Turkish Oil Wrestling: National Sport of Turkey

Oil wrestling, the national sport of Turkey, could be one of the most difficult sports in the world. It gets this name due to wrestlers must be covered in oil before the match. Covering in oil and wrestling is quite difficult since oil will make it 10 times harder to hold your opponent.

There are various oil wrestling tournaments held in Turkey. Oil wrestling is an important part of the Turkish culture, having a history of hundreds of years. Besides, it is not only an old sport of Turkey; oil wrestling is one of the oldest sports in world history. Today, oil wrestling in Turkey is referred to as the “ancestor sport”.

Origin and History of Oil Wrestling

It is known that oil wrestling was first seen in Egypt, as a form of wedding entertainment. Wrestlers would be invited by great landowners to the weddings, to perform oil wrestling. This little fun activity in Egypt was carried to Europe and the Balkans thanks to sea trade.

It is estimated that the Turks met with oil wrestling in the 4th century. Different from the oil tradition in Egypt, which was typically held in the weddings, Turks would use oil wrestling as a way to celebrate many more things including the revival of nature in the springtime, and victory celebrations in addition to wedding ceremonies.

File ID 24807298 | © Petitfrere | Dreamstime.com

Oil wrestling was popular in the Ottoman Empire as well. Oil wrestling matches would be held under the observation of the statesmen. Such that, some buildings in the Ottoman Empire were serving oil wrestling purposes, and old famous wrestlers were responsible for those buildings.

Oil wrestling in the Ottoman periods carried a significance, which can be observed from Murad IV. and Abdulaziz participating in oil wrestling matches themselves. A tournament from 650 years ago, Kırkpınar Oil Wrestling Tournaments, is still being held in Turkey with great excitement. The ongoing importance assigned to oil wrestling in history and today further supports the idea that oil wrestling is an indispensable part of the Turkish culture.

File ID 20241756 | © Petitfrere | Dreamstime.com

Rules of Turkish Oil Wrestling

Like in all other sports, Turkish oil wrestling has some rules that must be followed by the wrestlers. The one rule that everyone who has even a little bit of interest in oil wrestling is about how one can win the match. For a wrestler to win the match, they must make their opponent fall into their back.

File ID 24819243 | © Petitfrere | Dreamstime.com

The only way to win the oil wrestling match is not that though. If the opponent falls on their side, or they fall back without their back touching the ground, it is still counted as a win. Another way of winning in the oil wrestling match is by the opponent’s giving up. Every participant holds the right to give up at any point of the match. 

Another way to win the oil wrestling match is not by falling your opponent down, but by holding them up. If one wrestler holds his opponent and walks for at least 3 steps while holding them, they are considered the winner of that oil wrestling match. Besides, if the kispet gets ripped from all its length or falls, the wrestler is considered as the loser. 

Typically, an oil wrestling match lasts for 30 minutes. If there is no winner after 30 minutes of oil wrestling, then the match gets extended for another 10 minutes. If there is still no winner after the extension, then the time becomes indefinite for the match. In the indefinite match, there is no need for one of the wrestlers to win. Instead, different colored bands are tied to the ankles of the wrestlers, and whoever gets the first score, they are accepted as the winner of the match. 

Traditions of Oil Wrestling

A wrestler is cooled down by referees after competing

A wrestler is cooled down by referees after competing. File ID 73788230 | © Thomas Wyness | Dreamstime.com

Since oil wrestling is a sport that has so much history in this land, it goes without saying that there are various traditions included in oil wrestling. The oil wrestling traditions are known as the “Kırkpınar traditions”. Kırkpınar is the name of the most famous oil wrestling tournament in Turkey. Such that it was included in UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage Lists. 

Being an aga

Aga, which is also referred to as “agha” is a social class in Turkey. Being an aga represents a high social class and is a term that was being used in the Ottoman periods. Yet it is still widely used in Turkey, even though the social class of aga is not that common, the word aga and its assigned meaning is widely used.

wrestler celebrates victory

Wrestler celebrates victory. File ID 73787918 | © Thomas Wyness | Dreamstime.com

Being an aga in the context of oil wrestling refers to the person who is responsible for all the wrestlers that will be participating in the oil wrestling tournament. The responsibility of the aga includes things like wrestler’s transportation to the city of the tournament will be held, their accommodation, their meals, the prizes, and the smoothness of the tournament. 

Aga must be dressed up in a specific way, according to the traditions of oil wrestling. They must hold a special rosary with large grains, in addition to wearing traditional clothes. Those traditional clothes include clothes with a “Rumelia cut”, a headgear named “serpuş”, shalwar, a shirt named “camadan” under their vest, and a thong-heeled patent leather shoe. All parts of the dress should be embroidered.

Another feature of being an aga is carrying a gold belt, just like the chief wrestler. Carrying a gold belt represents the value and the high social class of the aga. 

Golden belt

Golden belt is the highest prize that one can win in an oil wrestling contest. Chief wrestlers can get a golden belt for a year, and if a chief wrestler wins the golden belt 3 years in a row, they earn the right to keep the gold belt indefinitely. It is a tradition to hold the gold belt above the head on the cortege walks that are being done before the oil wrestling matches.

Chief wrestler – wrestler (başpehlivan – pehlivan)

The word for the wrestler in Turkish is “güreşçi”, yet instead, a Persian-originated word, “pehlivan” is used in the tournaments, and even in the everyday language. The reason for the usage of pehlivan instead of the Turkish name is due to the other meanings that pehlivan carries and the Turkish word güreşçi does not.

The Persian-originated word pehlivan means valiant. What it means by “valiant” is not only power but also kindness, tolerance, and morals. The relationship between a master and an apprentice can be observed in a relationship between başpehlivan (chief wrestler) and pehlivan. 

A chief wrestler can be the master of a wrestler, and there are some traditions between those two. For example, if a wrestler gets beaten by another wrestler, the beaten wrestler must kiss the hand of the winner and his master.

Cazgır

A heavy weight wrestler is awarded victory

A heavy weight wrestler is awarded victory. File ID 73787884 | © Thomas Wyness | Dreamstime.com

Cazgır refers to the individuals who introduce the wrestlers to the people who came to watch them in addition to making speeches, singing traditional songs, prayers, poets, and so on.It can be said that a cazgır is the presenter of the tournament and the matches. A cazgır is mostly responsible for keeping the energy of the environment high, by making sure that everyone is having fun.

Being a cazgır is also happens with the master-apprentice process. A cazgır must be present in the er square (er means soldier in Turkish, and er square is the name where the oil wrestling takes place) by wearing traditional clothes. All the oil wrestling matches start with a prayer named cazgır prayer. 

Since the cazgır knows all the wrestlers very well, sometimes they prefer to make a speech special to them, which will boost their energy. 

Drum and Flute

Gypsy flute players perform during competition at the Kirkpinar Turkish Oil Wrestling Festival in Edirne, Turkey. The musicians create a sense of atmosphere during competition. Kirkpinar is the most famous wrestling festival in Turkey and has run continuously for over 650 years.

The musicians create a sense of atmosphere during the competition. Kırkpınar, Edirne File ID 73788882 | © Thomas Wyness | Dreamstime.com

Starting from ancient times, there was a tendency for people to express themselves with the help of music, especially in those times when the tension is high. No matter what, oil wrestling is a sport where there is lots of excitement, adrenaline, and tension. Under those circumstances, expecting there will be at least some level of music was pretty normal.

An important part of the oil wrestling traditions is the drum and the flute. Throughout the tournament, 20 drummers and 20 flutists take place in the er square and play their music depending on the circumstance of the match. Drummers and flutists are sorts of theme musicians, by further stimulating emotions with music. Various types of music are being played in an oil wrestling match.

Arbitration Committee

The arbitration committee is a must for a smooth and duly oil wrestling tournament. There are two types of arbitration committees in an oil wrestling tournament. One of the arbitration committees is responsible for the following of the wrestling matches up close, and they are called square referees.

The other type of arbitration committee is the tower referees, and they are responsible for applying what is necessary according to what square referees told to them. In other words, square referees are responsible for identifying any form of fault in the square and telling it to the tower referees. Tower referees are the ones who hold the right to do the required actions

Er Square

Wrestlers competing in er square during the Kırkpınar, held in Erdine.

Wrestlers competing in er square during the Kırkpınar, held in Erdine.File ID 10031226 | © Clifford Norton | Dreamstime.com

Er square (er means soldier or man in Turkish), is the name of the meadow where oil wrestling tournaments take place. Even though the original er square takes place in the Greece lands today, oil wrestling tournaments are done in various places in Turkey today. The most famous oil wrestling tournament, Kırkpınar, is held in Edirne each year.

Red-bottomed candle

A red-bottomed candle is a form of invitation letter of the oil wrestling tournaments. Since oil wrestling is very old, from the times where communication was not this easy, invitations to oil wrestling were done with messengers.

Aga’s were responsible for the delivery of those invitations, of course. They would assign a messenger, called “reader”. The reader would go to the place of destination to read the invitation and would read it out loud.  The red-bottomed candle’s part in this process is that the reader must go to the area with a red-bottomed candle, to give the candle to the district administrator afterward.

Even though today there are hundreds of other ways to deliver an invitation for an oil wrestling game, this tradition is being tried to keep alive. 

Peşrev

Wrestlers about to engage in battle at the Kirkpinar Turkish Oil Wrestling Festival

Wrestlers about to engage in battle at the Kirkpinar Turkish Oil Wrestling Festival. strong>File ID 73789221 | © Thomas Wyness | Dreamstime.com

Peşrev can be defined in the context of Turkish classical music as an instrumental genre, but in the oil wrestling context it refers to the warm-up moves of the wrestlers, and it has a big part in the oil wrestling traditions. Even though it is a way to warm up before wrestling, it is considered a great way to stimulate emotions and get ready for the excitement of the oil wrestling match. 

Peşrev takes place as the rhythmic warm-up movements on the er square. It might even look like a dance sometimes since the movements are not so typical of the warm-up movements. As wrestler’s warm-up in perşev, drummers and flutists are responsible for creating a rhythm that is appropriate for the peşrev.

In a typical peşrev, wrestlers initially begin with three steps forwards followed by three steps backward. Later, they bow down to their left knee to put their right hands to the floor first, and to knee, lips, forehead, respectively. Some wrestlers rip off a piece of grass from the floor and bite it as well. Subsequently, they stand up by saying something close to “come on, wrestler”.

After this, both wrestlers walk towards each other and away from each other in a way that would be like one step forward and one step backward, etc. Those small walks are the opportunity for wrestlers to plan their movements, thinking about the weaknesses of their opponents. After all of those warm-up movements, an oil wrestling match can begin.

Oiling the body

Wrestler getting olive oil before competition in traditional Kirkpinar wrestling.

Wrestler getting olive oil before competition in traditional Kirkpinar wrestling competition. File ID 48528826 | © Oguz Dikbakan | Dreamstime.com

Of course, an oil wrestling match would not be an oil wrestling match if there was no oiling the body. Oiling the body takes place after the cazgır prayers, and it is a tradition by itself. Oiling the body could be done in one of the two possible ways.

One of them is wrestlers oiling themselves, by using the cauldrons that are filled with olive oil and water.  Another way is to use the pitchers from the people who are wandering around the square, who are wandering around for solely this purpose. A wrestler has the right to oil their body again in the middle of a match, in addition to holding the right to stopping the match for wiping up their face.

But if a wrestler aims to win some time by saying that he needs to wipe his face or needs more oil, then this is not accepted. There is a ritual involved in oiling the body as well. A wrestler should start oiling their body with their right hand. First, the left arm gets oiled followed by the chest, and finally, to the kispet. 

After that, the same process takes place by the left hand to the right side of the body. The backs of the wrestlers get oiled by their opponent, which is an important part of the oiling the body process.

Zembil

Zembil is the name of the basket in which the kispet (the piece of clothing worn in oil wrestling) is being carried, and it is one of the important symbols of oil wrestling. If a wrestler is carrying their kispet in a zembil, this means that either they are coming from an oil wrestling match or they are looking for one.

If a wrestler’s zembil is hanged on the wall, this means that either they lost the match or they will never wrestle again. Besides, another tradition related to zembil is that the more experienced wrestlers make other wrestlers carry their zembil. Yet, the other wrestlers mentioned here are not some random wrestlers but the wrestlers who had great potential. 

Oil Wrestling Tournaments in Turkey

There are different oil wrestling tournaments in Turkey, yet some of them are more popular and known in comparison to others. The following are the most known oil wrestling tournaments in Turkey.

Kırkpınar Oil Wrestling Tournament

File ID 21644329 | © Ihsan Gercelman | Dreamstime.com

Kırkpınar Oil Wrestling Tournament is the greatest and largest oil wrestling tournament in Turkey, and it is the first tournament that comes to mind when one mentions oil wrestling tournaments. It is held in Sarayiçi, Edirne each year at the end of June and at the beginning of July. During the Kırkpınar Oil Wrestling Tournament, a festival was held in Edirne named Kırkpınar Festival. Winners of the Kırkpınar Oil Wrestling Tournament are rewarded with a medal and a trophy.

Elmalı Yeşilyayla Oil Wrestling Tournament

Another popular oil wrestling tournament is the Elmalı Yeşilyayla Oil Wrestling Tournament, which takes place in the Elmalı district of Antalya each year. This oil wrestling tournament is being held each year starting from the year 1352.

Elmalı Yeşilyayla Oil Wrestling Tournament is held in the Recep Gürbüz wrestling field, in August and September. Starting from 2013, Orhan Middle School won this tournament for 6 years until Ali Gürbüz was the winner of this tournament in the year 2019. Winners of the Elmalı Yeşilyayla Oil Wrestlings are rewarded with a medal and a trophy.

Kurtdereli Oil Wrestling Tournament

Kurtdereli Oil Wrestling Tournament is an oil wrestling tournament that takes place in Balıkesir each year. This tournament was designed for the memory of a world champion oil wrestler, Kurtdereli Mehmet Pehlivan.

Kumluca Oil Wrestling Tournament

Kumluca Oil Wrestling Tournament is another tournament that takes place in Antalya’s Kumluca district. The Kumluca Oil Wrestling Tournament is done each year as a part of the Traditional Agriculture and Greenhouse Festival and lasts for 3 days. It is held in the Karatepe Stadium.

Frequently asked questions about oil wrestling

Wrestlers trying to grab each other

Wrestlers in the 8th Sile Annual Oil Wrestling Event on August 24, 2012 in Istanbul File ID 26580490 | © Ahmet Ariturk | Dreamstime.com

Oil wrestling might be a sport that is completely strange to you, and there is a high chance of it sounding weird to you in addition to being strange.  Yet this does not change the fact that oil wrestling is an important, historical sport that comes to this day from many years ago. The following are some of the most frequently asked questions about oil wrestling that might help you clear out the way a little bit more. 

What is Kisbet?

Kısbet or kıspet is the name of the pants that wrestlers wear in an oil wrestling match. It is narrow-legged and extends from waist to thigh. It has a narrow waist, and it is leather.

What is the objective of Turkish oil wrestling?

The objective of Turkish oil wrestling is to make regular wrestling a little bit harder by applying oil to the wrestler’s bodies. The other objective of Turkish oil wrestling is winning by putting your opponent on his back to the floor.

What is the kind of oil used in Turkish oil wrestling?

Olive oil is used in Turkish oil wrestling matches.

Why do Turkish oil wrestlers reach out to their opponents’ pants?

Because oil makes it almost impossible to hold their opponents after a certain point, so reaching out to their pants makes the process easier.

Where should I go to see a Turkish oil wrestling match?

The most popular oil wrestling tournament is held in Edirne, named Kırkpınar Oil Wrestling Tournaments. You can also go to Antalya or Balıkesir to see a Turkish oil wrestling match in a tournament.

Is Turkish oil wrestling the most popular sport in Turkey?

Even though it is the national sport of Turkey and referred to as the “ancestor sport”, Turkish oil wrestling is not the most popular in Turkey. The most popular sport in Turkey is football.

İsmail Çamönü

Hi! I am Ismail. I am a digital nomad from Turkey. I lived in many cities around Turkey during my life and I am passionate about traveling. At Nomad's Guide to Turkey, I share travel tips for nomads, expats, and tourists who would like to visit Turkey.

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