Quintessentially Turkish: The 652nd Kırkpınar Olive Oil Wrestling Festival in Edirne

On Sunday July 7th, I ventured out to Edirne on the North Western border of Turkey, just a few miles away from the Bulgarian and Greek borders. Edirne was once the capital of the Ottoman Empire before it was moved to Constantinople (Istanbul). As you walk along the many cobblestoned streets of Edirne you can see multiple remnants of its Ottoman past, whether it be ruins or grand mosques and Ottoman homes. Many claim that Edirne is one of many cities that reflect the true culture and spirit of Turkey as it has its roots in its traditions and history; Indeed many believe Istanbul is not “real” Turkey as it is like London or New York, a vast metropolitan city filled with people from all ethnicities and backgrounds and nationalities as well. It also seems to be a city that values culture and tradition, I say culture because the streets are lined with sculptures and artworks of all sorts.

Now, there is a reason I chose to go on this Sunday, it was the last day of the week long Kırkpınar Olive Oil Wrestling Festival, that has been held annually in Edirne for 652 years! It is the longest running sanctioned organized sporting event in the world, yup older than the modern Olympic games., and is recognized as a UNESCO heritage event. Lonely Planet lists it as one of the top 10 experiences not to miss in Turkey, and I had read that it was one of the quintessentially Turkish cultural experiences, perhaps not for the oily men wrestling on the grass field but for the ambiance and the traditions/ rituals that take place.

The Kirkpinar statue that greets visitors as they drive into Edirne.
The Kirkpinar statue that greets visitors as they drive into Edirne.

That morning I woke up bright and early to catch one of two shuttles that would take me to Bayrampasa bus terminal (The main Bus station in Istanbul), but due to some miscommunication I missed my first shuttle and had to take a taxi to the nearby Otogar (Aliberkoy), eventually I made it to Bayrampasa. I was all alone on this one day adventure of mine and was prepared and had an idea of what I was doing but at the same time was a little apprehensive and uncertain if I’d be able to find an English speaker. Long and behold, as my 2nd shuttle arrived at Metro Turizm’s boarding area at Bayrampasa Otogar, I wasnt sure if I needed to get off at the drop off point (there are many drops off points in Bayrampasa), but a very friendly English speaking dude asked if I was heading to Edirne and said if so I should get off at this point. I then promptly got off and followed him.

His name is Samed, an engineer working for a telecommunications company in Istanbul from a northern Black Sea coastal town, and he asked if I was heading to Edirne to watch Kırkpınar, and as it turned out we had seats right next to each other and were taking the same buses to and from Edirne and it was his third time to watch Kırkpınar. He was extremely friendly and asked if I had anything planned and told me his general plan for the day and invited me to join him. I was super super fortunate to meet Samed as he ended up taking me around Edirne and showing me the city/ explaining to me some of the more traditional aspects of the festival that i probably would never have been able to understand otherwise.  I really couldnt thank him enough, and he later told me that he heard me speaking English to the bus agents and knew that Edirne is a very Turkish city with few English speakers and Kırkpınar is a very traditional event with even less of a chance to meet any English speakers so he decided he would help me out! I really wanted to return him the favor, but he wouldnt accept and just said it was his pleasure, again this just shows how friendly the Turkish people are! Everything went rather well, until our Metro bus broke down in the middle of the highway, we waited on the side of the road for the new bus to arrive and take us onwards to Edirne, thankfully this did not delay us by too much!

652nd Kırkpınar Olive Oil Wrestling Festival

Note: many of the facts below comes from http://www.edirnetravel.net/oil-wrestling-kirkpinar and http://www.kirkpinar.com/home.php?link=anasayfa&dil=en, both of which offer more detailed explanations of the festival and rules.

A Brief Background of the origins:

Before the establishment of Kırkpınarwrestling had already become the national sport of Iran and the Ottoman Empire. Kırkpınar was established in 1362 by Ottoman soldiers. The reason they started the festival was:

Legend has it that before the conquest of Edirne, Sultan Orhan Gazi, the second sultan of Ottoman Empire, sent his brother Süleyman Pasha with a specially selected group of 40 strong men to conquer the Byzantine castle of Domuzlu, a feat they achieved over night. Besides their soldiering prowess, all 40 men were keen wrestlers and regularly challenged each other to bouts. The legend goes that two of them were so evenly matched that they wrestled for days without a clear victor. The last bout between those two finalists lasted all night as neither was able to defeat the other. They were found dead the next morning. They were buried underneath a nearby fig tree, whereupon their comrades headed to conquer Edirne. After the conquest, the soldiers came upon the fig tree, they saw that the fig tree was surrounded by a crystal-clear spring, so they renamed the surrounding meadow as “Kırkpınar”, which translates from Turkish as “forty springs.”

The festival was established to commemorate the bravery and heroism of the 40 soldiers.

The entrance to festival grounds
The entrance to festival grounds
Statues of some of the legendary wrestlers throughout history
Statues of some of the legendary wrestlers throughout history

After the foundation of Turkish republic, Atatürk thought to put the wrestling organizations directly under his own sponsorship. Oil wrestling championships is restyled according to his guidelines for sport in the new Turkish Republic. So the winner of Kırkpınar became ‘Başpehlivan (chief wrestler) of the Kırkpınar’ and ‘Champion of Turkey’. Today, the top 4 qualifiers would have a nice medal and cup and ‘Başpehlivan’ of the year would keep the Golden Belt (Altın Kemer) for a year, until the next tournament. Only for the Edirne Kırkpınar and solely if a ‘Başpehlivan’ is the victor for three consecutive years, he becomes the owner of the Golden Belt forever. The weight of the Golden Belt is limited to a topmost of 1.450 gram 14 carat gold. This year, the 2 year defending champion defeated his opponent (a newcomer in the finals who defeated most people’s hopeful winner, the defeated wrestler from last year’s final) and won the golden belt for a 3rd consecutive year, thus getting it for life and climbing himself up the ladder of Kırkpınar legends.

The final match of the festival. This is an example of a wrestler going into the pants of an opponent for a better grip, it was also when it seemed the defending campion could lose
The final match of the festival. This is an example of a wrestler going into the pants of an opponent for a better grip, it was also when it seemed the defending campion could lose
But the defending champion prevailed and struck his opponent on his back!
But the defending champion prevailed and struck his opponent on his back!
The stadium erupting in fanfare, especially those from Anatolia as the champion is Anatolian
The stadium erupting in fanfare, especially those from Anatolia as the champion is Anatolian

The Wrestling

There are a total of 12 categories of wrestlers, from the very young ones (pre-teens to teens) to the junior adults to the biggest and strongest men. The Wrestlers are known as pehlivan, meaning hero or champion, and they wear a type of hand-stitched lederhosen called ‘kıspet’ which is also traditionally made of water buffalo hide and most recently has been made of calfskin. The matches take place in an open, grassy field stadium in Sarayiçi, also called as Er Meydanı (Eng: Field of Brave Men), with the contestants are half naked and wear only the kıspet’s made of leather, which extend to just below the knee. Underneath the kıspet the wrestlers tie a tight piece of cloth to act as handles for their opponents to get a better grip, which means that often times wrestlers will extend their arms into the pants of their opponent from behind. Victory is achieved when one wrestler either pins the other to the ground on their back or lifts his opponent above his shoulders.

Before each match, the wrestlers come out on to the field and get doused with olive oil, first they lather themselves using their right hand then left, and have fellow wrestlers help them out with their backs, there are tournament officials who specifically carry kettles of olive oil. Then the wrestlers of each category line up to be introduced by the Cazgir (The Announcer) who announces their name, place of origin, wrestling style and opponent for the match, before reciting some traditional wrestling poetry and words of wisdom to remind them of the art and tradition of Olive Oil Wrestling. The wrestlers then proceed to do the Peşrev (Peshrev), a pre-match preparation ritual similar to the New Zealand All Black Hakka dance. In a harmonious way peşrev starts with waving hands and arms, and then walking with long and wide strides on the grass. After touring three times in the arena in a criss-cross/ across the field pattern, the wrestler stops and bends on their left knees and with their right hand they touch the ground, the left knee, the lips and forehead three times. The wrestlers then meet at a spot in front of their referee and ten pulls the opponent’s legs, kıspet, strokes the back of the neck in a sportsman like acknowledgment, they then shake hands and thus begins the match. It is a very sportsman/ gentlemanly style of wrestling, the wrestler respect each other and reflect high degrees of sportsmanship, if a younger wrestler defeats an older one they will help them up/ kiss them on the hand as a sign of respect for elders. The start position is also one that symbolizes brotherhood, as the men have their heads together bowed town with one arm around the shoulders and the other in a hand shake.

The Turkish flag accidentally fell, the wrestlers are in the match-start position.
The Turkish flag accidentally fell, the wrestlers are in the match-start position.
The wrestlers on the right with their arms up are performing the pre-match ritual
The wrestlers on the right with their arms up are performing the pre-match ritual

Before 1975, matches could last days if there was no obvious victor, since then each match in the Başpehlivan (big man) category has been limited to 40 minutes. If it is tied at 40 minutes, there is 15 minutes overtime, where scores are kept, the highest scorer in the 15 minute overtime is determined as the victor. All other categories are limited to 30 minutes with 10 minute overtimes.

During the entire festival and throughout the matches, Kırkpınar drummers and shrill pipe players play a rhythmic and melodic tune that goes with the beat of the wrestling. The rhythm is adjusted in accordance to the pace of the wrestling/ pre-match ritual, and this is considered a very key aspect of the festival as each musician is expected to know the melodies well.

The Kirkpinar drummers
The Kirkpinar drummers

Other Traditions:

Although I did not see any of these, it is tradition to have Red Bottom Candles during the festival, as they used to be used as a means to invite people to the festival. They were hung in cafes and restaurants in villages and towns to invite the townspeople to see the wrestling.

The Agha (Chief):

The Kırkpınar wrestling competitions of Edirne were still held under the protectorate of the ‘Agha’, the chief. Although, officially Kırkpınar Organization is held by Edirne Municipality, the Agha  welcomes his guests and puts them up at the hotel, has dinners, and organizes festivities. Also, he hands out the prizes to the winners in their categories. Just before the final game of the Kırkpınar, the organizing Agha holds an auction, for the Agha of the next year. The bids are placed on a ram. The highest bidder becomes the Agha of the next year’s Kırkpınar and is the number one sponsor. I was fortunate enough to be in the stands right across from this auction which caused quite a stir with the local media and the crowd. The Agha from years past had been Agha for a few years already according to Samed. But this year we saw the selection of a new Agha from Anatolia who won with a bid to host the 2014 Kırkpınar Festival for 870,000 Turkish Lira (USD$452,135.52)! During the bid war there was a sacrificial lamb that was brought out on to the field while other wrestling matches were still going on, indeed part of the various types of organized chaos that seems to exist in this country. Apparently the new Agha would later slit the lamb’s throat, Samed himself was not entirely sure about this aspect, but it would seem to make some religious/ ritualistic sense. With his election, the crowd from Anatloia erupted in fanfare and cheers.

The newly chosen Agha
The newly chosen Agha

Indeed there was a great sense of nationalistic, regional, and perhaps even ethnic pride within the stands as each time a wrestler from one region one, certain areas of the stands erupted in cheers or if they lost erupted in boos. Family and friends often went against rules and defy the police and jumped the fence to run to their victorious wrestlers, almost like soccer winners in Europe (there was almost a violent encounter between a wrestler’s brother and the police when the brother wanted to jump the fence in anger of the referee’s call, the batons came out and the man’s father stopped him, phew!).

The man's 2nd attempt at jumping the fence to argue with the referee, his brother eventually won anyways.
The man’s 2nd attempt at jumping the fence to argue with the referee, his brother eventually won anyways.
people running out to hug their family/ friend wrestlers
people running out to hug their family/ friend wrestlers

Flag and Nationalism:

A few minutes before the final match to determine the head wrestler, the large Turkish Flag that hung from the Stadium’s main building was removed and was carried by 20 or so men and walked around the stadium, whilst a national song was playing in the background. It wasnt the national anthem, but Samed said it was the Turkish Republic’s 10th Anniversary Anthem that was written to celebrate the 10th year of the founding of the nation. People whipped out their small flags and waved and sang to the song and cheered loudly as the flag made it way in front of their seating areas. It seemed for a moment that everyone’s regional and ethnic divide disappeared and was replaced by a common Turkish nationalism and pride. Indeed, it was the most Turkish I had felt since being here.

The flag being carried around the stadium
The flag being carried around the stadium
wavin' Turkish flags and singing to the song
wavin’ Turkish flags and singing to the song

A Dying Tradition?

Kırkpınar is the true and quintessential Turkish cultural tradition and experience that really embodies the Turkish people’s spirit. But according to Samed, the younger generation of Turks don’t seem to like or enjoy and appreciate the tradition as much, he fears it may slowly die as a tradition. I definitely hope that is not the case. I do believe though that with the the younger wrestlers, there will still be an appeal amongst their peers and generation. Plus I did see many families as well as relatively young people in the stands, so I think Kırkpınar will continue for a while so long as it remains a key element of the Turkish culture and tradition.

Edirne

Before Samed and I headed to the stadium, we walked around Edirne for a bit and had some lunch.  We searched for the best restaurant that serves Edirne’s famous dish: Edirne Ciğeri, deep fried thinly sliced calf’s liver served with yogurt and fried red chillies. Samed asked around and we found the place that locals claim to be the best, Meshur Edirne Ciğericisi. The only thing on this restaurant’s menu? Yup, Edirne Ciğeri, and I suppose that is why their Edirne Ciğeri is so good. I usually dont like eating cow, pig or chicken liver because of the after taste, that gamey musty organ taste that often turns people away from eating internal organs. But at Meshur, The owner and head chef manages to fry the sliced liver really well, it is crunchy but the liver itself doesnt have a very strong taste at all, he must buy very high quality liver or he fries it so well that the taste is simply covered up. Edirne Ciğeri, if done right like at Meshur, is actually really really tasty, and the combination with the yogurt, fried chillies and tomatoes adds a thick, rich, and spicy tang to the crunchy liver. One can also do as Samed and I did, which is sprinkle salt and chili powder on the liver. Its so good and popular amongst locals that people drive from all over Turkey to Edirne just to eat it.

Owner and head chef of Meshur battering up the thinly sliced piece of calf's liver
Owner and head chef of Meshur battering up the thinly sliced piece of calf’s liver
deep frying the liver
deep frying the liver
Edirne Cigeri served with yogurt, fried red chillies and tomatoes. very delicious
Edirne Cigeri served with yogurt, fried red chillies and tomatoes. very delicious

Afterwards we visited Selimiye Camii (Mosque), designed by the great Ottoman architect Mimar Sinan, who also designed the Suleymaniye Mosque in Istanbul (the one that rivaled the Blue Mosque). Many Turks and Sinan himself consider it Sinan’s masterpiece as well as the most beautiful mosque in the country. While we visited, Samed washed himself before heading in to pray, while I awed at the mosque’s design, it is much more exquisitely done that the Blue Mosque, and while there, a Turkish tour guide, or the Imam, I wasnt sure which, began reciting a prayer which reverberated throughout the entire mosque, and he didnt even use a microphone. It was very spiritual and beautiful, and Samed later informed me that Sinan created niches in the corners of the dome for sound reflection.

Sculpture of Mimar Sinan
Sculpture of Mimar Sinan
Selimiye Camii
Selimiye Camii
interior of the mosque
interior of the mosque
the dome of Selimiye
the dome of Selimiye

IMG_0773

If you are in Edirne for a short day trip, at the very least to two things: eat at Meshur Edirne Ciğericisi for Edirne Ciğeri and visit Selimiye Camii.

Afterwards we crammed into a taxi with 4 other people, each of us paying 2TL and arrived at the festival grounds.

After the festival we returned to the city center for some dinner, I had some kofte (meatball) another Edirne speciality before Samed took me to a famous dessert shop to buy some Bademezemsi (Almond Paste), it was delicious.

Balkan War Memorial
Balkan War Memorial

We then boarded the delmuses to the Otogar, driven by a rather angry driver, and boarded our bus back to Istanbul. The 2.5 hours drive back turned into 4.5 hours when we hit the famed Turkish traffic caused by a car accident. When we finally arrived at Bayrampasa, we had to wait another 45 minutes for our shuttle to Aliberkoy because Metro Turizm is simply too disorganized, indeed most locals seem to complain and hate this bus company with the most extensive domestic bus network.

As you might have noticed from this extremely long post, this day trip to Edirne to see the 652nd Annual Kırkpınar Olive Oil Wrestling Festival has so far been the highlight of my trip to Turkey so far. I really experienced a truly local, traditional and cultural Turkish experience, and my chance encounter with my new friend Samed made the day that much better, and without him I probably wouldnt have learned so much about Kırkpınar and Turkish culture/ people.

If you are ever in Turkey at the end of June and beginning of August, I HIGHLY encourage you to check out Kırkpınar Olive Oil Wrestling Festival in Edirne, and even if you arent, take day trip to Edirne and soak in the history and locality of Turkey.

Meshur Edirne Edirne Ciğericisi

http://www.cigercikazimusta.com

Balikpazari Osmaniye Cadessi No: 69, Edirne

Kırkpınar

For exact dates of the festival google Kırkpınar to find out, as it varies year by year.

As for tickets, the cheapest ones this year were 77TL while the other price level was 110TL, only these two types available.

you can get them at: http://www.biletix.com/anasayfa/TURKIYE/tr      (its the Turkish ticketing agency run by Ticketmaster)

I hope you get to experience this interesting and truly Turkish festival one day as well!

Bon Voyage,

Garythegastronomictraveler

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