Camel Wrestling Festival: A Heritage of Turkish Yörük Culture

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The Selçuk Efes Camel Wrestling Festival in the eponymous city in the western province of Izmir welcomed some 20,000 spectators in its 40th edition held over the weekend.

One of the largest events of its kind showcasing the culture of the Yörüks, nomadic Turks for whom camels are essential pack animals for long journeys, the festival is the culmination of similar camel wrestling events held every winter in western and southern Turkey, starting from Çanakkale. in Antalia.

Camel wrestling has its roots in the early 19th century and Incirliova, a town in Aydın province neighboring Izmir, is considered the main venue for camel wrestling. But over time the Selçuk Festival eclipsed it and today it is considered the “Kırkpınar” of camel wrestling, just as the titular oil wrestling event is the most prestigious for oil wrestlers from Turkey.

The festival, which has broken attendance records in the past, still remains popular and over the weekend people from all over Turkey flocked to Pamucak Arena where camels were presented by their owners for wrestling. Cold weather was no obstacle for wrestling fans as they watched camels, decked out in colorful saddles, roam the arena ahead of the main event. Some spectators donned traditional costumes as colorful as camel saddles, reflecting Yörük culture. For spectators, camel wrestling is part of an entertainment experience that includes folk dancing and feasting around bonfires on the sides of the arena.

Amid thunderous applause and the seemingly endless sound of drums and the zurna, a traditional wind instrument, 162 camels entered the arena. All are “Tülü” camels, hybrid camels born from dromedaries and Bactrian camels. The male camels compete in four different categories and are trained to use their skills against their rivals. Each is matched according to its weight, and camels with different skills from each other are matched accordingly. Some look to trip their opponents with kicks, while others apply a headlock and sit on their opponent. Others simply push the opponent until they give up and withdraw. The contestant who makes his opponent flee, scream or collapse is declared the winner. Each camel is equipped with a muzzle to prevent them from biting each other during the struggle, while their handlers stand nearby to separate the camels with ropes and sticks if they get too violent.

Having a camel wrestling in the festival is a source of pride for the owners of the camels, which are very expensive animals to maintain. Each camel consumes about 5 tons of animal feed per year and for wrestling enthusiasts, they are part of the family. Prized animals can be sold for more than $74,000 (1 million TL).

The saddle is an inseparable accessory for wrestling camels, and every owner prefers saddles that bear the designs of the Yörük culture, with multiple colors and small mirrors and bells attached.

Bilgehan Oğuz, who heads a camel fighting association, says it is for them “an ancestral sport” and a passion. “Life stops in the villages and towns when the fight against the camels begins. Everyone rushes to see the festival. We even cancel our wedding plans. It’s more of a socializing place for our people, where they eat, drink and make friends,” he said.

Camels, which for centuries carried the possessions of the Yörüks during their migration through Anatolia, are now largely confined to rural parts of the country and their numbers are less than in the past. But a camel culture still prevails, especially in western Turkey. In Incirliova, a project is underway to promote the production and consumption of camel milk. The nearby town of Selçuk is home to a camel farm supported by the European Union’s Partnership for Research and Innovation in the Mediterranean Region (PRIMA). Locals have also increased the production of camel milk cheese, while a camel meat version of sucuk, a spicy fermented sausage widely eaten in Turkey, is popular in the region. Incirliova mayor Aytekin Kaya said they had only recently started producing camel milk cheese and were looking for mass production. He said they also received a geographical indication mark for camel sucuk.

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