A Game Of ‘Moments’

Every Geography Produces Its Own Culture, Saturating Stone, Earth And Sky With What It Produces For Thousands Of Years. Every Newcomer Is Shaped By What Went Before. Indeed Every ‘Innovation’ Is A Replica Of Sorts.

It was the same 100 years ago, the same 300 years ago. Scenes change, venues change, actors change. What does not change is the ‘spirit’ of what is being done. There has been an unchanged spirit in oiled wrestling for hundreds of years. A spirit that speaks from the grassy meadows that have absorbed the oil and sweat. Fight to your last iota of strength, let the sweat gush from your body, let the sun burn it, let the oil scorch it. Destroy the last shred of strength in the muscles of your opponent’s body to win. But do not violate the rules of the game. Remember that losing is also part of the game. Most importantly, have respect for the sport and for your opponent.

Show respect so that the spectators will also have respect and that oiled wrestling may continue for hundreds more years. Have respect so that you can take your place on the stage of history. From the moment they first come out onto the green meadows as young boys, the ‘pehlivans’ must learn that, to be successful, respect for their opponent is more important than sheer strength. That is the spirit of oiled wrestling. Oiled wrestling is a man’s sport. All its movements and rhetoric are built on that premise: strength, power, victory, death. The first wrestling contests at Kırkpınar, which has come to symbolize the sport, were fought for days, to the death. Consequently those who devote themselves to the sport from boyhood also shape their outlook on life around oiled wrestling.

The pehlivans wander from meadow to meadow, carrying their leather leggings (kıspet), in special bags (zembil) woven of straw.  With the arrival of spring and the greening of the meadows the announcers (cazgir) begin shouting ‘pehlivan, pehlivan’, and from that moment on the wrestlers don their leggings, oil their bodies, and prepare to face the challenge. Grouped by age, they pair off in the early morning hours and being their struggle. Any pehlivan whose back touches the ground is eliminated, and the winner goes on to the next round. (We should mention here a latter-day practice that conflicts with the spirit of oiled wrestling. The pehlivans used to wrestle until they had brought their opponent’s back to the ground. A single match could take hours. Today a point system is used after a certain period of time. Oiled wrestling has started becoming an indoor sport.)

Oiled wrestling contests are very exciting for spectators. The contests go on all day. Wrestlers in every group spread out in waves over the meadow, which becomes more festive with each wave. Then a wave of sound fills meadow and sky, and that is the music produced by the traditional fifes and drums.

It is the fife and drum that set the pace for the wrestling, in a sense determining its tempo. When the pace slows a little, the music speeds up. Oiled wrestling is actually ‘a faster sport than is thought’. To appreciate this, you need to know the game and understand the strategy. Oiled wrestling is a sport of ‘moments’. A quick charge, a grip, a flip… These are what determine the outcome of a match. The wrestling begins with the younger age groups and gradually incorporates the older groups. Although every age group has its own excitement, the ‘crescendo’ of oiled wrestling is the emergence of the baş pehlivan or wrestling champion. And becoming champion in the Kırkpınar Oiled Wrestling Matches especially means you’ve made it.

Symbol of the Kırkpınar wrestling champion, the Gold Belt is the dream of all the wrestlers who sweat it out on the field.  Oil and sweat run together and sting the eyes. The sun is scorching. You might engage in as many as four or five matches a day. Being in the leather leggings is difficult. But the dream of becoming champion is what makes it all bearable. Joining the ranks of the great wrestlers of the past (Kel Aliço, Koca Yusuf, Adalı Halil, Cengiz Elbeye, Ahmet Taşçı and more) and inscribing your name in the grass. And it is reborn again every spring.

Oiled wrestling operates under the patronage system. Evolving under the auspices of the palace in Ottoman times, the sport later developed the institution of patronage. Every oiled wrestling match has its patron, and it is due in large part to those patrons that oiled wrestling can still be practiced today.

Beyond all that oiled wrestling is a visual feast for the spectators. The oiled bodies and leggings become one, changing shape with every move as the light falls on them. All the bodily forms and shapes change from one instant to the next,  as if the bodies are not locked in wrestling, but are only present so the light can form patterns on them. And the interesting part is that, more than any other sport, oiled wrestling has an aesthetic of its own apart from the familiar aesthetic of sports. To see and feel it is to be captivated.

So if it’s summer and you hear the peal of the fife and the beat of the drum in the distance, go and have a look. Perhaps there will be some oiled wrestling like you’ve never seen before. Being there on those meadows and experiencing that place for yourself is awesome.

The oiled wrestling begins after the Friday prayers. Before the wrestlers enter the lists they first come come together at the mosque, where they pray for victory and remember the famous wrestlers of yore who have passed on.

With the arrival of spring and the greening of the meadows the announcers (cazgir) begin shouting ‘pehlivan, pehlivan’, and from that moment on the wrestlers don their leggings, oil their bodies, and prepare to face the challenge.

The patronage system, the gold belt, the champion, the  announcer and his prayer, the field of combat, the fife and drum, the leather leggings, the ceremonial start, the board of referees, and the bag for carrying the leggings are all part of the ritual that constitutes the spirit of the sport and links present to centuries past.

From the moment they first come out onto the green meadows as young boys, the ‘pehlivans’ must learn that, to be successful, respect for their opponent is more important than sheer strength.

It is the fife and drum that set the pace for the wrestling, in a sense determining its tempo. When the pace slows a little, the music speeds up.

The pehlivans wander from meadow to meadow, carrying their leather leggings (kıspet), in special bags (zembil) woven of straw.

Oil and sweat run together and sting the eyes. The sun is scorching. You might engage in as many as four or five matches a day. Being in the leather leggings is difficult. But the dream of becoming champion is what makes it all bearable.

And the interesting part is that, more than any other sport, oiled wrestling has an aesthetic of its own apart from the familiar aesthetic of sports.