It is said that the first camel wrestling competition was held in the village of Hidirbeyli in Aydin’s Incirliova township about two centuries ago. However, A. Münis Armağan gives a different account in his book Batı Anadolu Tarihinde Ilginç Olaylar (Interesting Incidents in Western Anatolian History), in the chapter on the “End of the Camels.” Armağan writes that camel wrestling was done in the time of Mahmut II, in Tire and its surroundings.
Although the origin of camel wrestling cannot be placed exactly, it is believed that it started during nomadic times. People interested in camel wrestling or camel owners say that the nomads used to have their camels wrestle as part of the competition between caravan owners.
Today, camel wrestling is popular mostly in Aydin. It is also seen in the cities of İzmir, Manisa, Muğla and Denizli in the Aegean region, Balıkesir and Çanakkale in the Marmara region and Burdur, and İsparta and Antalya in the Mediterranean region.
Although camel wrestling has certain rules, these rules may vary from area to area. Unlike other sports, camel wrestling does not require a special field or spectators. Most of the time, organizations active in areas such as; education, culture, health, sports or social welfare holds camel wrestling competitions as fundraisers. In some areas, municipalities also help to organize the event so as to bring order and discipline to the competitions.
The proceeds earned from camel wrestling, after costs are deducted, are used for certain purposes. Neither pari-mutuel arrangements nor betting are allowed. Only male camels can wrestle in these contests, and then only those born to female camels with a single hump (dromedary or “yoz” camels) or those with double humps (Bactrian or “buhur” camels). As a class, these wrestling males are called “tülü” camels. These camels are bred especially for wrestling, which means that the ancestors of these wrestling camels were wrestlers themselves.
These camels are bred with a great deal of care and are trained for wrestling. The contests are held in the winter months of December, January, February and March when the tülüs are in heat. Every wrestling camel must have a name. Sometimes the camel’s owner gives it a name, and sometimes the spectators find a name for the camel inspired by how it behaves during wrestling matches. Some camels are named after popular characters from TV shows, such as American detective Columbo and Şahintepesi. Other examples of camel names are Dozer, Gezer, Sarizeybek, Yörükali, Almanyali, Ceylan, Felek, Ali Tülü, Talanci, Karka Kartali, Suat, Zümrüt, Menderes, Firat, Takmakol, Şoför, Civan, Karamurat, and Yarimdünya.
The name of the competing camel is written on a piece of embroidered cloth called a peş hung behind the saddle, which is called the “havut.” Beneath the camel’s name is written the word Maşallah (May God protect him).
One day before the wrestling contest, the camels are decked out in a manner prescribed by tradition. They are then walked through the streets accompanied by music played on the drums and zurna. This is a spectacle which everyone should see at least once. When you come into the town before a tournament, you can hear the zeybek music played with the drums and zurna and the sounds of bells dangling from the camels. The dressed-up camels are worth seeing. You could never tire of watching them. The entire town takes on a carnival atmosphere. Large crowds gather in front of the kahvehanes, the tea houses where men (but not women) go to play cards or backgammon. Camel wrestling fans get involved in boisterous discussions about the camels set to compete.
The camel owners are easy to spot due to their distinctive dress: cornered caps, traditional scarves around the neck, jackets, special trousers and accordion-like boots. Some camel wrestling enthusiasts who don’t actually own camels also dress in similar outfits. Some fans sit around TV sets to watch earlier wrestling contests which were videotaped. On the evening before the camel wresting contests, a “Hali Gecesi” (Rug Night) occasion is held with the attendance of camel owners and other guests. This is the sort of festivity where people meet new friends and old acquaintances strengthen their bonds of friendship. They eat, drink, sing songs native to their particular region, dance, entertain their guests and also sell rugs at an auction. This “Hali Gecesi” is definitely organized on the night before the wrestling. People prepare food beforehand and they eagerly await the wrestling competitions the next day.
The day of wrestling
In the wee hours of the meeting, crowds of people start flocking to the wrestling field while the camel owners try to find a good spot in the fields where their camels can face each other, those who want to watch the matches grab good place for themselves and their families. They cook meat on a barbecue spit. By about 9 or 10 o’clock, the camel wrestling fans have filled the field. Street sellers set up their stands and tables around the field where they offer a wide variety of food, drinks and souvenirs, while drummers and zurna players play traditional tunes. Inspired by the music, some people dance the traditional zeybek dance.
During all this hullabaloo, loudspeakers blare the names of the camels set to compete, thus signalling the beginning of the contests proper. Now the activity around the field moves to focus inside the field of competition. Camel owners bring their camels into the wrestling area. First the camels walk a lap around the field, after which they start wrestling usually between 9 and 10 o’clock.
The cazgir; the person who announces wrestlers or the wrestling camels – calls out the camels’ names. The cazgır reads poems praising each camel, adding colour to the contest. This cazgır, just as in two-legged wrestling contests, is the most important and colourful person in the competition. He treats the camel wrestling match just like a sports announcer acting as commentator to a soccer match.
Within the wrestling organization, there is a refereeing council formed by a chief referee, middle referee and table referee, as well as an urgancı (a person who deals with ropes), people responsible for tying camels’ mouths, and a person who checks the camels’ mouths after they are tied.
Camel wrestling is held in four categories, namely Foot, Middle, Under the Head and Head.
A camel can win in any of three ways:
-by making the other camel retreat,
-by making the other camel scream,
-or by making the other camel fall.
In the first road to victory, one camel sends his rival into retreat with just his fearsome appearance.
In the second, one camel overpowers the other so much that he makes him scream.
In the third, one camel cunningly manoeuvres the other to make him fall down. The winning camel goes and sits on his vanquished competitor.
Another way victory can be secured is when the camel’s owner takes his fighter out of the contest in order to prevent him from being hurt. The camel owner throws a rope on the ground indicating that he is withdrawing from the contest. The other camel is declared the winner. And sometimes the game ends in a tie.
Below are some terms used to refer to tricks and manoeuvres employed during wrestling: Bağ, Çengel, Çatal, Makas, Kol Atmasi, Muşat Çengel, Tam Bağ, Yarim Bağ, Düz Çengel, Tekçi, and Kol Kaldirma.
The contest’s organizers try to pit camels who excel at different tricks to make the matches more exiting. Every camel wrestles with a tülü from his own class. Camels that wrestle from the right are called “rightist,” camels that wrestle from the left are called “leftist,” camels that trip the other by using foot tricks are called “çengelci,” camels that take their rival’s head under their chest and then try to sit are called “bağci,” and camels which push their rivals to make them beat a retreat are called “tekçi.”
The winning camel stands with his four feet together and greets the audience in a proud, boastful manner. He accepts a rug as his award and then exits the wrestling field. The camel which loses, on the other hand, looks embarrassed and keeps quiet.
A camel wrestles just once per day and each wrestling match lasts for 10 or 15 minutes. These rules exist to prevent the camels from being too badly hurt or even dying as well as to protect their well-being.
The games are conducted both with discipline and a strong nod to tradition. At the end of the contest, the owners of the winning camels and their trainers (sarvan) look joyful and camel wrestling fans return to their homes with the satisfaction of having watched exciting camel wrestling matches all day long.
The camel wrestling contests that are usually held during winter in the Aegean region have become a winter festival there.