Turkish oiled wrestling tournaments (yağlı güreş) have been organized for centuries—legend says since 1361, under Ottoman Sultan Orhan (1326-1362), who reportedly used the matches to keep his soldiers in condition for battle.
Known as the Kırkpınar Oiled Wrestling Tournament(Kırkpınar Yağlı Güreşleri), the event is held each July at the Kırkpınar Sahası, a stadium on the northeast outskirts of Edirne in Turkish Thrace (map): look for the Adalet Kasrı, a medieval Ottoman tower next to the stadium.
During the tournament, more than 2,000 burly wrestlers clad only in heavy leather trousers (kıspet), their bodies smeared with olive oil, stomp, strain, gripped, slip, grimace and grunt to victory—or defeat.
Organized by the Ağa (lord), who purchases the title and role in support of the event, the tournament begins as two wrestlers ritually smear their bodies with oil, stride onto the grassy er meydanı (Field of Men) and, to the raucous music of 20 zurna (folk oboes) and 20 davul(bass drums), they do the peşrev, the ritual beginning of the match: three steps forward, three steps back, left knee to the ground, then the right hand touches the right knee, lips and forehead three times. Leaping forward with the shout Hayda bre pehlivan! (Bring it on, wrestler!), the wrestlers grip one another.
The aim is to pin the opponent’s back to the ground, or get him to sit, or pull down his trousers, or carry him for three steps without his feet touching the ground, or force him to concede the match. There are sanctioned holds and prohibited holds, all enforced by the surveillance of judges.
As the matches progress, men called cazgır, circulating with bottles of oil and water for the wrestlers, praise each combattant with rhymed verse and offer prayers for success.
At the end of the tournament the top winner is proclaimed the Başpehlivan (Chief Wrester) and awarded prize money. A Başpehlivan who wins three annual tournaments in a row is granted a golden belt, the highest honor. But to these athletes the money and the golden belt are but tokens of the real honor: being the best of the best at an age-old sport.
—by Tom Brosnahan