Muscles, Sweat, Blood, And Olive Oil
The Kirpinar Oil Wrestling Competition has taken place in the small agricultural city of Edirne, a few hours northeast of Istanbul annually for 658 years. This time nearly 2,400 Turkish males donning black leather pants and fully slathered in shiny olive oil (around three tonnes, total!), competed for the crown. Besides making grasping nearly impossible, the oil also keeps the flies off and may even protect the wrestlers from the scorching summer sun. In a way, the region is out of the way of anything relevant, yet it’s also the center of the world, just south of Europe, northwest of the middle east and Africa, west of Asia, and directly across a narrow river from Greece. It’s not particularly difficult to access — fly into Istanbul, then take a few dollar bus — but there aren’t many other reasons to go, depending on what you’re into. (Sunflowers fields stretch off to infinity, and neon, pastel sunsets are the norm; arguably more important, Turkish people pride themselves on being the most gracious hosts.) I heard about it a few years ago, but since I’ve never been a fan of fighting, and since it’s a schlep to attend, I didn’t ever expect to see it live. Anyway, I finally made the effort this weekend and will now tell you about it.
I had no idea what to expect as I arrived in the dusty parking lot. Tickets were 60 lira per day, (around ten dollars), excluding the first day, which was free. I had bought them in Istanbul but hadn’t booked a room and they were all sold out. Luckily, I had a tent, which I pitched adjacent the bridge leading into the festival area. I say the festival area because immediately surrounding the stadium, hundreds of people were setting up for what was sure to be a giant party. Busy hands grilled meat on giant spits. Some sold ice cream, others cowbells. All vendors called out their wares in Turkish as I passed. I wish I had thought to photograph them. The music was foreign, ear-splitting, with a heavy beat. I watched vehicle after vehicle release adults and their children; buses unloaded files of hulking ogres with gym bags. My first night, I didn’t sleep, as the noise never ceased. In fact, the bacchanal only progressively rose the entire weekend. If you ever go and want to sleep, reserve a room in advance.
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The following morning, I made my way into the fairly empty arena. On the field were hundreds of oiled males, grappling each other in pairs – a referee supervising each, intermittently declaring winners. The contenders didn’t always physically match their counterparts. Many were overweight, while others would put most fitness models to shame. I wondered how they were matched. All of them not only poured the yellow liquid over their heads, torsos, arms, and legs but also inside their pants, as hands often reached inside (I don’t know what happens in there). More spectators arrived as the sunset. After the final match, I walked back to my tent, being shoved through the throng of partiers, teenagers, elderly, police, and even stray dogs. All I wanted was sleep, but it wasn’t to be found, as the party only amplified. The band, comprised of drummers and a few wind instrument players, jammed all night, as they had all day and would all the following day and night as well.
By the start of the second day, nearly one thousand fighters had been eliminated. Today’s energy was doubled. Occasionally, a competitor shouted at his referee, and a few men were ejected. The raised stakes were visible on each face as they threw and tackled, pushed and pulled. I even saw a few tears shed. Yet still, after each fight, the men embraced respectfully, thankfully. The larger crowd took more of an interest now, too, collectively cheering and booing. The stadium was full. Shouts and whistles were lost in the fracas. Vendors selling cold water walked the aisles, sometimes hurling bottles all the way down to men on the pitch. By evening, only a few hundred wrestlers remained. The following night, only one would remain.
Like a Calvin Klein ad
Yes, I know I’m lame for not partying any of the nights, but I did walk around that last wild evening before the final day. I saw one of the largest (and dangerously close) fireworks shows, a lively concert, more revelry, etc. And after another sleepless uncomfortable-tent-in-the-parking-lot-night, the final day arrived. Since the Mayor of Istanbul was in attendance, security was tightened. Officials gifted him a sheep in a bizarre, but charming ceremony. I worried they might sacrifice it; alas, the sheep was lead off, presumable to be sacrificed elsewhere.
He kicked that guy
The wrestlers gave every bit they had. Open and closed-handed punches were thrown (illegally) to bodies and faces. Many lost fingernails. Blood streamed from lips and swear I even saw a trail from one man’s ass. Surely some of those carried off in stretchers had broken bones. A few continued to fight after being wrapped by the on-site paramedics. What astounded me most, was that, in order to win it all, one would have to win more than just one fight, but many fights! I don’t understand where the men and boys got the heart, the stamina, to shake off what for a normal person would have been the greatest test of their strength, and then to do it again and again, without more than a single night’s rest. Eventually, the battles became fewer and fewer. The now full stadium was all-in, as was I. And then, there were two: Ali Gurbuz, a two-time champion, and Orhan Okulu, reigning champ.
Like angry bears
The men faced each other as if they had been trampled by dinosaurs. Would they drop from exhaustion before the match began? No, they stood – and wrestled.
In fairness, the match dragged on. They locked arms and leaned into each other, hardly moving for at least fifteen minutes. The referees repeatedly broke them apart, but they would immediately tie up again. I was genuinely worried about each of them. Finally, the referees elected for a short respite. The two drank water, and it was poured upon them. Then the match was on again. And again, their arms twisted together, like tree branches. Were they asleep? The crowd was more patient than I might have expected, certainly because all were equally astounded that the two could still stay upright of their own accord, let alone try to fight. Every once in awhile, something sparked between them and they’d fight, ultimately returning to their posture of butted heads, twisted arms — the iconic pose utilized in the logo of the event, itself.
Repping the Turkish flag after a win
Then, out of nowhere, they exploded, wrestling like angry tigers. After a minute of this, Okulu was flipped and pinned, the referee called the match, and it was over. Gurbuz lept up, invigorated, a ball of strained muscles and emotion. The audience exploded, and many people rushed him on the field.
I quietly packed my camera and forced my way back through to return to Istanbul, feeling guilty for being tired, as I had no idea what tired actually was.
Next time I need strength, I will draw from this experience, from the heart of these men here in Edirne this weekend.