Slithery, slippery and sweaty Kırkpınar’s 651st annual wrestling matches

Slithery, slippery and sweaty Kırkpınar’s 651st annual wrestling matches

NIKI GAMM ISTANBUL - Hürriyet Daily News
Slithery, slippery and sweaty Kırkpınar’s 651st annual wrestling matches

Kırkpınar is in the Guinness Book of Records and on the UNESCO Intangible Heritage List. While some attribute the use of olive oil in wrestling to the Greeks, it is more likely the Byzantines who began to use it first.

When two American female sprinters recently ran a dead heat in competition for the one open spot on the U.S. Olympic team, someone suggested they wrestle it out covered in Jell-O, but perhaps it would be better if they came to Kırkpınar for the 651st annual wrestling matches. Although the matches begin on July 2, it’s the last three days that are the most important, the rest are merely preliminaries.

Kırkpınar, located near Edirne, is within easy access to Istanbul. Tickets for wrestling matches cost 100 and 70 Turkish Liras and may still be available via Biletix for Saturday and Sunday, the last two days of the event when the really serious wrestlers are on stage.

Oldest sporting event

Kırkpınar is the oldest, almost continuous sporting event in history – almost continuous because there were about 70 years when the games couldn’t be held due to war. It’s in the Guinness Book of Records and on the UNESCO Intangible Heritage List. In fact, the original games weren’t even held at Kırkpınar, but at a site that is now in Bulgaria. In the time of Orhan Gazi, the Ottoman Turks leap-frogged Constantinople and entered the Balkan region, conquering one town or fortress after another. One day he sent 40 warriors under the command of his brother Süleyman Pasha off to conquer various fortresses. Later as they took a break from their efforts, they started wrestling, two men in particular, Ali and Selim, continued until darkness fell when they broke off for a rest and started again the next morning. Neither one could win so they battled on and on until running out of breath, they died. Their companions buried the two below the tree under which they had been fighting. When the warriors returned to the spot years later, they found that a spring had begun flowing there and called it Kırkpınar (Spring of the Forty). When Turkey’s borders were finally decided upon in the 20th century, the event was moved to the city of Edirne and to the ruins of the Ottoman palace on its outskirts.

One could dispute the origin of this event. Wrestling has been known for thousands of years; monuments in ancient Egypt show approximately 1,000 wrestling holds and it is known that wrestling was popular in Near Eastern civilizations. A date of 708 B.C. is given for the introduction of wrestling into the Olympic Games as part of the pentathlon while the pankration wasn’t introduced until 648 B.C. The latter, a mixture of boxing and wrestling, had only two rules – no biting and no gouging of the eyes.

While some attribute the use of olive oil in wrestling to the Greeks, it is more likely the Byzantines who began to use it first since the Turks weren’t introduced to olive oil until they reached Anatolia.

There is general agreement that the Turks brought wrestling with them from Central Asia even if they didn’t use oil there. It was their conversion to Islam that led the wrestlers to cover the lower part of their bodies. Some people have noted the resemblance in the ritualistic openings of the matches to sumo wrestling in Japan. At the time that the Ottomans were establishing their empire in the 14th century they set up tekkes (lodges) devoted to the sports of archery, wrestling and equestrianism.

These resembled the tekkes that were used to house the sufis (mystic saints) and the followers of these men. In Bursa, Orhan Gazi’s wife, Nilüfer Hatun, is credited with having founded tekkes with sporting areas. The first one established for wrestlers was at Pınarbaşı Square. The second such sports tekke with grounds was built in Edirne following its conquest by Sultan Murat I (r. 1359 – 1389) between 1363 and 1389. The third such tekke for wrestlers was founded in Istanbul after the conquest. These tekkes resembled today’s sports clubs but with an overlay of religion and ritual.

Wrestling was popular among the Ottoman rulers and it is not unknown that the sport was practiced by various rulers in the West as well. The example of England’s King Henry VIII wrestling with France’s Francis I in 1520 at the so-called ‘Field of the Cloth of Gold’ in Flanders is one of the best known examples. King Francis was the smaller of the two men but still he was able to throw King Henry to the ground.

Although it is rarely mentioned, Kanuni Sultan Süleyman I’s chief architect, Sinan, included a wrestling area as part of the grounds of the Suleymaniye Mosque in Istanbul. Today no one knows where that might have been located.

When Sultan Abdul Aziz (r. 1861-76) visited France, he brought oil wrestlers in his entourage and they gave exhibitions to the amazement of onlookers. One of the sultan’s wrestlers was Kel Alico (Bald Alico) who became quite famous. So famous in fact that the sultan decided to wrestle him himself. But just as Alico was about to defeat the monarch he stopped. Abdul Aziz asked him why he hadn’t continued and he answered, “You are facing many states as their opponent. They are not able to defeat you, so how can I defeat you.” That pleased the sultan so much that he gave him 15 gold pieces and the title of palace wrestler. Throughout Alico’s wrestling career, he was the champion wrestler 27 times, a record that still stands today.

Sultan Abdulhamid II (r. 1876-1909) was also known for his wrestling abilities as well as his support for wrestling competitions throughout the Ottoman Empire. He would personally get involved, trying wrestlers out and keeping the best for the palace.

Winner gets the Golden Belt

Changes have been made to the Kırkpınar events over the years, especially under Ataturk who wanted the matches to keep up with modern times under the newly founded Turkish Republic. The Golden Belt won by the chief heavyweight is now restricted in weight and the chief wrestler has to have won three matches in a row in order to keep it permanently. In the past the winner would also receive a horse, camel, sheep and duck or whatever could be found, but today they are given medallions and monetary prizes.

The agha or lord of the games is responsible for a good portion of the expenses related to the event and it can add up to quite a lot. He gets to dress up in Ottoman style and is paraded around the arena on the backs of the men hanging around. To become the agha, one has to submit a successful bid and this year’s winner was Seyfettin Selim with a bid of 222,000 liras. This will be the third time he has been the agha. He greets guests and hosts them and he hands out the prizes to the winners although the prize given to the chief winner is usually given by whoever is the guest of honor. In previous years these have been Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, former President Süleyman Demirel, the late President Turgut Özal and the late Rauf R. Denktaş, the former president of the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus. This year Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, general chairman of the Republican People’s Party (CHP) will be the guest of honor. It is also likely that Erdoğan will again attend the event.