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About This Festival

For nearly 700 years, numerous pehlivan (wrestlers) have converged on Edirne, Turkey for Kirkpinar, an oil-wrestling festival in which of all shapes and sizes, dressed in nothing but kisbet (traditional cowhide trousers) and doused in olive oil, battle it out one-on-one. The last man standing walks away with the Kirkpinar Golden Belt and the title of Chief Pehlivan. This weeklong festival, a UNESCO Intangible Heritage event, draws thousands of onlookers each year, and is said to be the longest-standing annual sporting event in the history of the world.

Let’s Get Physical

The origins of Kirkpinar date back to the 14th century, when Ottoman raiders, bored and in need of diversion, began wrestling in a group of 40 men near modern-day Edirne. Two of the men wrestled through the night, and both died in the midst of the competition, neither having emerged victorious. Their bodies were buried by their comrades beneath a fig tree, and when people arrived at Edirne they noticeda crystal-clear water source around the tree that ran toward Kirkpinar Meadow. They hence named this place Kirkpinar (meaning “40 sources”) saying, “They were forty. They were the first to arrive at this side.”

Today, Kirkpinar continues the tradition of that mystical experience with a competitive festival that, thankfully for the wrestlers, removes the “until death” part. Nevertheless, these wrestlers take what they do quite seriously, most of them having trained as apprentices for years with their own personal masters. Kirkpinar oil wrestling is open to men from all cultures, regions and ages, without discrimination regarding religion, language or race. Pehlivans are considered exemplary figures in society, with attributes such as generosity, honesty, respectfulness and adherence to traditions and customs. They are the heroes in Turkish culture.

Each festival is launched by its patron, the Kirkpinar Aga, in a ceremony featuring 40 bands of davul drums and zurna shawms. The golden prize belt is carried through the city in a procession, followed by prayers recited at the Selimiye Mosque. The wrestling bouts customarily take place at the Men’s Field in Edirne. The master of ceremonies, who can be a verbal cheerleader during the matches (same announcer for the past 50 years), introduces the pehlivans to the audience, reciting their names, titles and skills in poetic verse. Next, the designated “oil man” oils the wrestlers, assisted by the towel holder, before the warm-up exercises and greetings. As the wrestling takes place, the drum and shawm bands play the traditional repertoire of the festival. You’ll feel like you dropped onto the set of a medieval Middle Eastern movie.

Men, Oil & Leather

July is hot in Turkey, but if the wrestlers are bothered by the heat they don’t show it. They confidently eye the competition, mug for the crowd and do the customary thigh-slapping and high-stepping (check out some of the videos below). The competitors greet each other in highly ritualized gestures, bending over to grab each other’s legs and hugging one another, spreading dripping oil around as they do. Early in the festival, up to 20 such pairs litter the field, filling Sarayiçi Er Meydani Stadium with men, oil and leather.

When it’s time for the matches to begin, the wrestlers lock arms and keep their heads close. Lots are drawn beforehand to decide who will compete against whom, so there are no surprises once they make it to the field. Occasionally, when pairs locked in combat break away from one another, they’ll trade slaps to the head. The idea is to make the opponent dizzy, disoriented and less able to shirk off the coming attack.

In case you’re wondering, it’s really hard to grip an enormous man covered in oil. Many pehlivan will grab the drawstrings of their opponent’s trousers for leverage, which is a legal move. They’ll even grab inside trousers, hands to bare butts, trying to grab hold of something. It feels a little like ancient Greece and Spartacus. In keeping with tradition, these matches can drag on without a victor (although 40 minutes is the time limit), in which case the tally of points maintained by a referee determines the winner. The audience generally prefers a real spectacle for the win, however, and once one pehlivan pins another for long enough, the winner kisses the defeated, as is the custom, and the audience, 99% of whom are men, roars in approval.

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