Edirne has become a popular tourist stop for those who are interested in culture and history and oil wrestling (yağlı güreş). You will find numerous historical sites to visit. The old part of the city of Edirne is like an open-air museum. You can see a number of interesting mosques, religious complexes, bridges, caravanserais and palaces. Here are some of the main places to see: the Alipaşa Çarşısı (bazaar), the Selimiye Camii (mosque) and the Bayezid II Külliyesi (mosque complex). You can easily spend a day or two there.
While strolling through the bazaar area, you will notice lots of white cheese, mis soap (fragrant soap) and badem ezmesi (almond paste) on display everywhere. I loved seeing the Edirne Archaeology and Ethnography Museum, the Turkish Islamic Works Museum and the Edirne Medical Museum. Of course, if you have time, I recommend having a meal along the banks of the Meriç River and also tasting the famous fried liver dish at least once.
If you happen to be in Edirne during June you can watch the oil-wrestling competition. I imagine the wrestlers must have nice skin -- olive oil is very healthy for it! Kırkpınar in Edirne province has been organizing wrestling matches since the mid-1350s. It is said to be the oldest wrestling festival in the world. I wonder if you have you even ever heard of oil wrestling.
If you are really interested in it, matches are held all over Turkey throughout the year, but in late June the wrestlers gather in Kırkpınar for the annual three-day wrestling tournament to determine who will be the başpehlivan (top wrestler) of Turkey. You would be surprised at the number of wrestlers who turn out for the tournament.
Why are the wrestling tournaments held in Kırkpınar on the outskirts of Edirne? It dates back to when Edirne was the second capital of the Ottoman Empire until the fall of Constantinople. It all began during the period of Orhan Gazi. The Ottomans residing in Anatolia gradually made their way as far west as Edirne by 1361 and conquered the city under the leadership of Süleyman Paşa.
On the march from the east to Edirne, the Ottoman soldiers had to find something to do to entertain the troops during the lull periods. Hunting was popular. (Hunting is another sport that stirs up different feelings and emotions in me: I had better move swiftly on with my tale without digressing!) What better way for the soldiers to pass the time than wrestling?
Oral tradition tells us that at one wrestling event 40 stout-hearted men started wrestling, and a contest between two men lasted until midnight. Neither one of them seemed to appear the victor and the contest continued until both of them dropped dead -- they died wrestling.
You may be wondering why they apply the oil.
A couple of different opinions exist: Some sources say that for 700 years the wrestlers of the Ottoman Empire lived as part of a religious community in a “tekke.” Similar to Japanese sumo wrestling, the Turkish Kırkpınar carries over the religious motifs of the past. Man is not simply made of matter, the other half of the human equation is spirit and spiritual being. The wrestlers put oil on each other as a symbol of “balance” in such competitions.
Another opinion is that the Roman Empire collapsed because of infected mosquitoes that spread malaria. In those times, living between sea level and 400 meters was a real hardship. After trying many different things, people thought that the oil extracted from a vegetable particular to the Mediterranean region, the olive, popularly used in cooking, might provide protection from mosquitoes. By the time humans learned to mix a specific ingredient, kafur, with olive oil for full protection from mosquitoes, the Roman Empire was long gone. The people of Anatolia applied olive oil to their skin daily. As men do sometimes, they wrestled with each other, and the oil added a new dimension to the fight. Thus oil wrestling began.
Big money is involved: The winner at the Edirne Kırkpınar festival wins a cash grand prize, along with the title Champion of Turkey. The winning wrestler in this category receives the Başpehlivan of the Year award. The wrestler that obtains this award for three consecutive years receives even more prizes and prestige.
This year, the event begins on June 30. The late June festival is not just for enthusiasts who find head wrestling and other forms of wrestling contests interesting. The Janissary Band performs and local and foreign folkdance groups entertain. Enjoy a day in Kırkpınar.
Note: Charlotte McPherson is the author of “Culture Smart: Turkey, 2005.” Please keep your questions and observations coming: I want to ensure this column is a help to you, Today’s Zaman’s readers. Email: email@example.com