12 Facts About Turkish Oil Wrestling Festival – UNESCO Cultural Heritage


Oil wrestling is one of the national sports of Turkey.  The oil wrestling events are not just tournaments, these are also festivals.

The biggest oil wrestling festival is in Edirne Kırkpınar.  The Kırkpınar Festival is accepted into UNESCO’s List of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. 

This sport may be weird to foreigners and gay to some. Men reaching down to other men’s pants seem unexplainable to non-Turkish people.

Yet, the wrestlers are knights in the eyes of the Turkish people. This sport is a masculine event to prove fair fight, strength, and endurance.

Turkish art showing oil wrestling match (“Pehlivan”) in Sultan’s presence.

This event is a Turkish version of chivalrous tournaments similar to European knight tournaments of Medieval times. Wrestlers are called Pehlivan, the same word is used in Turkish slang language to describe talented brave men.

For this reason, the place where the wrestling matches take place is called the arena of the brave. “Er Meydani”.

There is no ring in Turkish wrestling because if you entered into the arena of the brave, you should not escape from your opponent.

As a Turkish local, I will explain all things related to Turkish Oil Wrestling so that you would understand this sport and our culture better.

1. The Brief History of Turkish Oil Wrestling

Wrestling was invented 15.000 thousand years ago by humans. Wrestling figures can be seen in the earliest cave drawings.  Yet, the basic figures of wrestling have changed not since Babylonian and Egyptian times.

Details of the Ancient Egyptian wrestling position found at a tomb in Beni Hasan.
Photo Source Wikipedia

Turkish people have also wrestled since the ancient ages. “güreş” means wrestling in Turkish. A similar word is used in all Turkic groups settled from Siberia to Balkans.

For example, Uigur people living in East China use the same word “küreş” for wrestling. This means Turks practiced wrestling widely before coming to Anatolia from Middle Asia.

It is believed that Turkish wrestling is distinctly different than Greek wrestling. Yet, olive oil usage is a common tradition that Turk adopted from Persian, Greek, and Byzantine roots. 

It is known that Greeks used to oil themselves and cover their bodies with sand before wrestling matches in the early Olympic games. Turkish wrestlers also use olive oil in these wrestling matches.

A marble art showing a Greek wrestling match around 500 BC.
Photo Source Wikipedia

The other main difference between Greek and Turkish styles is the wrestling outfits. The Greeks wrestled nude in ancient times, yet there is no nude wrestling in Turkish tradition.

Today, there are no other oil wrestling practices in the Middle East or in the Balkans, other than Turkish oil wrestling sport.

2. Where you can see Turkish oil wrestling?

Every year around a hundred oil wrestling tournaments take place in 33 cities of Turkey. In 2015, there were 120 recorded oil wrestling festivals in Turkey. 

Antalya, Istanbul, Kocaeli, Balıkesir, Sakarya, and Samsun are the other cities with many oil wrestling festivals. Source

Oil wrestling tournaments also take place in northern parts of Greece where a sizable Turkish population lives. The biggest oil wrestling festival in Greece is in the village of Sohos in Thessaloniki.

A game of oil wrestling in the gardens of the Topkapi Palace
Photo Source Wikipedia

The Kirkpinar Oil Wrestling Festival started in 1361. Only Balkan Wars and World War 1 stopped the wrestling tradition for a while. Yet, this tournament continues to be celebrated more than 600 years later.

Kirkpinar Wrestling Festival also holds the Guinness World Record for the longest-running athletic competition.

3. What is an Oil Wrestling Festival?

Wrestling Festivals are big fairs with music and dances. Lamb roast is the most popular food that you can find at these festivals.

The Kırkpınar Oil Wrestling is a three-day wrestling event. The other smaller festivals are usually one-day events.

Folkoric dances differs region to region in Turkey. Efe(s) are dancing Zeybek. From Alasehir Oil Wrestling Festival.

4. When Turkish Oil Wrestling Festivals are organized?

Oil Wrestling Festivals are organized starting from April to October.

The most famous Edirne Kırkpınar Oil Wrestling Festival takes place every year at the end of June and the beginning of July.

In 2019, 2.380 wrestlers registered to match in Kırkpınar. This matches attaract thousands of spectators to Edirne. Kırkpınar Edirne. Source

5. Why do wrestlers put on oil?

Wrestlers put oil because the oil acts as a lubricant and makes it harder to grab the opponent. For this reason, oil wrestling is a sport that requires great strength and skill.

A friend once asked me if wrestlers were using baby oil. No, they do not use baby oil. 

Wrestlers usually use olive oil to cover their bodies. Yet in some instances, flower oil is also used to lower the cost of oil wrestling events. 

The biggest cost of these festivals is the oil expenses. 3000 to 4000 liters of oil olive are used in the Edirne Kırkpınar Festival every year.

6. Turkish oil wrestlers traditional outfit: Kisbet

Turkish wrestlers wear a leather outfit called Kisbet. Kisbet is a leather tight leather shorts made traditional without any sewing. The kisbet is a heavy clothing item and each one is weighed around 13 kg.

In the old days, not all wrestlers were entitled to wear this clothing. It was a privilege to wear an original kisbet. Only wrestling masters would allow you to wear kisbet and it required a ceremony. Source

Today only a handful of artisans have the knowledge of making these wrestling shorts. Traditionally made kisbets are very expensive.

Manisa Yunusemre Oil Wrestling Festival

7.Why do Turkish oil wrestlers reach down their pants?

In the Olympic standards, grabbing the clothing of your opponent is a foul. 

Yet, in Turkish oil wrestling reaching down their pants (kisbet), putting hands inside the kisbet is a perfectly normal way to win.

The Turkish oil wrestlers put their hands and arms inside their opponent’s pants to control their opponent. This is a path to victory.

I know some of you are wondering about the hand in the kisbet, just a side note, it is against the rules to grab anything inside the kisbet 🙂

8.  Rules of Turkish Oil Wrestling Matches – How do you win in Turkish oil wrestling?

The objective of oil wrestling is to overpower the opponent. For this reason, it is different from regular wrestling objectives. There are many different winning conditions reflecting many years of tradition. 

The four most common winning conditions in oil wrestling are:

  • Making the opponent lay his back to the ground. 
  • Wrestlers can also win by achieving their standing opponents to fall on their back or sideways. This is a knockout.
  • The other winning move is hugging your opponent off the ground Hugging wrestlers win,if a wrestler can walk three steps and the opponent can not touch the ground during this time. This win is called a win by scaling (“tartarak yenmek”)
  • A wrestler can grab his opponent by the foot, lift him upside down and make him fall backward.. This win position is called up the nail (“çivi yukarı”)
  • If a wrestler accepts the other wrestler’s superiority. (“Pes etmek”)

“Belly to the sky” chanting means wrestlers lose when their belly sees the sky.

Photo Source Kırkpınar Turkish Wrestling Association

9. Turkish Oil Wrestlers Used to Wrestle For Days before 1975 – The Old & New Rules of Oil Wrestling

Until 1975, there was no time limit in Kırkpınar Oil Wrestling matches. The oil wrestlers (“Pehlivan” in Turkish) wrestled for one or two days to determine the winner. The matches would start in the morning and continue for a full day until dusk. 

The Turkish oil wrestling rules changed after 1975. Now, the wrestling matches are 40 minutes. If nobody wins within 40 minutes, the match is extended for 7 additional minutes. The additional period is scored but judges, who score the most in this limited time are declared as the winner.

If the score is even after 7 additional minutes, then a final match is organized. In this final stage who gets the first point ”golden point” is declared as the winner.

10. The Legend behind Edirne Kırkpınar Oil Wrestling Festival

Ottoman (Turkish) Empire forces started expanding into the Edirne region, 40 soldiers were on an expeditionary mission. These soldiers had the habit of wrestling between themselves to improve their readiness.

Two of these brothers at arms Ahi and Selim started wrestling. They wrestled for hours yet none of them was able to win. 

Oil Wrestling Festival Alasehir Manisa

After hours of struggle, their comrades intervened and separated them. Yet they died from exhaustion. The wrestlers were buried under a widow tree and the expeditionary force continued its mission.

When the soldiers returned from their mission, they found freshly formed springs under the tree where soldiers were buried. This place was named Kırkpınar (Forty Springs). Since then every year a wrestling tournament is organized on this spot.

11. Who is Aga?

Before any oil wrestling event, an auction takes place for the title of Aga. The highest bidder earns the title of Aga. This is an honorary and prestigious title.

In the old days, if somebody gained the title of Aga, he would be the main sponsor of the event. He would be responsible for hosting everyone coming to the event. This responsibility included providing a place for everyone to sleep, providing food and shelter for the horses.

Now the tradition still continues, yet the highest bidder today pay money to the event board for the title of Aga.

 In 2019 Seyfettin Selim from 661 thousand Turkish Lira (120.000 USD in 2019) to gain Aga of Kırkpınar Oil Wrestling Festival.

Seyfettin Selim has been earning the Aga title since 2008.

12. What is the point of Turkish Oil Wrestling? 

An academic research revealed wrestlers join this competition mostly for three reasons

  • Wrestling makes them happy. (%98)
  • They are proud of being a wrestler (%96)
  • Upholding the tradition (%95)  Source

Kırkpınar is the Superbowl or the Championship of oil wrestling sport. Thousands of wrestlers from all over Turkey and Greece come here to gain the title of Champion of Kırkpınar.” Bas Pehlivan”.

2008 Bas Pehlivan Recep Kara
Photo Source Wikipedia

Besides the honor of gaining a title, there are many many prizes for wrestlers in oil wrestling festivals. 

In Kırkpınar, Baş Pehlivan receives a prize of 10.000 USD plus a golden medal. 

He is also given a belt with 1400 gr (50 ounces). This belt is to be returned next year. Yet, if the wrestler succeeds in being Bas Pehlivan for three years, he would be permanent owner of that golden belt.

Prize of the Baspehlivan is given by the President of Turkish Republic (“Aga of all Agas’ ‘ formerly it was the Sultans), Mayor, and the Aga of Kirkpinar.

Efe Genit

I am a father, a passionate traveler, and a Turkish lawyer. You can enjoy my guides and tips about Turkey that only Turkish locals would know.

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