Kırkpınar Oil Wrestling Festival

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Defined as two people engaged in a mental and physical struggle using no tools or equipment under equal conditions in a specified area, according to specific rules and for a specified time, wrestling is one of the oldest sports in human history. Wrestling has been a popular and traditional practice in every age. In Turkey, it is referred to as the ancestor sport.

Mention wrestling in Turkey and the first thing people think of is the Kırkpınar Oil Wrestling competition. It was born in 14thcentury Rumeli, and with its long celebrated history, it is one of the oldest wrestling festivals in the world. Oil wrestling is a type of wrestling where the wrestlers (pehlivan) wear leather pants (kispet) tied with a rope at the waist and cuff, and compete on grass after being covered in olive oil.

The Kırkpınar Oil Wrestling competitions include various rituals ranging from the invitation to the awards ceremony. The Historic Kırkpınar Wrestling competitions last for seven days and are generally held at the end of June, beginning of July. The festival begins on Friday when prayers are said for the wrestlers. The wrestling contests are held at a field in Sarayiçi, which is one of Edirne’s most  important recreational destinations. The winning wrestler earns the title of Chief Wrestler and the golden belt for one year, a very prestigious prize. A wrestler who earns the Chief Wrestler title for three consecutive years becomes the permanent owner of the golden belt.

The invitation to Kırkpınar is made via a candle with a red base. Back when means of mass communication were not common, the Kırkpınar Master would send candles with a red base to towns and villages beginning in March to invite wrestlers and notable figures to Kırkpınar. The saying “to be summoned by a candle with a red base” so commonly used among the people actually originates here. The same traditional method is still symbolically used today in the Kırkpınar Oil Wrestling competitions.

The most important actors at the Kırkpınar Oil Wrestling competitions are traditionally the Kırkpınar Ağası (Kırkpınar Master), who is responsible for inviting the wrestlers, organizing the matches, covering the financial needs of the festival, ensuring that the wrestling matches are conducted in accordance with recognized customs and handing out the awards; the cazgır (announcer), who introduces the wrestlers to the audience and starts the match; a team of zurna (flute) players and drummers; the yağcı (oiler), who helps oil the wrestlers, and the peşkirci, who holds the towel.

The wrestler is at the center of oil wrestling and is responsible for passing on a 650-year-old tradition. The criteria for being eligible to be a wrestler have been determined over many years as part of the oil wrestling tradition. The most important requirement for being a good wrestler is to have positive character traits that complement the spirit of the sport of wrestling. The wrestler is expected to conduct himself with that understanding that he is always being watched from his closest circles to the most remote spectator.

With regard to transmitting the tradition, the Kırkpınar Oil Wrestling Festival is a week-long education arena without peer. It is a 650-year-old meeting place where wrestlers and aspiring wrestlers from all over Turkey come carrying their master’s baskets. The master-apprentice relationship is where the oral rules for the continuity of wrestling culture are revealed in the clearest fashion. The cultural identity that has been kept alive until the present day thanks to this festival is passed on to apprentices and aspiring young wrestlers, which is how the tradition maintains its continuity.

The Kırkpınar wrestling matches are not only a sport that keeps individuals physically and mentally healthy, but social and cultural relations are also shaped by the competition. The wrestling matches give individuals the opportunity to test themselves in different ways and winning wrestlers in particular gain self-confidence. Unlike other sporting events, mutual respect between the competitors is a prominent aspect of the Kırkpınar Oil Wrestling competitions. For example, the winning wrestler is supposed to console his opponent and lift him off the ground before the judge announces his decision.

Many activities have been conducted in keeping with the action plan of protective measures drawn up to ensure the transmission and continuity of the centuries-old Kırkpınar wrestling competitions for future generations. In addition to the action plan created by the Ministry of Culture and Tourism, the Edirne Municipality, Trakya University and concerned NGO representatives, individuals and groups are working to keep the oil wrestling tradition alive and raise awareness.

Two former Chief Wrestlers Ahmet Yenici and Süleyman Kaplan as well as the Turkish Chief Announcer Şükrü Kayabaş joined forces and founded the Wrestlers’ Coffee House in Istanbul. All of the information about the event calendar for oil wrestling competitions in Turkey, participating wrestlers, announcers and Kırkpınar masters is available at this coffee house. For many people interested in oil wrestling, the Wrestlers’ Coffee House has become a hangout. The Chief Wrestlers say they have taken this ancestor sport to the most remote locations, and they encourage people to get involved in the sport. After leaving active wrestling, they organize many wrestling events, thus making an important contribution to the survival and safeguarding of this tradition.

The Kırkpınar Physical Education and Sports Academy was established at Trakya University in order to promote the tradition among young people, to conduct academic research on safeguarding the Kırkpınar wrestling competitions and to educate young people. The Kırkpınar wrestling competitions have been the subject of many theses, which have examined the tradition in terms of folklore as well as doing a detailed review of the wrestling music, training, and the physical and psychological characteristics of the wrestlers.

The historic building on the Edirne Municipal grounds was restored and opened as the Historic Kırkpınar Center during the 640th Historic Kırkpınar Wrestling and Cultural Events Week, thus paving the way for the Kırkpınar Museum. The Kırkpınar Center has numerous photographs and objects unique to Kırkpınar wrestling, such as the clothes, baskets and oil pitchers used by masters and wrestlers, drums-flutes and golden belts.

There is a Kırkpınar Room in one section of the Turkish Islamic Works Museum on the grounds of the Selimiye Mosque, which is a popular destination with many tourists both domestic and foreign.The Kırkpınar Exhibition Room set up in the museum contains artefacts representative of the tradition as well as photographs of former famous wrestlers.

The media promotes the Kırkpınar wrestling competitions around the world. It takes on a vibrant festive air that appeals to people from all walks of life. Furthermore, the remarkable photographstaken at this traditional event as part of the Kırkpınar Photography Contest held every year by the Edirne Municipality ensure that the ancestral sport of wrestling will be remembered for generations to come. A book about the Kırkpınar wrestling competitions entitled Pehlivan (The Wrestler) was released by the Ministry of Culture and Tourism in 2011 to ensure that the tradition is learned and passed down from generation to generation.

The trousers (kispet) worn by wrestlers are an important symbol of creativity in the field of handicrafts. They are made from the hides of healthy animals, reach from the waist to below the knee and have tight cuffs. This special article of clothing worn by wrestlers at the festival demonstrates the fine handiwork of a small number of craftsmen. İrfan Şahin is extremely knowledgeable about and skilled at making kispet, and the Ministry of Culture and Tourism proclaimed him to be a “Living Human Treasure” at a ceremony conducted in 2012.

The Kırkpınar Oil Wrestling Festival was proclaimed throughout the world when it was added to UNESCO’s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2010 on behalf of our country.