As the former capital of the Ottoman Empire, Edirne has many sights for a traveler to visit. It is home to Selimiye Camii -- which Mimar Sinan described as his best work -- markets to barter at and foods to taste, but it is the yağlı güreş (oil wrestling) that truly sets Edirne apart. The Kırkpınar festival has taken place every year since its inception, with one notable exception during World War II.
Yağli güreş competitors are not referred to as standard wrestlers (güreşçi); they are pehlivans. The word can also be translated as “wrestler,” and both sports are overseen by the Türkiye Güreş Federasyonu (Turkish Wrestling Federation), but the two are considered very different. Pehlivans are set apart from standard wrestlers; the word itself carries more meaning and responsibility. Pehlivans observe a strict code of honor that extends from the way they conduct themselves on the field to their behavior at home and in their neighborhoods. Sportsmanship is built into the yağlı güreş structure. A man covered in oil and rolling around on the grass is likely to get oil in his eye from time to time, and it is standard practice for competing pehlivans to pause while one wipes oil and sweat off his face. The Turkish phrase “iyi pehlivan, iyi insan” (good wrestler, good person) demonstrates both Turkish society’s view of pehlivans and the responsibility that comes with being one.
This summer I venture out to Kırkpınar to join thousands of spectators from all over Turkey. The only other foreigners I can see are members of the press corps. Kırkpınar is a uniquely Turkish experience. The yearly festival varies in date but is always held in June or July; whether the time of year is meant to add another level of difficulty to the matches isn’t clear, but as the crowd wilts beneath the oppressive heat I wonder how the wrestlers can strut around in heavy leather breeches (kıspet) and then be expected to flip another man, and a heavy man at that.
Outside the stadium the area bustles with stands selling homemade pastries, handicrafts and the most valuable item off all, büz gibi su (ice cold water). Stands advertise their water with large cardboard signs; young boys walk around with pails of water bottles, bragging about their frostiness. It is hot enough that price no longer matters. Some stands sell their bottles at the normal 50 kuruş price, but others are not above charging a normally outrageous TL 1.50. In the relentless heat they could charge TL 5.
If the wrestlers are bothered by the added challenge of the heat they don’t show it. Instead, they walk confidently around the field, eyeing their competition, mugging for the crowd and performing the customary thigh-slapping and high-stepping. Stalking the field, the competitors greet each other in highly ritualized gestures. When meeting another wrestler they bend over and grab each other’s legs, hug one another, spread the dripping oil around. Early in the festival it’s not unusual for up to 20 such pairs to litter the field. The field of Er Meydanı Stadium is awash with men, oil and leather.
When it is time for the matches to begin the wrestlers lock arms and keep their heads close. They have drawn lots beforehand to decide their competition, 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. This doesn’t seem to get them closer to ultimate victory; the idea is to make the opponent dizzy, disoriented and less able to shirk off the coming attack.
Getting inside the traditional leather breeches
Attacks come in the form of grasping hands darting into the kıspet. The kıspet, aside from being the only clothing the men wear, is personalized to each pehlivan. The seat of the heavy leather pants is embroidered and bedazzled with the wrestler’s hometown and sometimes his name. These garments typically weigh around 13 kilograms. They are also a wrestler’s best bet for beating his opponent. Because the pehlivans are drenched in oil, a task the yağcı takes very seriously, it is near impossible to get a good hold on your opponent’s limbs. However, inside the kıspet there are strong cloth strings, similar to the type of cloth used to build traditional Turkish yurts.
Men try to grab the strings for leverage. A common hold is one hand down the seat of the kıspet and another wedged underneath the bottom of the breeches’ leg. However, there may be strings inside the kıspet for grabbing, but there is also more oil. Before the match a pehlivan will open up his trousers and the yağcı will pour a healthy dollop of oil inside.
Once the matches begin, the older men tend to be more cautious; they wait in lockstep with their opponent and look for an opening. Any lunge they make towards the kıspet brings them closer and renders them more susceptible to a counter-attack. The younger wrestlers are more impetuous; slapping, lunging, weaving, they do anything to try to gain an advantage as soon as possible.
A pair of “büyük boy” (advanced level) wrestlers nearby draws my attention; locked together, their embrace devolves into a grabby pile of limbs writhing on the ground. One man has a strong hold underneath his opponent’s kıspet. The man lies and waits for the attempted flip. This is a common occurrence. One pehlivan will be on the ground, his opponent on top of his back with a hand down his kıspet, but rather than become frantic he will lie and wait. His opponent’s attempt to flip him might be his best chance to wriggle free of the other man’s hold.
The first wrestler tries a flip, but fails. Victory has escaped him, his opponent has won a few more minutes, and the two meet again, locking arms. They break away and circle each other. The occasional slap to the head passes the time. By now most of the other pairs have finished and the master of ceremonies calls out a fresh batch of names. They come crashing down the field, mixing among the remaining wrestlers.
Every time the pair seems close to an end, one manages to free himself. This was apparently a problem in 2010 when President Abdullah Gül visited the festival. He seemed bored and listless watching the matches drag on. As a result, the Turkish Wrestling Federation instituted a 30-minute time limit on all matches. After the pair exceeds their time, the referees decide the winner based on points awarded throughout the match. Some argue that this is unfair to the wrestlers, and the crowd clearly prefers it when a wrestler bests his opponent in the traditional sense. But in order to bypass the points system and win, a wrestler must flip his opponent onto his back or, in extremely rare cases, pick his opponent up and walk three steps holding him up in the air.
In the end one of the wrestlers is able to flip his opponent. Only after the winner bends down to kiss his former opponent on the cheek does he allow himself to celebrate. This show of respect will break down as the weekend drags on. Pehlivans winning the later rounds let loose a shout and pump their arms in victory. They still kiss the losers, but the celebration can no longer wait.
The festival draws to a close
Semi-finals and finals are held on the last day of the festival. The pehlivans’ backs are either marked with sunburn or deep tans, the result of a shirtless weekend. It seems that very few wrestlers put a shirt on after a match; some even stay in their kıspet and walk around the festival grounds. They have a distinctive “pehlivan walk”: butt out, chest out, arms swinging widely. It could be a result of the tight leather kıspet, or maybe it’s just the walk of a man secure enough to put his hands down another man’s pants.
A first, second and third place wrestler is recognized for each category, based on weight, age and wrestling history, but the biggest draw is those competing for başpehlivan (head wrestler). The winner will receive a gold belt as his prize. He may keep the belt, valued at over TL 30,000, until the next year’s competition. The belt is actually worn more like a sash. The enormous men vying for this honor tower above the referees and are greeted by huge rounds of applause from the audience. Last year’s winner, Ali Gürbüz, is a crowd favorite, and this year has ultimately made it to the finals. In a replay of last year’s finals, his opponent is Recep Kara. The stadium is packed and buzzing with excitement. Every thrust and parry is met with cheers. In overtime Gürbüz manages to flip Kara and earn the title of başpehlivan.
Although Republican People’s Party (CHP) leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu this year attended the festival and awards ceremony, and last year Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan visited the games, the pehlivans are the real stars here. In fact, there are large statues outside the stadium honoring two great pehlivans from history: Ahmet Taşçı and Adalı Halil.
The awarding of the gold belt closes the festival and the bustling masses exit the stadium. The crowd is atwitter with talk of the final match. They dissect the pehlivan’s moves, discuss Gürbüz’s second victory in a row. The Kırkpınar festival is over for this year, but wrestlers around Turkey will continue to train and compete in the hopes of placing next year.
Foreigners looking to experience something outside of the standard Blue Mosque and Sultanahmet visit, and even Istanbullus looking to see another side of Turkey, should schedule a trip to Edirne for Kırkpınar.