Fez wearing drummers rumble in the background as 50 or so muscular men in leather shorts gather in a stadium field. Thousands of spectators cheer them on as they smear each other with olive oil and then pair off to lock heads, grasp hands and necks, and try to land the other one on his back. The Kirkinpar wrestling festival is underway, reputedly the oldest sporting event in the world, dating from 1357 and a national obsession.
Eighteen hundred wrestlers gather from all around the country to decide who is the fastest, quickest, and slickest of them all. This, also the biggest wrestling event in the world, takes place in the pretty Ottoman city of Edirne on the Bulgarian border, 230km (143 miles) west of Istanbul. They all fight it out over several days until there is literally one last man standing. He receives a gold plated belt and sizeable purse and is regarded as the best wrestler in Turkey until the festival comes around again a year later.
The contest’s origins are traced back to 1347 when an Ottoman Sultan rode through town with a group of warriors. They camped out for the night and two brothers started to wrestle for fun. A deadlock ensued as they were both evenly matched and neither would back down. They fought over several days until they both dropped dead from exhaustion. The spot where they were buried became the location of the annual event and now thousands flock here to the Saraych stadium to cheer and gamble on every bout. Costumed paraders take to the streets of a historic city with gorgeous mosques cornered by towering minarets. There is an old picturesque Roman section of town with wooden houses and a chaotic bazaar.
But for 1 week in June, all the action takes place in the stadium one mile from the town center. What marks Turkish wrestling so different from other wrestling is the fact that the contestants smear themselves in oil—the event goes through two tonnes every year—and the wrestlers wear buffalo skin pants that the opponent is allowed to grab and grapple to gain some leverage. The sight of two greased up muscle men in an embrace trying to put their hands down each other’s leather pants does have homoerotic undertones and the event drew attention in the year 2000 when the wrestlers reacted angrily to a gay group that advertised a tour to the event. When all is said and done this is a macho affair and definitely not gay friendly. In fact it has all the modern problems associated with tough physical sports, including a doping scandal that compelled the organizers to introduce tests for performance enhancing drugs on each competitor. The competition is closed to foreign competitors but spectators are welcome to see what must be one of the most compelling gladiator sports in the world. —CO’M
When to go: Late June.
Istanbul (239km/148 miles).
$$$ Sirkeci Konak Hotel, Taya Hatun Sokak No: 5, 34120 Sirkeci, Istanbul ( 90/212/528-4344; www.sirkecikonak.com). $$ Hotel Sapphire, 14 bni Kemal Cd, Hocapaa, Istanbul 34410, Turkey ( 90/212/520-5686; www.hotelsapphire.com).