Oil-wrestling (yağlı güreş) is popular throughout Turkey, but reaches the pinnacle of acclaim at the doyenne of tournaments, the three-day annual Kırkpınar festival, staged early each summer on Sarayiçi islet outside Edirne (wkirkpinar.com or wturkishwrestling.com). The preferred date is the first week of July, but the event is moved back into June if it conflicts with Ramadan or either of the two major bayrams that follow it.

The wrestling matches have been held annually, except during war or Edirne’s occupation, for over six centuries. Despite the less than atmospheric environment of the modern stadium where it now takes place, tradition still permeates the event. The contestants – up to a thousand – dress only in leather knickers called kisbet and are slicked down head-to-toe in diluted olive oil. Wrestlers are classed by height and ability, not by weight, from toddlers up to the pehlivan (full-size) category. Warm-up exercises, the peşrev, are highly stereotyped and accompanied by the davul (deep-toned drum) and zurna (single-reed Islamic oboe). The competitors and the actual matches are solemnly introduced by the cazgır (master of ceremonies), usually a former champion.

Several bouts take place simultaneously. Each lasts anything from a few minutes to nearly an hour, until one competitor collapses or has his back pinned to the grass. Referees keep a lookout for the limited number of illegal moves or holds, and victors advance more or less immediately to the next round until only the başpehlivan (champion) remains. Despite the small prize purse donated by the Kırkpınar ağaları – the local worthies who put on the whole show – a champion should derive ample benefit from appearance and endorsement fees, plus the furious on- and off-site betting. Gladiators tend mainly to be villagers from across Turkey who have won regional titles, starry-eyed with the prospect of fame and escape from the rut of rural poverty.

In addition to providing the music of the peşrev, the local Romany population descends in force during Kırkpınar, setting up a combination circus-carnival on the outskirts of town. They also observe the ancient pan-Balkan spring festival (Hıdırellez) in the fields around the stadium during the first week of May. The Romany King lights a bonfire on the evening of May 5, a torch relays the flame to other nearby bonfires, and a dish of meat and rice is given to the gathered picnickers. The next morning, young Romany girls are paraded through the streets on horseback around the Muradiye Camii (focus of a Romany mahalle) to the accompaniment of davul and zurna, wearing their own or their mothers’ wedding dresses.

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