Oil wrestling festival returns in Turkey

EDIRNE, Turkey — After a year-long, pandemic-induced hiatus, the sounds of the zurna flute and beating drums again greeted thousands of Turkish wrestling fans who returned to the country’s northwest for a 600-year-old oil wrestling championship.

Last year’s contest was canceled because of the coronavirus pandemic. But spectators headed in droves to Edirne province on the Greek border over the weekend to watch a sport that dates to the 14th century.

Over three days, competitors clad in leather trousers known as “’kispet” and liberally doused in olive oil struggled to earn the title of Baspehlivani, or chief wrestler, the sport’s equivalent of world champion.

Wrestlers, doused in olive oil, greet each other as they are introduced to the crowds during the 660th instalment of the annual Historic Kirkpinar Oil Wrestling championship
Wrestlers greet each other as they are introduced to the crowds.
Emrah Gurel/AP
Wrestler Ali Gurbuz, center, celebrates after winning the final to gain the sport's golden belt in the 660th instalment of the annual Historic Kirkpinar Oil Wrestling championship.
Wrestler Ali Gurbuz, center, celebrates after winning the final to gain the sport’s golden belt in the 660th instalment of the annual Historic Kirkpinar Oil Wrestling championship.
Emrah Gurel/AP
Spectators watch wrestling on the third and last day of the championship.
Spectators watch wrestling on the third and last day of the championship.
Emrah Gurel/AP

This year’s tournament, the 660th to be held, saw Ali Gurbuz from the Mediterranean province of Antalya retain his title after a 48-minute bout with Ankara’s Ismail Koc on the grassy square.

The triumphant fighter was held aloft on the shoulders of fans for the crowds to acknowledge his achievement as the zurna flute and drums played on. This is Gurbuz’s fourth “golden belt” following victories in 2011, 2012 and 2019.

“I am so happy,” said Gurbuz after his win. “There was no wrestling in 2020 due to the pandemic. I became the chief wrestler in 2021. I hope to be the chief wrestler next year and be the eternal owner of the golden belt.”

Wrestlers try to recover in the shower room.
Wrestlers try to recover in the shower room.
Emrah Gurel/AP
Wrestlers watch as others compete on the third and last day of the 660th instalment of the annual Historic Kirkpinar Oil Wrestling championship.
Last year’s tournament was canceled with the pandemic.
Emrah Gurel/AP
Wrestlers, doused in olive oil, perform the traditional stride on the arena prior to the second day of the 660th instalment of the annual Historic Kirkpinar Oil Wrestling championship.
Wrestlers perform the traditional stride on the arena prior to the second day of the championship
Emrah Gurel/AP

Around 3,000 wrestlers had taken part in this year’s tournament on a field in Edirne’s Sarayici.

Edirne Mayor Recep Gurkan said championship organizers adhered to all health guidelines and restrictions to keep fans and wrestlers as safe from the spread of COVID-19 as possible.

“Of course, oil wrestling has its own disciplines, traditions, customs and traditions,” Gurkan said. “By God’s (will), we will finish the 660th Kirkpinar oil wrestling on this day and perform all the rituals one by one, without skipping any.”

An 'oiler', someone charged with oiling up wrestlers and filling up oil pitchers, douses wrestlers in olive oil.
An “oiler,” someone charged with oiling up wrestlers and filling up oil pitchers, douses wrestlers in olive oil.
Emrah Gurel/AP
An 'oiler', someone charged with oiling up wrestlers and filling up oil pitchers, douses wrestlers in olive oil, during the 660th instalment of the annual Historic Kirkpinar Oil Wrestling championship, in Edirne, northwestern Turkey, Saturday, July 10, 2021.
Close to 3,000 wrestlers took part in the festivities.
Emrah Gurel/AP

Event master Seyfettin Selim said the one-year hiatus for wrestlers affected the fitness levels, but the tournament has helped bring them back into shape.

“These wrestlers didn’t wrestle for a year and we saw them here, some fainted, some lost their breath,” said Selim. “This year we closed the gap. Hopefully it will be better next year.”

The festival, one of the world’s oldest wrestling events, was listed as an intangible cultural heritage event by UNESCO in 2010.

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