Only the Greasiest Man Wins: Kırkpınar Festival in Edirne, Turkey

Often called one of the most macho sports in the world, the oil wrestling that takes place over three days in Edirne, Turkey, attracts visitors from all over the world and is a great reason to visit Turkey in June. No foreigners are permitted entry into the wrestling tournament, but they are encouraged to come and watch. And what a spectacle it is!

Two men in leather knee-length breeches step on to the field and are doused in olive oil before beginning a grappling bout that often goes as long as 40 minutes before a winner is declared. The man who goes unconquered wins the title of Chief Pehlivan. Pehlivan is an old Turkish word that means “brave”, but also has other regional meanings like “governor”, “physically large man” or “person who tells the truth”. In earlier history, Turkish warriors were known as pehlivans.

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Many people believe that the oil wrestling tournament was invented in 1346, when a group of soldiers were ordered to storm the Domuz Fortress. After their victory, the soldiers were bored and so suggested a wrestling tournament to pass the time. After hours of wrestling, two brothers named Ali and Selim were deadlocked for first place, and neither could defeat the other.

The next day, they started wrestling again, and they grappled from sunrise to sundown before both of them collapsed from exhaustion and died. Years later, when their friends came back to the spot where they buried the brothers, they found a large river flowing, and called the place Kırkpınar, which means “Forty Springs.”

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Modern History

The annual oil wrestling tournaments were held at Kırkpınar until 1924, when they were moved from the historical location to the island of Sarayiçi, near Edirne. After the end of the Ottoman Empire, many things about the Kırkpınar oil wrestling was changed to reflect more Western ideals- like changing the prizes from livestock to medals. People were unhappy with these changes, so the wrestling officials compromised by keeping the traditional prize of the Golden Belt. The belt is only awarded at the tournament in Edirne, although there are other large oil wrestling competitions held yearly in Turkey, and around Europe.

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The Tournament

Each year, the tournament is opened by the Kırkpınar Agha- an official who administrates the event. In earlier history, the agha acted as a private sponsor of the event, and was elected at the end of the tournament to serve for the upcoming year. Now, the mayor of Edirne serves as the chief organizer for the tournament on behalf of the local government.

The opening ceremonies are followed by a procession where the Golden Belt is paraded through the streets of the city, accompanied by drummers and pipers. The officials and wrestlers then take a break for prayer at the local mosque. Next, the master of ceremonies introduces the pehlivans to the crowd on the Men’s Field, making sure to extol their merits and skills, as well as note their previous victories. Bouts between pehlivans typically last 40 minutes, unless someone is pinned before that. If no victor is declared in 40 minutes, an overtime round of 15 minutes follows the first fight.

SubmissionYavuz Sariyildiz / Shutterstock

Travel Tips

For amazing weather in Turkey, and to catch all of the Kırkpınar oil wrestling tournament, make sure you plan your trip for June. In addition to hosting the world’s oldest continual sports competition, Edirne is also rich in religious history and culture. The Eski Mosque and Yildirim Mosque both date from before the 15th century, and are amazing examples of Ottoman architecture. The Grand Synagogue of Edirne (currently the largest synagogue in the Balkans) was recently restored, and is open to the public for tours.

Eskiihsan Gercelman / Shutterstock

If you get too hot, covered bazaars in the center of town are the perfect place to shop for Turkish delicacies, as well as souvenirs, to take home. Be sure to taste some authentic kebab while you’re there- you haven’t lived until you’ve tried it roasted over coals, then wrapped in a doughy piece of lavash or pita bread. End the evening with some fresh baklava- phyllo pastry wrapped around a paste of nuts and spices, then doused with honey.

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