At the weekend I was lucky enough to enjoy a uniquely Turkish experience: the annual camel wrestling festival at Selcuk on the Aegean coast.
I was reporting on it for three different publications, doing written stories, an audio podcast, and a photo-essay. You can see my report in the Times here. The rest are coming later in the week.
But I slightly wish I’d just been there as a tourist, since I spent most of my time running around like a headless chicken. It’s an odd irony of journalism that when covering events like this you focus so much on what’s going on that you leave with the feeling that you haven’t quite taken it in.
And there was a lot to take in. I hadn’t anticipated the number of people (some 20,000), nor how avidly interested they all were. At one point, the crowd got so angry with journos blocking their view by taking pictures inside the arena that all of us were thrown out. I frequently got shouted at for blocking people’s sightlines.
The other thing that surprised me was how genuinely exciting the matches were. For those handful of people in the world not familiar with the sport, camel wrestling involves a duel between two male camels in which each tries to push the other onto his knees (though I admit I’m not entirely confident on what constitutes a ‘win’).
The combatants are all hybrids of the one-humped dromedary and the two-humped bactrian, and are bought mainly from Iran and Afghanistan, where they are apparently bred specially for the Turkish market.
The sport has no organizing federation, and so hard stats are difficult to come by, but I gathered that there are perhaps around 2,500 wrestling camels in Turkey.
Before witnessing the sport myself, I had imagined the term ‘wrestling’ was a misleading anthropomorphism of what actually went on. But that was the other thing that surprised me: the camels really were wrestling. Almost solely using their necks and forelegs, they deployed an arsenal of holds, blocks, swipes, and trips. The only handicaps were tight halters that prevented them biting each other.
To give you a sense of the tactical complexity that aficionados of the sport attribute to it, here’s perhaps my favourite quote of the weekend, from an official at the festival.
When asked if there had ever been a legendary camel that was head and hump above the rest, he told us of ‘Crazy Ozer’. “He’s unbeatable,” he said. “He fights with his brain- even a man couldn’t fight that good. He changes his tactics according to the strength and weight of his foe.”
I’ll let this video say the rest:
Fans and owners we interviewed were keen to distance it from bullfighting and the like, insisting that officials took every possible precaution to prevent injuries. In spite of the odd nosebleed, this seemed to be true. A dozen or so people were constantly on hand to drag apart the combatants (who can weigh up to 700kg) if they got out of control.
The atmosphere was something else again. Wreathed in the smoke of their barbeques, spectators drunk raki, ate sandwiches of sizzling camel sausage (pleasant, surprisingly mild), and danced to the zurnu (imagine a vuvuzela you can play a tune on).
A large proportion of the natural amphitheatre was taken up with some quite extensive Byzantine ruins, and in true Turkish style, toppled columns served as benches from which to watch the action.
I even saw this:
A country must truly have an embarrassment of archaeological riches when you can use what appears to be an ancient capital to help ring your campfire.
And of course, who could forget this?