Kirkpinar rightfully holds the title of the world’s premier Turkish Oil Wrestling tournament, Turkish Oil Wrestling being the National Sport in Turkey, this is a hugely important cultural and sporting event to the Turkish people. This annual sporting event in one of the most iconic cities in Asia is widely anticipated all over the country and even internationally.
This ancestral sport involves physical wrestling but is also a test and struggle of mental strength between the competitors. The wrestlers in this tournament aim to win the prestigious golden belt which is revered all over Central Asia.
However, outside of the wrestling community and the country, not much is known about the Kirkpinar Turkish Oil Wrestling Tournament. So this article aims to dig deep into Kirkpinar, the unique form of wrestling at the tournament, its history and the significance of this sport.
What is Kirkpinar Turkish Oil Wrestling Tournament?
As the name implies, Kirkpinar Turkish Oil Wrestling Tournament is an annual oil wrestling competition held in the town of Edirne, Turkey, since 1360. It is a seven-day event that is held in the open grassy fields of Sarayiçi, one of Edirne’s most popular recreational sites.
Kirkpinar Turkish Oil Wrestling Competition is simply known as Kirkpinar in Turkish. Other names commonly associated with the style of wrestling at Kirkpinar are grease wrestling and yağlı güreş. Wrestlers in Kirkpinar are known as Pehlivan – an Iranian word for wrestler, hero, champion or noble.
This wrestling competition typically starts on a Friday right after the prayers are said for the wrestlers that are competing in the tournament. The exact dates that the tournament is held are different for every year, but the wrestling competition takes place between late June and early July. In 2022, the Kirkpinar Turkish Oil Wrestling Tournament is scheduled to be held from June 27 to July 3.
UNESCO added the Kirkpinar Turkish Oil Wrestling Competition as a Representative to the Convention for Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage in 2010. In addition, Kirkpinar also holds the Guinness World Record title of the longest-running athletic competition in the world.
Turkish Oil Wrestling is one of the oldest sports in the world and not just Turkey. This Turkish Oil wrestling tournament is open to wrestlers of all ages, regions and cultures. Foreign nationals from Russia, the UK, Japan, and Bulgaria regularly participate in the yağlı güreş tournament every year.
Since 1996, Kirkpinar oil wrestling has been recognized as a special wrestling branch by the Turkish Olympic Wrestling Federation. Turkish Oil Wrestling has been instrumental in helping Turkey to win several medals in the Olympics since 1948.
The latest Kirkpinar wrestling tournaments have had 2160 competitors making it a massive sporting event.
Training Tradition in Kirkpinar
Kirkpinar Oil Wrestlers have a traditional master-apprenticeship training and relationship. The master trains his apprentice about the different tactics in oil wrestling. An apprentice or Çırak trains for several years with his master before he can participate in the Kirkpinar. Oil Wrestling is highly technical and requires a lot of specific sport focused conditioning, the training is very challenging and requires many years to develop the skills and physical abilities to compete at the Kirkpinar Tournament.
During the training period, the Çıraks are usually present in the tournament with their master’s basket filled with wrestling paraphernalia for their wrestler. The Kirkpinar apprentice replaces his master when he decides that it is the right time.
Kirkpinar Matches Explained
Unlike other types of wrestling, Turkish Oil Wrestlers stand out with their shiny torsos and black leather pants. The wrestlers wear leather trousers called kispet, which are usually rolled up to the knees. These leather trousers come from the hide of a cow, goat, or water buffalo.
Before the wrestling match, the wrestler covers his entire body with olive oil. Each wrestler comes to the tournament with a yağcı, the oiler and a peşkirci, the towel boy.
With assistance from their helpers, wrestlers oil their entire body with olive oil. Some wrestlers also cover their trousers, including the insides, with olive oil. The olive oil combined with the sweat and the tightness of the leather pants makes it difficult for the opponents to easily grab each other, making the wrestling match a fair one. In addition to enhancing the tactic, olive oil is also known to reduce pain during wrestling, accelerate the healing in case of injury and prevent mosquitoes from biting the wrestler.
During a typical Kirkpinar oil-wrestling tournament, the wrestlers use an estimated 2 tons of olive oil.
There are no weight classes in the Kirkpinar tournament and wrestlers of all sizes participate in the competition however, they need to qualify for a certain category.
There are 10 different categories which are separated by overall competition history, track record and experience level. The categories are named (in order of easiest to most difficult):
Deste Kucuk Boy
Deste Orta Boy
Deste Buyuk Boy
Orta Kucuk Boy
The highlight of the tournament is within the Bas Gure division (the highest level) which is held on the last 2 days of the tournament with the winner of the division receiving the highly coveted Gold Belt.
Wrestlers in the Kirkpinar tournament aim to grab their opponent and put them in a position with their belly facing the sky. Grabbing the opponent by the cuff of the trousers is also a common tactic to destabilize and overpower the wrestler. Aside from the genitals, wrestlers can even grab the inside of the opponent’s trousers in order to gain leverage to takedown and control the opponent.
Kirkpinar wrestling matches are typically 40 minutes in duration. For a match where there is no winner, an additional 7 minutes is allotted to decide the winner and should there be no clear winner, points will be tallied in order to declare a victor. However, there was no time limit for Kirkpinar oil wrestling matches in the past, and the time limit in these oil wrestling tournaments only came into effect in 1975.
The Turkish Olympic Wrestling Federation bans the use of illegal drugs in Kirkpinar and has been in effect since 1999. The federation regularly conducts anti-doping checks among the Kirkpinar wrestlers.
The Prize for Kirkpinar Wrestlers
In the olden days, the champion Pehlivan received prizes and gifts in the form of cattle and livestock. Most notably, horses, camels, and donkeys were the preferred prizes for the champion wrestlers. In some cases, rewards often included whatever animals the organizers of the match could get their hands on.
In modern times, the Kirkpinar competitors wrestle to be the Chief Pehlivan or Başpehlivan, who gets to keep the coveted Golden Belt for a year along with a cash prize of 51,000 Turkish liras or 9,060 USD.
With the growing popularity of Kirkpinar, several financial institutions, including banks and notable companies, endorse and sponsor the wrestlers these days. In addition to the sponsorships, the wrestlers also take home cash and other prizes, especially if they performed well in the tournament.
The prestigious Golden Belt of the Kirkpinar Turkish Oil Wrestling Tournament is made from 1,400 grams of 22-carat gold by the Edirne Municipality. The first Golden Belt made by the Edirne Municipality was in 1960 and was given to İbrahim Karabacak, the Chief Pehlivan of the year.
If an oil wrestler wins the Edirne Kirkpinar for three consecutive years, they get to keep the Golden Belt, permanently. So far, there are only four permanent winners of the Kirkpinar Golden Belt. They are:
- Mustafa Bük of Ordu – Chief Pehlivan for 1966, 1967 and 1968.
- Aydın Demir of Karamürsel – Chief Pehlivan for 1976, 1977 and 1978.
- Hüseyin Çokal of Denizli – Chief Pehlivan for 1982, 1983 and 1984.
- Ahmet Taşçı of Karamürsel – Chief Pehlivan for 1990,1991, 1992, 1993 and 1995, 1996, 1997.
However, more than the livestock in the olden days and the Golden Belt in modern days, there is massive national respect that surrounds the title of the Chief Pehlivan. Pehlivans are known for their incredible strength, both mentally and physically, since oil wrestling is considered one of the toughest sports in existence.
In addition, Pehlivans are renowned and revered for their honesty, generosity towards the people and respect towards traditions and customs.
Turkish Oil Wrestling – A Brief History and How it all Began
It can be said that Kirkpinar can trace its origin to Assyria of Ancient Egypt with evidence from paintings and bronze statues. Historians date these pieces of evidence to 2650 BC. Pieces of evidence such as olive vessels on the head of the statues and the three-step triumph are similar to the ones in modern-day oil wrestling.
Oil wrestling, however, began during the Persian Empire around 1065 BC, most likely after the Persian rulers took over the pharaohs of Egypt. In the olden days, oil wrestling was known as Peshrev and was held in a court.
This court was typically filled with musicians, wrestlers, and a special gallery for the master or the spiritual leader.
Later during the Greco-Roman period, the Parthians fought with the Greeks and drove them out of Iran, but the oil wrestling continued. In fact, it was during the Greco-Roman period, the word Pehlivan or a wrestler was coined and became widely used.
Oil Wrestling continued to be popular among the Huns, who were prolific horse riders and wrestlers. Wrestling was performed to settle disputes and was also a highlight during the wedding celebrations of the rich during this time. During Ramadan, oil wrestling was also a popular event. Oil wrestling also took place during circumcisions, and even agricultural harvests.
According to credible sources, Kirkpinar became an organized sport around 1360 during the Ottoman Empire. Interestingly, around the same time, Islam was introduced in Asia Minor. As Oil Wrestling continued its popularity as a favorite pastime of the shahs and sultans, the wrestlers were also encouraged to adopt the philosophy and spirituality of Islam as part of their gear and preparation for the tournament.
In the early days, wrestlers from all over Iran travelled to Istanbul to wrestle with the Ottoman champions. Successful wrestlers at these events were invited to Persia to participate in events that demonstrated their strength in front of the shahs and the sultans.
Until 1582, the soldiers picked prisoners of war under the Ottoman Empire to wrestle during the tournaments. The strongest and the healthiest POWs were rounded up to train for a while and wrestle all over the province.
However, as the oil wrestling tournaments began to rise in popularity, wrestlers began to come up from the villages and cities all over the empire, no longer making it necessary to recruit prisoners of war for the tournaments.
During the Ottoman Empire, the best wrestlers and champions were selected to train and become a member of the famous Ottoman Janissary corps that was responsible for the safety of the Sultan’s household.
Origin of The Word Kirkpinar
Several stories and legends surround the origin of the word Kirkpinar. By far, the most credible one goes like this.
The soldiers of the Ottoman Empire loved to wrestle among them to prove their strength. In addition, wrestling was also a way for them to engage in athletic exercise and be social.
Most of these wrestling matches took place in the grassy fields within the village of Samona, which is Ammovouno, in present-day Greece. The winner of these wrestling bouts was given the title of Pahlavan – a name that was synonymous with a hero, a free spirit who is also loyal and generous.
During one wrestling match among the Ottoman soldiers, the two finalists were equally strong and could not defeat the other, so they wrestled throughout the night.
The next morning, the wrestlers were found dead by their comrades. According to legends, the wrestlers’ bodies were intertwined, which meant that they wrestled to death. Some sources cite these two wrestlers as brothers who fought together in the Ottoman army.
The soldiers buried the dead wrestlers under a fig tree that was close to the wrestling field. Eventually, the soldiers went to battle and conquered the town of Edirne, which is in modern-day Turkey.
On their return from the battle, the Ottoman soldiers came across another fig tree in the nearby fields. This fig tree was surrounded by a crystal-clear spring. They later discovered that the meadow was called Ahirköy.
Reminded of their dead wrestling comrades before the battle, the soldiers renamed Kirkpinar, which means forty sources or forty springs in Turkish. This significance is still seen during the Kirkpinar opening ceremony, where forty bands play with davul drums and zurna shawms, which is also a highlight of the Kirkpinar opening ceremony.
Ever since then, an annual wrestling match was reenacted at this site to commemorate the soldiers’ victory and the wrestlers who wrestled to their death.
Kirkpinar in Modern Times
Despite its popularity these days, Kirkpinar oil wrestling had a very rough start.
The year 1912 witnessed the Balkan War and the loss of the Kirkpinar wrestling grounds. It was temporarily shifted to Virantekke, which is on the border of Bulgaria, but it remained the location for oil wrestling for more than 12 years as the region recovered from the ravages of the war.
In 1924, the venue for Kirkpinar oil wrestling was shifted again to Sarayiçi, an island near Edirne. The mayor of Edirne, Tahsin Sipka, declared the Edirne Municipality solely responsible for organizing and executing Edirne Kirkpinar in 1964 and the edict has remained to this day.
In modern times, more than 300 oil-wrestling matches are held throughout Turkey, drawing an impressive number of spectators of up to ten million.
Since the year 1997, Kirkpinar oil wrestling has been hosted in Europe, most notably in Amsterdam. It debuted during the European Champions League, which is also dubbed the ‘Mother of All Sports’.
Kirkpinar oil wrestling received major coverage from the top TV channels, including CNN and BBC. Amsterdam currently holds the second most popular venue for oil wrestling, right after Turkey’s own Edirne.
The growing popularity of Kirkpinar oil wrestling outside of Turkey is a significant step for promoting the sport. Traditionally, oil wrestlers from outside the country are prohibited from participating in the Kirkpinar oil wrestling tournament unless they have dual Turkish citizenship.
One of the main differences between the oil wrestling tournaments of the past and present times is the role of Agha or Aga. In the olden days, the Agha was the only person who had the authority to disqualify a wrestler, stop the match, or even cancel the wrestling match.
The Agha was also the main organizer of the wrestling tournament and was responsible for welcoming the guests. In addition, he also held dinners for the invitees and distributed the prizes for the winners.
Another important duty of the Agha was holding an auction for guests to bid on an animal, usually a sheep. During the auction, the person who places the highest bid on the animal ultimately becomes the Agha for the next wrestling tournament and shoulders the responsibilities.
After the Kirkpinar wrestling matches became a regular, the Kırkpınar Ağasi or the Kirkpinar Master, took over the role of the Agha. The Kırkpınar Ağasi was responsible for inviting the wrestlers to the tournament, among other things.
Invitations from the Kırkpınar Ağasi traditionally came with a candle with a red base, which is still in use today. In fact, the popular adage, ‘to be summoned by a candle with a red base’ owes its origin to the oil wrestling tradition. The invitations to the wrestling tournament were sent out in March to the villages and towns all over Turkey.
Apart from his role in the tournament, the Kırkpınar Ağasi was also one of the most important figures outside the arena.
The wrestling events under the protectorate of the Agha were in practice until 1928. In the same year, however, there was no Agha candidate due to the economic depression in Turkey. Therefore, for the next 36 years, the Institute of Child Care and The Turkish Red Crescent organized the Kirkpinar Turkish Oil Wrestling Tournament.
In 1964, the Municipality of Edirne took over the responsibilities of organizing, functioning, and overseeing the Kirkpinar oil wrestling tournaments. The Edirne Municipality also makes all the important decisions in the tournament.
Kirkpinar’s popularity has increased significantly in the last years, so much so that a special move in oil wrestling has been attributed to it. This move is called the Turk – a wrestler catches hold of their opponent’s legs from the top, which makes it impossible to return to their knees.
This move was first recognized in 1948 during the London Olympics and helped the Turkish Olympic team take home several medals. The Turk wrestling move is highly popular in US Folkstyle wrestling and is a favorite par terre move of many NCAA division 1 champions.
Significance of Kirkpinar Turkish Oil Tournament
Back in the day, Kirkpinar held the significance of paying tribute to the victorious Ottoman soldiers who conquered Edirne and the undefeated soldiers who wrestled to their deaths.
If we were to talk about Kirkpinar’s significance or the meaning behind the sport, there is no single component. However, there are several learning points through the Kirkpinar oil wrestling tournament.
- Through the yearly tournament, Kirkpinar has allowed the people of Turkey to honor and uphold this tradition through the years. In addition, it brings people from all over the country and even the world to unite and test their strength against each other.
- Kirkpinar is a sport that has no strict requirements except for the wrestlers to have a positive attitude and the spirit of good sportsmanship. Every Kirkpinar wrestler understands that he has a responsibility to conduct himself in the best manner in front of watchful eyes. No other sport in the world can boast of this minimal and unique requirement.
- The Guinness Book of World Records also recognizes Kirkpinar as one of the longest-running athletic competitions, which allows the wrestlers to test their strength and endurance. The Kirkpinar tests the physical strength and the mental resistance, and endurance of the wrestlers.
- Another fantastic significance attached with Kirkpinar is the continuity of oral tradition. All Kirkpinar wrestlers have a master-apprenticeship relationship through which the master trains the aspiring wrestlers. The oral traditions have allowed the continuity of the 650-year-old practice of oil wrestling.
- In Kirkpinar wrestling, there are several gestures and motions that display deep humility and respect towards the opponents as well as the game.
- In the first instance, every wrestler touches the ground with his right hand and then taps his chest and forehead. This symbolic gesture conveys the unworthiness of walking the same grounds as their great opponents.
- Second, when a wrestler wins the match, he usually lifts his opponent off the ground before the judges announce the winner’s name. This gesture consoles the defeated opponent and makes him feel respected as a comrade despite his defeat.
- Third, whenever a younger wrestler beats an older opponent, they kiss the senior’s hand, and this shows respect and courtesy to the older opponent.
The Kirkpinar Turkish Oil Wrestling Tournament has come a long since the Ottoman Empire. This 650-year-old tradition has become a symbol of Turkey and has rightfully become the national sport.
As one of the oldest athletic competitions globally, Kirkpinar tests the physical, mental and emotional endurance of the wrestlers, which holds fundamental significance in the sport of Turkish Oil Wrestling.
To say that it is a dream of every young Turkish man to participate in the Kirkpinar oil wrestling tournament and to become the Chief Pehlivan is not too far-fetched. This yearly event in Turkey is definitely a must-see at least once in a lifetime and one of the hardest wrestling tournaments in the world to win.