Atlas Obscura

The Kirkpinar Oil Wrestling Festival

On of the Kirkpinar winners.

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As the story goes, the Ottomans were raiding forts on what is now Turkey’s shared border with Greece and Bulgaria when one night two soldiers began to wrestle.

The Sultan, entertained by the tussle, offered a pair of leather pants to the victor. The wrestlers were found dead in the morning, their bodies entwined. Their comrades buried them under a fig tree and carried on. When they reached another fig tree in a field called Kırkpınar, the soldiers staged a wrestling competition to commemorate their fallen friends. This wrestling competition has occurred once a year ever since 1346, making it one of the oldest annual sports competitions in history.

The wrestlers no longer fight to the death, but the Kırkpınar Oil Wrestling Festival is still steeped in tradition. The wrestlers, or pehlivans (“champions”), are naked except for leather trousers. They slick their bodies in olive oil, a practice left over from when solders applied the oil as an insect repellant. There is a formal etiquette to greeting another wrestler, involving antiquated bows and humble embraces of your opponent’s legs.

In addition to the competition between the wrestlers, there is a bidding war between wealthy spectators. The highest bidder becomes the “agha” and is responsible for sponsoring the following year’s tournament.

The match is won when one wrestler pins the other or lifts him above his head (both very difficult considering the slipperiness of a sweaty man covered in oil). Once a victor has been declared, it’s customary for the winner to kiss the defeated—a gesture that illustrates the pehlivan’s humility and honesty, traits that have been ascribed to them much longer than the tournament has been around.

It’s not just bragging rights the pehlivans are grappling for though. The winner is awarded a cash prize equal to about $100,000 and a solid gold champion’s belt.

Contributed by Atlas Obscura user Molly McBride Jacobsen

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