Every June or July for 653 years, men from all over Turkey have been gathering in a field on the edge of Edirne to throw each other around while donning leather pants and dripping with olive oil. The Kırkpınar Yağlı Güreşleri Festivali is the oldest continuously held sporting event in history, and legend has it that the festival began when Ottoman soldiers were looking to entertain themselves while on their way to conquer Edirne. The two finalists wrestled each other so intensely through the night, that they were found dead in the morning. They were buried under a fig tree, where a spring erupted from the earth upon the conquest of Edirne. The site was named Kırkpınar, or forty springs.
The wrestlers, or pehlivan, compete in a three-day event for the title of Başpehlivan (Chief Pehlivan) and the coveted golden belt. Pehlivan come in all shapes, sizes, and ages, and are placed in categories according to their height. The Yağcı pour natural olive oil from copper urns onto the bodies of the pehlivan, who then help grease each other up in a very brotherly manner.
The heat was stifling, and the smell of olive oil was heavy in the air. Muscles glistened and twisted as the crowd cheered and booed, and the drums thundered like the combined pulses of each wrestler. Had the referees been dressed in something less modern than a t-shirt and baseball cap, I would have sworn I was sitting in the Ottoman Empire.
Multiple matches occurred simultaneously on the field; each match limited to 40 minutes or until a man fell onto his back— or worse. There were only a couple of incidents this Sunday that sent some devastated pehlivan limping off with a medic, or on a stretcher. I was impressed by the camaraderie and mutual respect that was shown between the pehlivan.