“Enjoy watching groups of grown men dressed in leather and doused in olive oil grappling with each other?” asked my guidebook. As is true of many cultural traditions, it’s easy to mistake what this festival is all about.
Kirkpinar is about honor. The 1,000 wrestlers who participate are considered “pehlivans” or honorable warriors who represent what’s best in a healthy society. Yes, they do wear water buffalo-hide long shorts (kisbet), but this is to emulate the costume of the elite band of Ottoman imperial bodyguards. They coat their body in olive oil (more than 500 liters will be used during the 3-day tournament), that makes it harder to get a grip on one’s opponent.
They are competing for the title of “bas” or top wrestler. In the old days, there was no time limit and people, on rare occasion, matched to the death, today there’s 40 minutes to beat your opponent. A win comes in one of three forms: pinning your opponent’s shoulders to the ground simultaneously, carrying him above your shoulders three steps, or having your kisbet torn.
After the competitors are announced, they strut with their hands going vertically up and down and slapping their leather shorts, finishing with a short prayer.
Then they give each other bear hugs as a show of sportsmanship and to spread the oil. Next thing you know, there’s nearly 3 dozen wrestling matches on the grass. And an announcer who recites poems to motivate and encourage the wrestlers.