40 days and nights. The Prophet Isa (Jesus) fasted in the wilderness for 40 days and so forth. And there are many more such significant 40s.
There’s another little known fact about the oil wrestling matches. They used to be held in conjunction with Hıdrellez at the beginning of May and the celebration of the start of spring and summer. The reason for moving the oil wrestling is obscure but perhaps it has something to do with removing it from a quasi-religious connection and an association with the Alevi community in Turkey.
The oil wrestling matches are currently underway at Kırkpınar but, if you’re planning to go and don’t have a ticket or a place to stay, Edirne is bursting at the seams. Better to watch the final matches on Sunday on TV at home.