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Turkish Oil Wrestling

Photographs by Vladimir Pomortzeff

The origins of Turkish oil wrestling, or yağlı güreş as it known in Turkish, are found in the early days of the Ottoman Empire. During long military campaigns soldiers of Sultan organized friendly matches smeared themselves with olive oil. It is believed, the first oil wrestling tournament was held in 1346 at the Kirkpinar Meadow. For the next 650 years the competition was cancelled just a few times because of war. The Kirkpinar tournament is now officially recognized as the oldest continuously running sporting competition in the world. In the beginning of the 20th century, when the historical Kirkpinar Meadow was ceded to Greece as a result of the Balkan Wars, the tournament has moved twice. Since 1924, it takes place every summer on Sarayici Island formed by two arms of the Tundzha River, just outside the town of Edirne in East Thrace, Turkey. About one thousand wrestlers from across the country, the winners of regional competitions, attend the three-day oil wrestling tournament. For many young wrestlers from rural regions and removed villages the journey to the Kirkpinar is the first distance journey in their life.

1. The Kirkpinar oil wrestling tournament in Edirne, Turkey.

Wrestlers fight stripped to the waist, smeared their bodies with olive oil and dressed only black leather trousers called a 'kisbet'. The oiled body is extremely slippery, and the only reliable way to capture an opponent is push an arm through a kisbet and grab the other end of the leg. A kispet was traditionally made from water buffalo skin, now calfskin is used too. Every kispet is sewn individually and can weight up to 13 kilograms. The name of the wrestler is embossed by metal rivets behind.


2. The Kirkpinar oil wrestling tournament in Edirne, Turkey.

The ancient legend, preserved in the old Ottoman chronicles, recounts as forty soldiers of Suleiman Pasha crossed the Bosporus for the first time in the 14th century. They landed to the European shore and encamped near the village of Samona and started fighting with each other. Most of the fights finished soon, only two brothers Selim and Ali still could not determine who is stronger. The contest lasted all the night and ended with the death of two rivals. The brothers were buried together at the meadow where they wrestled and died. Few years late springs were appeared beside their graves. In honor of the forty soldiers the place was called the Kirkpinar, which means 'forty springs'. Now the historical Kirkpinar Medow is located in Greece just few kilometres from the Turkish border.


3. The Kirkpinar oil wrestling tournament in Edirne, Turkey.

Originally, oil wrestling fights have no set duration and could go on for many hours and even days until one of the wrestlers, or 'pehlivans', puts the opponent on the shoulders or raises him above his head. In 1975, new rules were approved, according to which the duration was limited to 30 minutes for the pehlivan category and 40 minutes for the fights for the champion title, or başpehlivan. If there is no winner, the fight continues for another 10 minutes for pehlivans or 15 minutes for başpehlivans, wherein scores are kept to determine the winner.


4. About three tons of olive oil are used each year for the Kirkpinar tournament.












The city of Edirne in the European part of Turkey once was known under the Greek name of Hadrianopolis. Centuries later, famous Ottoman architect Mimar Sinan built here his the most magnificent building, the Selimiye Mosque. The dome of this mosque has exceeded the size of the dome of Hagia Sophia in Constantinople for the first time in the history of Ottoman architecture. The annual Kirkpinar oil wrestling tournament starts every year in the Selimiye Mosque with the Friday congregational prayer Jumu'ah.

10. People wait out the rain in the courtyard of the Selimiye Mosque in Edirne.

The Selimiye mosque was commissioned by Sultan Selim II and built by Ottoman architect Mimar Sinan between 1569 and 1575. The columns flanking the mosque courtyard were moved here from destroyed Byzantine churches. The dome of the mosque has 31.2 meters in diameter, which is as much as 20 centimetres larger than the dome of Hagia Sophia in Constantinople, built a millennium earlier. However, the dome of the Christian basilica is higher for almost 15 meters, so the first place of the mosque is disputable. In 1913 during the First Balkan War, when Edirne was sledged by Bulgarian troops, the dome of the Selimiye mosque was hit by Bulgarian artillery. But the construction was so strong that only minor damages appeared. In 2011 the Selimiye Mosque has been inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List.


11. The Friday congregational prayer Jumu'ah in the Selimiye Mosque.


12. Shoes left next to the entrance to the Selimiye Mosque. Some people pray outside because the mosque is full already.


13. Wrestlers attend the Friday prayer Jumu'ah in the Selimiye Mosque.


14. Street vendors sell traditional Turkish sweets in the underpass next to the Selimiye Mosque.


15. Young wrestlers sing the Turkish national anthem during the opening ceremony of the Kirkpinar tournament.












































37. Wrestlers attend the last training one day before the Kirkpinar tournament. Sunflower oil is used for the training because it's cheaper than olive oil, which is use during the Kirkpinar tournament.




39. A wrestler covers himself with soap as he tries to wash oil away after the training.


40. Portraits of the champions of the Kirkpinar tournament in the Kirkpinar Museum in Edirne.


The photographs of this story were shot in July 2009 in Edirne, East Thrace, Turkey.

Copyright © 2009 Vladimir Pomortzeff

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