02 Feb 2013 18:00
Both a tourist attraction and a local pastime in Turkey, camel wrestling is a time-old competition celebrated annually nearly every weekend in the Aegean region from November until March. The tournaments traditionally coincide with the olive harvest. Some camel owners explained that in the past, camels were used to help transport the fruit from the orchards. The biggest and most popular camel wrestling festival is held in Selcuk, near the ancient Greek ruins of Ephesus.
On one cool morning, Mustafa Can led a stubborn camel to be loaded onto a waiting truck. From the stable in the Aegean coast town of Burhaniye, a dozen camel were being transported to nearby Pelitkoy, where an annual camel wrestling tournament is held. Villagers and fans packed into stadium chairs, set up barbecue grills and tables in truck beds surrounded the arena in order to enjoy the action. The annual camel wrestling tournament is the most exciting day of the year in Pelitkoy, and everyone from the local mayors, to farm workers, to Roma musicians, have crowded around a small arena to watch the action. More than 100 camels and their owners from all over the region converge to practice the sport which is Turkish is called "deve guresi" and is believed to have brought to Turkey more than 2000 years ago.
Two by two, the massive and highly decorated animals, wearing elaborate hand-embroidered saddles, and draped with red banners reading "mashallah" were escorted by their owners into the ring, bells ringing. Frothing at the mouth from excitement and anxiety, the animals jostle with their opponents, trying to pin their opponent's neck to the ground while their owners yell word of encouragement.
"Camels are very sensitive, like a child," says Savran, a camel trainer from Burhaniye. "You should really understand them." He explain that trainers get to know each camel's voice and the camel, likewise, know's that of his trainer.
As white streams of saliva draw zig zags through the air, two teams of camel handlers stand close by. In case the fighters get too serious, they are ready to use ropes to separate the 1000-1500 kilo animals named after fast cars, like Audi, or beautiful places, like Florida, or fighters, like Crazy Ozel.
Fights end after 10 minutes. A winner is declared if one camel forces the other to the ground, or if one camel walks away from battle, forfeiting the match. The level of violence is low compared to other animal fighting sports, though a few camels ended up with nose-bleeds. Oftentimes, no winner is declared. That seems of little importance to the crowd, though, many of whom are busily grilling camel sausage and drinking raki, Turkey's anise-flavored brandy. The crash of a drum, accompanied by wild clarinet playing and violin is reason enough for some of the men to dance, while others enjoy smoking water pipes.
These days, most camels are imported from Iran-- including a half-dozen soft, big-eyed juveniles who are for sale in Burhaniye. A good fighting camel is worth as much as $15,000, but most owners say their camels are not for sale.
"We don't drive luxury cars," says a camel owner named Akin. "We don't drive a good car, but we have a good camel."
As the clear afternoon began turning to dusk, the tournament concluded with a camel procession through the town. Then the camel owners began again the arduous process of coaxing the animals into the truck beds. The following weekend would see yet another camel tournament in a different Aegean town.
- Jodi Hilton